x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sly Stone: I'm Back! Family & Friends

With a mix of enjoyably classic funk and a few weaker tracks, Sly Stone makes his comeback.

Funk music pioneer Sly Stone from the group Sly and the Family Stone performs on stage during Switzerland's 41st Montreux Jazz Festival in July 2007.
Funk music pioneer Sly Stone from the group Sly and the Family Stone performs on stage during Switzerland's 41st Montreux Jazz Festival in July 2007.

Sly Stone
I'm Back! Family & Friends
(Cleopatra Records)
***

The funk is in the air, with the likes of Bootsy Collins and George Clinton making live appearances and guest recordings all over the place, as well as releasing new work of their own. Forty or so years on from the genre's heyday, these are the survivors: the first, the best and the still breathing.

Sly Stone was certainly among the first and he is still breathing, apparently, though only just, if his recent showing at this year's Coachella is anything to go by. But his much-vaunted comeback, in the works since a disastrous appearance at the Grammys in 2006, has not seen him at his wild, ingenious, extraordinary best. That, in fact, is something that hasn't been seen since drug addiction took hold in the early 1970s. Yet, even with only those early albums, Stone, with his band the Family Stone, is regularly cited as a significant influence on almost every funk-tinged artist, from Stevie Wonder to The Roots.

Understandably, then, the release of this album, which features three original songs (the first in two decades) and a bagful of re-recorded hits, has created a sort of apprehensive buzz among funk fans: Stone is renowned for not turning up to gigs, so would he turn up, mentally or physically, to record his own album?

Well, he did, and the result is an enjoyable reprise of some of his more barnstorming funk. Dance to the Music, with The Doors' Ray Manzarek on keyboards, is noisy and punchy, with improvisatory nods to Light My Fire and a horn section that echoes Bob & Earl's seminal Harlem Shuffle. Jeff Beck's turn on I Want to Take You Higher brings a gritty blues-rock weight to this classic tune, channelling some Hendrix funk. Bootsy Collins, whose bass-playing with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic matches Stone in its importance in funk history, makes an appearance on the sunny, bouncy Hot Fun in the Summertime. That swinging, pastoral rhythm, inventive structure and gloopy bass are a brilliant reminder of why Stone's music found an audience for funk far beyond the angry streets of the disenfranchised black community.

Yet the record feels weak in some of the arrangements, thin and pedestrian at times, with neither the complex layering of Stone's early recordings nor the stripped-back lo-fi expansions of the brilliant 1973 album Fresh. In particular, Everyday People, in spite of its superb vocals by Ann Wilson, feels merely bashed out.

The dance remixes are just as one would expect, with the dubstep version of Family Affair the best of them, a strangely appealing cross between Babylon Zoo and Justin Timberlake.

The straight version of Family Affair, though, reveals a new dimension to Stone: here, it is an old man singing the verses, poignantly gravelly, with shades of the late Gil Scott-Heron in his tone.

Then, lest we think he actually is as decrepit as he looks, or fear that he's tied to old material, he gives us a stonking new track, Plain Jane - old Sly, striding out in his funkiest groove, with a bass line as magnetic as any he's ever found.

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