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Music Review: Sly And The Family Stone – The Woodstock Experience

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This summer marks the 40th Anniversary of 1969's historic Woodstock Music And Arts Festival. As part of the celebration, Sony/Legacy Recordings is releasing a limited edition series of deluxe, double disc recordings by five of the artists whose performances at Woodstock changed the world.

Dubbed The Woodstock Experience, each double-CD set pairs a classic 1969 album from the featured artist, along with their full festival performance. All of the concert recordings — by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Sly And The Family Stone, and Santana — appear on these CDs in their entirety for the first time ever. All are packaged in eco-friendly sleeves, that include a mini-version of the original album cover and a 16 X 20 inch double-sided fold-out poster. With this series, which we are also calling The Woodstock Experience, Blogcritics will be reviewing each of these commemorative sets.

Of all of the performances that took place at Woodstock, Sly And The Family Stone's amazing set is simply in a class all its own.

A notoriously hit and miss act at the time, Sly had one of the worst reputations in the business for showing up late or not at all to his shows back then. But when the band actually would show, they usually came to play — and Sly And The Family Stone were definitely firing on all four cylinders at Woodstock.

In fact, to this day one of the most iconic images from the Woodstock film remains the one of Sly, bathed in blue light with his arms outstretched and white fringe flying at the close of "I Want To Take You Higher." There are many memorable images from that historic weekend — but that one just really stands out as a signature snapshot of what Woodstock was all about.

After forty years, fans now have the opportunity to experience that entire amazing performance as part of Sony/Legacy's Woodstock Experience series. Perhaps most amazing is the fact that this represents the first official live album ever from Sly And The Family Stone — again coming some forty years after the fact.

The Woodstock Experience couples that stunning performance with 1969's Stand! — arguably Sly's best album. Once again, Legacy has done a very nice, if no-frills job with this.

There are no extras or bonus tracks. Just a nicely-done repackage of the original album, including a miniature reproduction of the original jacket, and the old yellow Epic Records label on the CD (I love the way Legacy's been doing that with the labels in this series).

Stand! is still just a great, great record, even all these years later. Listening to songs like "I Want To Take You Higher," "You Can Make It If You Try," and "Everyday People" today is like getting a quick history lesson in just where a great deal of the funk of the seventies and eighties really began — not to mention where a great majority of hip hop acts got their samples from (James Brown notwithstanding).

Before Michael Jackson and Prince kicked down the door on the color barriers in music altogether with their MTV videos, Sly And The Family Stone fused rock, funk, R&B, and just about everything else together to make some of the most groundbreaking music of the sixties. Sly And The Family Stone were also both bi-racial and equally gendered in make-up twenty years before Prince had his Revolution. In other words, the girls got to play too in this particular "Family Affair."

In addition to the better known hits, Stand! also includes the thirteen-minute instrumental jam "Sex Machine," where the Family Stone are able to show off their considerable chops as well as just how tight of a band they really were. Stand! was also the record where Sly began to incorporate social concerns into his songs.

In that regard, this album's "Don't Call Me Nigger Whitey" was a precursor to the sort of themes Sly would further explore on the nearly-as-great followup album There's A Riot Goin' On. But it is Stand! that remains Sly's masterpiece — at least in this writer's humble estimation.

That said, the remastered version of Stand! that Legacy did when they overhauled Sly's catalog a few years ago is probably still the better package if that album is all you are looking for. But this is pretty nice too, and of course, here you get that long-sought after complete concert from Woodstock.

And man what a concert!

Most fans are already of course familiar with how the whole "Music Lover/Higher" medley brought the entire 600,000-strong house down in the concert film. That remains the undisputed highlight here as well. But on the way to getting there, you get very a high-energy buildup to it that is jam-packed with hits like "Everyday People," "Sing A Simple Song," "Everyday People," and "Dance To The Music."

The band plays like a house on fire throughout. The horn section crackles with energy and the rhythm section — particularly the amazing Larry Graham on bass — is as tight as a drum. On "You Can Make it If You Try," Graham's playing is simply amazing, playing his parts like a lead instrument, especially when the band slows the song down to a bluesier groove. The horn parts are also pretty sweet, but Graham creates a bottom so deep you could almost fall into it.

Of course, the whole "Music Lover/Higher" segment remains the high point here though. When Sly exhorts 600,000 people into a singalong, the crowd is at first a little reluctant to join in, but by the end of the thing, he turns the party clean out. To this day, it remains the single most memorable performance from the Woodstock film.

Thank God, the entire thing is finally available, along with the rest of these historic performances courtesy of The Woodstock Experience. The entire series will be available both digitally and in stores this Tuesday, June 30.

Next up in our series will be Janis Joplin.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • RFWoodstock

    RADIO WOODSTOCK 69 which features only music from the original Woodstock era and RADIO WOODSTOCK with music from the original Woodstock era to today’s artists who reflect the spirit of Woodstock are both available at Woodstock Universe.

    Peace, love, music,
    RFWoodstock
    [Personal contact info deleted]