When Sly Stone played his first “official” show in ages at the Flamingo in Las Vegas on March 31, there was a warm, familial air to the affair. He was accompanied by the touring band of his sister, Vet, and his daughters, Phunn and Novena, joined him onstage. Tentative at first, Sly grew increasingly comfortable, and delivered moving versions of “Stand,” “Family Affair,” and “If You Want Me to Stay.”
Tuesday night’s early show at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill had a rougher feel to it. Gone was Vet and her amiable co-vocalist Skyler Jett. Gone were Sly’s daughters. And the promised quasi-Family Stone reunion featuring Sly’s guitarist brother Freddie and his vocalist sister Rose didn’t pan out. This show’s band was a ragtag assemblage of original Family Stone members (horn section Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson), members of Vet’s band, sundry supplementary musicians from who knows where, and some skinny toastmaster/sycophant dude (“Does everybody here think that Sly Stone is ownin’ it?!”) who looked like Chris Rock with Ice-T’s hair.
The show started off promisingly: Rather than tease the audience by not showing up until his band had already performed half their set, Sly bounded onto the small stage all by himself, a jovial figure in ersatz Flavor Flav gear and a pasted-on black Mohawk. “You know all those times peope said I was late?” he asked. “I was busy!” He continued onward with his slightly naughty banter, clearly reacclimated to public performance, if not disciplined music-making. It took forever for him to summon the band in full–there was an especially curious interlude in which he ordered a roadie to “interview,” him, quizzing him about past arrests–and by the time the band was actually onstage playing an actual song, “Dance to the Music,” Sly had wandered back off the stage, crouching in the wings just beyond where Martini stood.
Sly returned, though, and he and the band sounded good on “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Family Affair,” and “Sing a Simple Song.” He dispelled any notions that he’s too frail or withdrawn to perform by bopping around with abandon and tossing his shades into the audience, actually letting a large group of people see his eyes. Still, it was a shambolic show, and not the big step forward from Vegas that I’d hoped for.
And yet I hear that the second show of the night, at 10:30 p.m., was fantastic. He was joined this time by Paul Shaffer of Letterman fame, which evidently brought out the best in him. Perhaps, in time–maybe even on December 7–we’ll be able to tell Sly that he is indeed ownin’ it.