Sly and the Family Stone: Higher!

Written by August 26th, 2013 at 9:41 am

sly family stone

Sly and the Family Stone
Higher!
(Epic/Legacy)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This long overdue boxed recap of Sly Stone’s most creative period, released on the event of his 70th birthday, is a sprawling, lavishly appointed and elaborately detailed, 10 inch large, four disc set that covers his output from 1964-’77. The 104 page book with an abundance of rare photos, concert bills, picture sleeve reproductions of 45s and specifics on each of the 77 tracks (17 previously unreleased) justifies the near $60 list price. This is the kind of detailed, extravagantly organized and crafted coffee table addition you didn’t think major labels bothered to release anymore.

Most importantly though, the chronologically arranged package tells a musical story that the liner notes from Jeff Kaliss, who has penned the lone Sly Stone book length bio, can only hint at. We hear how the multi-talented Sylvester Stewart took rock, soul, funk, gospel and blues, refracted them through his bi-racial, bi-gendered band and produced some of pop’s most joyous, popular, influential and timeless music. These songs remain touch points for any serious soul musician and fan, and their impact on contemporary music remains incalculable. In this era of programmed drums, keyboards replacing horns and production that saps the energy from supposed soul artists, Stone’s frisky, frenetic sound is a reminder of what has been lost in the process.

The spacious four CD format leaves room for songs such as the 13 minute “Sex Machine,” a mind blowing mesh of oozing psychedelic rock and funk, that hasn’t been included on most collections of Stone’s hits due to its length. All of disc 1 and some of disc 2 provide insights into Sly’s early influences with the first hit, 1967’s “Dance to the Music” not appearing until the 8th track on the second platter.

Still, there are some omissions that keep this from being the one stop, last word on Sly. Key if not indispensable tracks such as “Babies Making’ Babies,” “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa,” “Poet” and Stone’s odd but cool version of Doris Day’s easy listening chestnut “Que Sera, Sera” are head scratchingly MIA.   While a terrific live excerpt from 1970’s Isle of Wight festival including “Stand!” is a killer addition, that tune is not here in its hit studio version. And the absence of even one gem from Sly’s riveting, star making Woodstock performance is noticeable on a historical document like this. Great care has gone into providing the original mono mixes for most of the classics but if you want the stereo ones, you’ll need to augment the box with other collections.

The audience for this is likely going to own most of Stone’s work so perhaps those omissions are minor, but their status is worth mentioning for those that think this is the definitive statement on all things Sly Stone. Still, this is a mammoth and comprehensive overview of one of the major musicians of our time and as such, is essential listening for all enthusiasts of funk, soul and rock.

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