I’m Back! Family & Friends (Cleopatra)
By Brian Arsenault
The only thing wrong with I’m Back is that the release date is so far into summer, August 16. because this is truly the best hottest fun of the season. Sly went into the studio with some great sidemen and guests and just nailed it. The first seven cuts of the CD alone, all classic Family Stone songs, are enough to lift world spirits if the album only gets enough play. Start if you will with Ray Manzarek doing an organ underlay throughout the first cut, “Dance to the Music”, which combines with Sly’s fresh but familiar vocal to create a sound clear as a summer sky. Orchestral at times, my notes say. Smile.
What follows is the highest crest of the album, “Everyday People” with Ann Wilson’s just-right assist on vocals. This version is not just authentic. It may be (that’s right folks) better than the original. The harmonies are so fine and lines like “different strokes for different folks” and talking about this “(every)one who won’t accept the (any)one” seems somehow more poignant when we can’t seem to stop screaming at one another.
Sly and the Family Stone was always cited to be what would today be called very PC because of its gender and race mix. But no one seemed to ever think that just maybe Sly was so without prejudice that he just wanted band mates because of what they could help him do with his art. Now wouldn’t that be a real lack of prejudice? However the band came together, it couldn’t be misogynistic or racist or intolerant at all. Everyone can feel good.
This CD’s first version of “Family Affair” (bonus track later) is so good it hurts good somewhere inside. Sly’s singing is so smooth and melodic. He’s learned understatement and felt the bite of experience. Is there such a thing as a blues funk tenor. Or is it funky blues tenor? There is now.
Ernie Watts’ sax work on “Stand” typifies the excellence of the well- and lesser-knowns who play and sing on this CD. Johnny Winters adds a harder rock element to the wall of funk in “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” where Sly’s vocal is maybe not quite the “sly” Sly of the original. But really, no nitpicking. Backing vocals by Ava Cherry and Eugene Henderson are good throughout the album.
You know, folks, I’ve heard all the carping about the erratic behavior of Sly as the ‘70s progressed and he disappeared from the pop music scene and did some pretty weird recordings (I’m told) as time went by. But I feel like a lot of the crap some put on him is a bit like a lit crit saying: “Yes, it’s great but it’s only one novel.”
To which I say, have you done it? Do you have one body of work that is so good you can reprise it decades later and have it just be there? Be right there? Critics and some audiences are only interested in what’s next. Some called Derek and the Dominos an “unfulfilled promise.” Did they listen? The work is all that’s promised and there’s not always more.
But back to the album.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s Sly and the Family Stone doing “Dance to the Music” in concert could almost lift a civic center arena foundation. Not just with volume, like so many — although you could hear it down the block — but by rhythm and tempo that could tempt even the comatose to shake a little. No studio version can do that to such a level but the “higher” chorus here is like a gospel choir in an elevated state.
A sweet version of “Hot Fun in the Summertime” says regular life can be just fine; that some good, good moments are as good as it gets. The singing is like a summer breeze. Good enough to make you smile. Or cry.
There is a non-patronizing, non-ideological, non-political, only-people-count populism to Sly’s work that is endearing and close to profound. D.H. Lawrence would have liked his stuff, I think.
Get this CD when it comes out. Buy it. Download it. Whatever technology of the day that gets the artist a few bucks. This guy may be timeless. Not many of those.
Sly Stone Family and Friends: Dance To The Music
To read more reviews by Brian Arsenault click HERE.