London is in the midst of a heat wave, and Sly & The Family Stone had no compunction about turning the temperature up a few more degrees with their funk and groove back catalogue. The songs are over half a century old, hailing from the wild social revolutions of the sixties, yet with their pulsating rhythms, energetic musicianship and sense of fun, they still speak directly to an audience.
The party started the moment they stepped on stage. ‘Y’all are packed in here like some funky sardines,’ the band quipped, and the audience readily agreed. It was a crowded floor, and there couldn’t be a better opener to unite them and get everyone dancing than the funk classic ‘Are You Ready?’ Thumping bass, squealing sax, expert drumming… from the first phrase you knew you were in the presence of something special.
The Family Stone have always been known for the diversity of their line-ups and a touch of eccentricity, pushing perhaps towards the hippy-ish. They certainly lived up to that reputation, with the lead singer dressed in a purple cowboy hat which could have been a tribute to Prince, the bassist in a George Michael-esque policeman’s cap and the female vocalist topping six foot with her towering Afro. The performance was as much about the visual spectacle as the sound. They danced like the devil was at the door, and got the audience doing the same. At one point a tambourine battle broke out on stage and it’s a mercy no one broke a hip the way those metal discs were being thrown around. It may have been frivolous fun, but not a single beat was dropped in the complex rhythms they played around with.
The room exploded for the popular hit ‘We’re Everyday People’, which was followed by ‘Dance to the Music’. One of the qualities that marks out the best funk music is the band’s ability to establish a deep groove, then switch the rhythm suddenly and faultless, creating an element of surprise that nonetheless maintains the core beat. Many of the songs used this rhythm switch technique to great effect, lifting the song to a new level just as the listener felt it was becoming predictable.
Less common is the switch to a cappella, where the band’s voices became the instruments. Words were replaced with empty syllables, layering over each other to create amazing, playful soundscapes. Their voices blended perfectly, as you’d expect for a group with such history together.
The star of the night was founding member Jerry Martini. In his seventies now, his sax solos still ripped a hole in the tunes. They were punchy, urgent and still had a pleasing sense of being improvised. Jerry delivered a little political speech during the anthemic ‘Stand’, which got a round of applause from the audience.
‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ was an apposite choice given the weather. The band have been to London many times and remarked they’d never seen the city hotter. They must have been melting under the stage lights, and there was much towel waving in a futile attempt to cool themselves down, but they never dropped the energy. In fact, the drum solo before the intensely positive ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ was one of the most high octane events of the night.
‘You Caught Me Smiling Again’ injected a necessary note of romanticism, but the ironic pause before ‘again’ thankfully brought a knowing sophistication that kept the song this side of sentimentality. ‘A Lady’ and ‘Wanna Take You Higher’ kept the party going, but if ever there’s a number that could act as theme tune for this group, it has to be ‘It’s A Family Affair’. It certainly was, and a night well worth taking the heat for.
Review by Alexander Williams