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Concert Review: The Sly Stone Variety Show And Birthday Party, 3/15/09, At Zanzibar, Santa Monica CA

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Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would have an opportunity like the one I'm about to tell you of. You see, every once in a while, music fans are treated with experiences and moments that are truly remarkable. Whether it's your first concert, meeting one of your idols in person, identifying with a piece of art or a song, or just sharing a laugh with a friend while listening to your favorite band.

Once in a while, we are given a gift that is beyond words and immeasurable only to us and a shared few. I received a gift like this last Sunday, March 15 and I will treasure it for the rest of my life.

You see, I have been following the funk since I was way too young to even be allowed to say the word. I gravitated to my parent's stereo and albums, learning how to read by looking at the liner notes and pictures, memorizing the lyrics while being sung. I drank in every bit of soul that was in my house, the names of the albums, musicians and songs all etching their imprint in my memory.

James Brown. Aretha Franklin. Sly & The Family Stone. George Clinton. The Temptations and the entire Motown sound. I grew up with these people singing to my family, making us all dance and giving our lives a soundtrack. While the music scene and sound have changed several times over since then, the memories will remain in my soul forever.

Imagine my surprise when I got word of my historical gift. A good friend of a friend called me up late Saturday night. As usual, he had the lowdown on the throw down, and this one would top any previous backstage bonanzas!

Sly Stone, the reclusive musical mastermind behind Sly & The Family Stone, was celebrating his birthday. The music legend has more stories and fables surrounding his life and career than most can fully comprehend. He's a musical visionary, he's also known for not showing up at his events, or worse, becoming an eccentric recluse that avoids contact with anyone. Though he has been seen out on stage recently, Sly Stone is not known for doing impromptu shows and any appearance by him is still considered a rare one. My gift was watching one of these rare events as he performed for his 66th birthday party!

Held in Santa Monica's funk spot, Zanzibar, the place was packed early with well wishers and party people. Baby Stone — the ultimate Stone cover band — warmed the room up with their inherited funkiness while the bar served the crowd. I overheard a bartender arguing with a couple over alcohol content and job duties — "I ordered a double, this drink is weak… Don't tell me about my attitude, do your job and give me a double!" — while I waited for the main event. The music soon stopped, though not because of the dispute at the bar, but rather because the birthday boy had arrived.

Sly teased from the back of the club — making everyone in the house jerk their heads around and look for him — as he slowly crept toward the stage, the band geared up and proceeding to tear the roof off!


George Clinton hands Sly the mic!

Sly rocked and shocked the house, taking to the stage in a Scottish-looking, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Andre 3000 type of outfit. He stood hunched over, the effects of time trying to put a stamp on him and slow him down. Sly is still too funky for that. While he reminded us of his legacy by singing to us once again, video clips of his past performances lit up the back wall. His interviews with Dick Cavett, the Ohio band competition that started it all, and rare footage of Sly funnin' with Richard Pryor all ran in silence, while Sly celebrated his birthday with a few friends and a handful of lucky music lovers.

After giving us a few soul history lessons, Stone disappeared from the stage for a while, and George Clinton lead the funk jam. The night then went on to be a incredibly eclectic, unorganized jam session /party, as grooves dipped and dropped, funk legends joined in and jammed (including members of the Brothers Johnson, Graham Central Station, and P-Funk) and everyone had a good time. A little later in the night, Sly returned and rocked the house for another 20 minutes or so with his unrehearsed antics, before leaving the stage with George.

All in all, the night was filled with surprises and good spirits. Sly Stone and company managed to run through several of their soul standards like "Stand," "If You Want Me To Stay," and a medley of Family Stone/P-Funk anthems including "Tear The Roof Off," "Flashlight," "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and the floating hook "Get Off Yo Ass And Jam." 

While the show wasn't the tighest set musically, it was a very humbling experience, regardless to the set list and random antics.  I did hear a few of the party goers grumbling about Sly's performance.  Even with his infamous Telecaster keyboard in tow, it was hard to hear his vocals at times. 

His stance is haunced, making it hard to see him at times with a full band tightly packed beside him.  He has that habit of stopping in the middle of a song and totally changing the bands direction.  At one point he asked us if we minded if he played something else real quick.  When the crowd roared back their approval, he said "That's what I thought" and chuckled into the keyboard vocoder.  I think that was the point of the night overall.  It was Sly's party!

Sly began to talk to us, saying he wanted to make a song that night and would take suggestions on how to make it from the crowd, I thought he was joking.  Later when he returned to the stage and began to sing his newly donated lyrics and riffs, it may have sounded off a bit, but the moment was priceless!  Sly was having a great time, and it was his party to do as he wanted.  We were all just guests in his world that night, and we all had a ball! I was way too caught up in the show and connecting with friends to take proper notes on songs and such, but I can tell you this much. Sly's variety party/birthday was one of the best gifts a music fan could ask for!

As I made my way to the exit, I managed to find myself outside, watching Clinton say his goodbyes to some of the party goers. One of my friends reflected on the evening as we sped off and asked "Do you realize how lucky we are?" Hell yeah I do, this was actually my second time seeing him this year! Happy birthday Sly!


Sly Stone tickles the ivories while George Clinton rocks by his side!

Make sure you visit Canhead to hear some more audio blog post from the show, complete with Sly's call and response to the crowd. 

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