Live Review: Sly and the Family Stone at the Wells Fargo Center

Posted by on Oct 18, 2008 | Comments (14)

At the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone did not take a bow.

In fact, at the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone was nowhere to be seen. He had left the stage long ago, during “I Want to Take You Higher”—one of only four songs he actually performed—explaining to the crowd: “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”

But throughout the rest of the 90-minute set, Stone never returned, leaving the Family Stone to awkwardly vamp songs in his absence, just like they had at the beginning of the set, until, well, the hell with it, you know, and they simply gave up and left, too. The house lights came on, and a young man sitting a few seats away from me said it all.

He stood up, angrily threw his arms in the air, and yelled, “What the fuck??!”

Yes, it was disappointing. Extremely disappointing. And by far the hardest part is that for the few songs Stone appeared on—“Sing a Simple Song,” “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Stand!” and “I Want to Take You Higher”—he was an electrifying presence which transformed the show from a schmaltzy Vegas act into a truly special occasion. That is, when Sly Stone—one of the greatest talents in soul music and an undeniable genius—wasn’t referring to Santa Rosa as “Sacramento” or telling the audience, point-blank, to shut up.

Even before the show started at 9:55pm, trouble was in the air. The opening act had played for far too long, and when Sly’s announcer finally came on stage, he felt compelled to convince the crowd of the overshadowing importance of the evening. “I know you’ve waited a long time,” he said. “But this is history! You can tell your grandkids that you waited for Sly and the Family Stone!”

The nine-piece band then took to the stage, without Sly Stone, announcing that their “master” had asked them to “warm up the stage” for a while. Apparently, “warming up” means dicking around for five minutes. They sloppily introduced the band, gave shout-outs to their friends in the crowd and joked painfully amongst themselves. Eventually, they remembered that their job was to entertain paying customers, and tore into “Dance to the Music.” The crowd went nuts.

Then came “Everyday People,” which was noticeably weaker without Sly around, and “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” which caused people to start shouting. “We want Sly!” they yelled. “Where’s Sly?” The band answered by first playing a quick funk instrumental, and then by futzing around with the monitors and complaining to the soundman.

Then, weirdly, and with no fanfare, Sly Stone appeared—coming down the aisles, walking slowly to the stage and murmuring greetings into his wireless microphone. The band kicked into “Sing a Simple Song,” and Sly opened his mouth to unleash a signature deep, rich voice that hasn’t really changed much in the last 40 years. A thrill ran through the building. The crowd jumped again to their feet and danced like crazy.

Especially moving was Stone’s version of “If You Want Me to Stay,” with its impossibly low notes and an ever-hypnotic chord progression. For as bizarre as Sly Stone is these days, he is completely and authentically in the moment during songs like “If You Want Me to Stay.” He has that kind of unpretentious honesty that draws people to him as an artist. He’s not trying to be anyone he’s not, and this keeps him from being a caricature of himself.

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience,” said a grateful-seeming Stone. “We’re happy to be here. We’re lucky to be here.”

Then came “Stand!,” which a large portion of the audience responded to by sitting down, and maybe Stone took the hint. Halfway through “I Want to Take You Higher,” he was off to take his piss. And to never come back.

The rest of the set dragged on in the worst possible way—with hopelessly long jams, misplaced caterwauling, obligatory drum solos, and guitars being played with teeth. People who most likely hadn’t heard Stone’s muttered promise to return and thus had figured that the show was basically over flooded out of the theater. Others, holding out hope to hear Stone come back and sing “Everybody is a Star” or “Family Affair,” stayed in their seats while the band flogged every last tiny drop out of mega-extended versions of “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” “Thank You (Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Somebody’s Watching You.”

The theater was already half-empty by the time the band shed their instruments and exited the stage. Scattered boos underscored the mild applause. A girl was overheard near the back, beside herself with disbelief. “Seriously?!” she exclaimed. “75 bucks to see a cover band!”

It was a rough night all around, highlighted bittersweetly with a brief flash of brilliance. Sly Stone may not retain the ability to perform much longer, whether because of mental and physical deterioration or simply because of an utterly ruined reputation. But even viewing tonight’s show through this cynical lens—that it was, at least, a historic event—it’s incredibly cold comfort in light of the disappointment he left us to remember him by.


Set List:

Dance to the Music
Everyday People
Hot Fun in the Summertime
Instrumental Funk Jam
(Sly Enters)
Sing a Simple Song
If You Want Me to Stay
I Want to Take You Higher
(Sly Leaves)
Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey
Thank You (Fallettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin)
Somebody’s Watching You


UPDATE: Read all about the behind-the-scenes tumult and insanity here.

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  1. sara
    October 19, 2008

    i’m so glad you go out and i don’t have to.

  2. David Sason
    October 19, 2008

    Great review, Gabe! You captured it perfectly. Now that I think of it, I guess it was worth it to see Sly at least for a few songs.

  3. Rick
    October 20, 2008

    Absolutely the worst show I ever saw. Good thing it was in lily white Santa Rosa and not Oakland where there may have been a riot.

  4. Randolph W. Crook
    October 21, 2008

    Friday October 17th, 2008. Wells Fargo Center, Santa Rosa California

    We joked they should be called ‘The Deviated Septums’ after Sly’s famous drug use.

    The biggest uncertaintly seemed to be whether or not the man who ruled Woodstock in ’69 and the music charts in America for a while long ago would even arrive. Chances are against it. But with so many hits, so many greatsongs, one can’t afford to find out. Only thing close to the SATFS experience musically must be Parliament Funkadelic, whose songs aren’t quite as memorable but jam structures laid out very similarly, in elongated, crispy, grooves inerspersed with precise, puchy starts and stops.

    First, go alone. This strategy won’t work if accompanied by a date or friend because it depends upon the broken date, flakey friend to work. Don’t buy your ticket in advance, much less two. Wimpy. Take a risk on being left out in the cold. Its the only way.

    2. Don’t care too much. If you do, it sets up the wrong vibe. This can’t beforced.

    3. Bring cash, you may not have to spend it, in the end, but you must have it to work with. Credit card won’t do it.

    4. Don’t worry about, nor plan on seeing, the opening act. In this case, the reggae band Midnight Sun was ok but come on, who came to see anyone but Mr. Stone himself? Blow off the opening act.

    5. Go with the flow.

    A second row seat I purchased for $40 from a guy with many tickets, the face value being $83, not including service charge. We always hated those. I once worked for B.A.S.S. (Bay Area Seating Service) but never appreicated the tacked-on extra fee they charged for selling me the piece of paper used for entry. It seemed a good deal.

    Strolling into the Wells Farge Center in Santa Rosa ready to go, after hearing rumors that Sly was somewhere near the airport, we knew it may be a while, if ever, before he’d actually arrive.

    Willy Makeit and Betty Don’t walked in after paying their money, laying down their wagers, spinning the rock-n-roll wheel of fortune. Not used to seeing them together, as a couple, this way.

    As soon as I entered the lobby the fellow who sold me the ticket approached, asking if I’d exchange my second row seat (they didn’t tear them at the door) for $60 and two standing room only balcony tickets. Sure, why not. Glad to help a fellow out, and, besides, I needed the money.

    Then, outside a guy, unsolicited, bought my balcony ticket for the face value of twenty dollars, so then I was $40 up and had a seat. But before I could check out the balcony my old friend sees me and we hang out. He says take one of his main floor tickets which he’d acquired as a radio guy so we could funk together. I ran out to hand my balcony seat to a dude drinking a beer outside who seemed blown away when I just gave it to him free of charge. How much do I owe you? Nothing, brother, enjoy! Thank you thank you, what’s your name? He was a happy camper. Miracled! Couldn’t break the chain of giving. Bad rock karma. Sly must have it in abundance. Shame on him.

    Heading back in felt like walking on a cloud. Treated myself to a coffee and peanut butter cookie, my pockets flush with cash.

    What would happen next? The lights flashed signalling “showtime” but we daudled on longer in the lobby, knowing better thean to rush in expectantly.

    They introduced the two or three original members of the Family Stone including Cynthia Robinson from the horn section. Introducing Gregg Erico, whom I have met when he played drums at Harvey Mandel gigs, I couldn’t help wonder what could be wrong with the guy to prevent him from sitting in the drummer’s chair tonite. I found out later. The young drummer kicked holy ass, like the taughtest of church drummers, seeming to play the entire kit in ways your average white drummer just can’t play, not even the Latino hard-hitting funkmeister Erico himself. Its a thumping, ahead-of-the-changes, deep-in-the-groove at the same time type of trap style. Its a kind of drumming that leaves you feeling the dummer had only slightly dipped into his arsonal of rhythmic weaponry. Much much more there to play, never breaking a sweat hardly, or seeming strained in the least. Sometimes the old original guys just have to take a seat and let the next generation wrastle the beast, interpret the beat.

    Counting on my radio/on-line journalist friend, he was sure to keep track of the song titles. They always run together non-linearly for me, requiring extreme discipline to recount in order, so I’ll not try so much now.

    There was, however, a “sweet” spot right smack dab in the middle of this very capricious affair. But little did we know, at the time, how tiny and fleeting that moment would be, until it was all over. It was like the show never really started, like it was all wait, stall and kill time around the absolute confusion unmasked by the Sly phenomenon itself. Like a magic act with almost all hype and little magic. Plenty of tricks though.

    Its a Family affair…its a family affair. Like many of our families,
    pandamonium was the order of business. The band rolled through nearly a half dozen classic tunes somehow nonetheless including ‘Dance To The Music’, which I obliged. Inbetween the tunes swirled the most disorientation ever I’d experienced at a rock concert. The audience began to chant “SLY” SLY” “SLY!” anxiously, nervously, as if they’d had enough of the cover band rendering the songs they came to see the man himself perform. I imagined the line was already forming for ticket refunds at this point, and it only got worse. Lots of stage banter, and they seemed clueless as to what exactly was to occur next. Anything was possible: how eerie to know the bandleader was in the building but not in the show with his band or us. Man, if I paid $83 for this I’d be a boiling teapot any second now.

    Then, Hark The Herald! The skies opened and the seas parted for the man-genious freak himself donning dark black glasses and blinding white suite, who came from the audience chairs taking forever and crawled on stage hunched over. A cross between Ray Charles (he seemed blind) and George Clinton (with gnarly ponytailed style) Sly was the embodiment of broke-down paranoia, weird mysterious funky shaman who mainly toyed with the microphone, never really committing himself to it like a professional singer, or professional anything. Within minutes he both revealed why he is the master of funk and why he hadn’t played around here for nearly thirty years. (1985 Fillmore- says my buddy who was there) Sly sat at the keyboard, tickling it a few times between vocals. The nine-piece band with awesome black chick singers carried the tunes, and featured a very slick, red Stratocaster playing, brother who belted out a wha-whad, Peter Frampton-esque smoking version of
    ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey, Don’t Call Me Whitey, Nigger.’ Ahh, yes. Glorious Funkiness.

    When Sly came out finally to stand and sing “Stand”, ‘Sing a Simple Song’, ‘You Want Me to Stay’ and ‘I want to Take You Higher’ totalling
    23 minutes for the entire night, he did deliver the goods. He took a while
    gathering momentum, and once berated an audience member saying “shut up!” right to the person rudely. Creepy. Damn. He’s either crazy or stupid, or both. Maybe just rude. I imagined he makes enough money on licensing and selling records to not have to do this gig at all.

    He scurried off in the middle of a song, out the side door, just when the crowd was getting into it. (aparently saying he had to take a piss) Deflation of the spirit. Dismay. damn. Shame on him.

    Would he return or not? my buddy says no. Weird to know he’s somewhere here but that we’re not worthy of his presence.

    This is what too much fame and drugs and money will get you, I reckoned.

    Sly had implored us to ‘Stand’ and we did so, then he just split, like he had to go do a line, or take a leak, forchristsake. Like a thief in the night, if to begin with one cared that much, or paid that much. Like gambling…Risk vs. Reward. He flew a peace sign high in the air, staring downward as if his neck was broken, like his septum. The nerve of that sly cat. What a rascal.

    The band just kept playing hits and solos, but who cared about solos? I looked over and found some folks nodding off, the sound just that understated. Too much so, but there goes expectation again. For me it was all gravy, and drama.

    James Brown was famous for this “enter late and leave early” performance
    dynamic. But Sly was not the hardest working man in showbiz and his references to sounding like Bill Cosby only charmed so far. We joked he could’ve simply sang the songs from the dressing room with the wireless mic, kicking back on the sofa.

    ‘Everyday People’, ‘Hot Fun In the Summertime’, and ‘ThankyoufalettinmeBeMiceElf Again’ went on and on. That song seemed the message of the night. Not ‘I Want to Take You Higher’, which we’d have preferred to be emphasized and which the band performed so adroidtly, but ‘ThankYouFaLettinMeBeMiceElf.’
    Naturally. You’re welcome.

    Musicians departed the stage most sloppily and unceremoniously, rather like slipping out the back door, maybe hoping to be unnoticed. No encore, no fake or real adoration. No love lost between the audience and the performers, like they had gotten their money, done the bare minimum in return and …SeeYa! They say Sly may be just shy, but 23 minutes is a rip-off, by any measure. Shy my ass, I almost felt sorry for him, but my old pal reminded me that Sly was ok. Especially since he’d gotten paid but, on the other hand, what did we just get? Hmmn, that depends on your risk..or exposure, as it were. Since mine was none, my satisfaction swelled from the entire deal, afterall.

    If you played the game straight, bought your tickets and hoped to please your date, you would have felt fleeced. You’d have wanted to stone the guy named Sly. Regardless, that was the most odd concert of my entire rock and roll career.

    They don’t call him Sly for nothing.

    Concerts just feel better when they are free, free of financial burden and free of expectation. Anything can happen, and will at a Sly Stone Concert.

    As for me, not bad to be paid forty dollars to give a ticket to someone in exchange for watching the train wreck which is a Sly Stone concert.

    Be Yourself, Wear It!, a friend was fond of saying.

    Stay home for this comeback or do it like the rock and roll pros, with good rock karma.

    Dance to the (free) music.

    Thanks for (g)listening,
    Randt http://www.chalkfilm.org

  5. Kim
    October 21, 2008

    You know, given what I have read about Sly Stone, acting crazy and totally disappointing everyone combined with flashes of brilliance sounds pretty typical. At least he didn’t pull a gun on anyone.

  6. Reddest
    October 21, 2008

    Oh yes, the great Sly Stone. As he slipped off the stage and back into his carousel there was one bad smell. Seems the promoter tried to lure him back. He said he wanted his money or he wasn’t going to continue. Alas they presented him the cash and got in return nothing but his ass. He walked away. Not living up to any contract or doing his job. Leaving his so called “family”, to play on and jam non such songs. He didn’t need to pull a gun because he knows how to rob someone with out one; and that’s just what he did. He robbed all of those who were in attendance of their money and what could have been a great show. What we got was memorable, not fantastic.

  7. Dave
    October 22, 2008

    One should have anticipated this type of train wreck. Sly hasn’t exactly shown to be much of a performer since his “comeback” a year or so ago. Blame the drugs, life style or whatever, but he has to live with the fact his performances now suck. To need the money this bad to fleece the public who supported his music early on in his career is truly a sad state of affairs. To see the band constantly looking right or left to see if he was going to be showing up was another sad picture. I guess the entire band has been suckered into thinking he is some type of Funk God and they should just put up with his antics, but it is apparent this guy needs to go away for good. About the only hope for those poor individuals who paid good money for this joke of a concert is that their ticket stubs might be worth something in ten or twenty years (doubtful). Because, this was more than likely the last time anyone will ever have to be subjected to such a lame effort from this group. The promoters of this event are equally as lame, and have shut down their website to avoid getting contacted with emails. Suffice to say this was the worst concert most of the attendees ever had the unfortunate experience of having to witness. Sly has to live with what he is doing to his reputation, but unfortunately, his mind is more or less shot so it is probably not even registering. In his mind he is still some type of funk God, but he should have remained a recluse where he was a better member of society – not seen or heard.

  8. Profile photo of Gabe Meline
    Gabe Meline
    October 23, 2008

    Dave – thanks for writing, but I have to disagree with you that the promoters are “lame.”

    The promoters, and the venue, and Sly’s band, and just about everyone involved did everything in their power to ensure that Sly gave a great performance. They met his demands and went far above and beyond the call of duty.

    We all know where the blame lies. There is one person responsible for people’s disappointment in this show, and that person is the very troubled and erratic Sly Stone.

  9. Richard Williams
    October 26, 2008

    Sly Stone You are very unspiritual person, why do you torture all of us when we love you soo much???.. DO you do this to your family on Thanksgiving, and Christmas I will be there and then dont even show up..????? God really blessed you and you shit on every person. Next time you should mabey sing “Thank you for letting me shit on myself again… Over and Over while sitting in the bathroom on a toilet farting sniffing glue. Thats exactly what your looking like to me.. You blew it for everybody…How could you..Cant you even give to others like the BIble says “Its better to give then to recieve”, give a little more, and make people happy.. Doesnt that feel good to you any more giving to others??? You really need to get back in church and find the Lord like you new when you were a teen ager, you were really Kool back then, I meet a woman that new you in High School, cause I drive Limosines, whats happened to you, you used to be a showman, and a singer, but now your becoming the new Mentally distracted Elvis Presley duggy in all of Rock History….Richard

  10. Ramon
    October 27, 2008

    Hye, anyone who saw his appearance on that award show couldn’t have expected a “normal” concert experience. I enjoyed the show. Sure, I would have liked for Sly to be on stage a bit longer, and “Thank You Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf” went on way too long, as the band was obviously waiting for Sly’s return, but in the end, I’m glad I went.

    I wanted to buy a t-shirt, and there were none. Now I wish I had bought a poster. If anyone knows where I can get one of those posters they were selling, please let me know.

    Thank you.

  11. John Williams
    November 6, 2008

    This review is almost word-for-word the same show I saw in NYC this past year. electrifying while he was there, but just a bummer after he left. How hard it must be for the band to start every show, knowing how it will end. The club actually refunded my tickets. I’m glad that I saw him, but sad he’s still such a junkie.

  12. Bassam Habal
    November 7, 2008

    I was on vacation in San Francisco when I read about this “appearance” of Sly and the Family Stone in the local paper. When I read there were $20 tickets at the box office, I drove to the show knowing it would be worth about that much only. I was aware of Sly’s shtick from hearing a Paris show, reports about the BB King’s New York show and others. To pay more than $20 was called not doing your homework. The paper even mentioned that you were lucky to get 15 minutes out of Mr. Stewart. The official reviewer pegged this experience exactly. One of my problems, in disagreement with another comment, is that Greg Errico should have come out and sat in on at least one tune. The drummer the Family Stone used was competent yes but did not have the necessary spark to kick this band in the ass.
    If Errico had sit in, it may have provided some minimal redemption for Sly’s antics. I loved the electrifying energy in the room and “the audience on the edge of their seat feel” wondering if Sly would show up. Sly appearing finally in the middle of the aisle was worth some money $10 – $15 at least. That was pretty darn cool. The reality is aside from Sly, the back up band was lame and they seem to have no backup plan for Sly pulling his stunts. No male strong male lead to cover Sly’s missing parts. Rose didn’t even sing “Everybody is a star”. Now I have seen the Family Stone experience several times in New England where I’m from featuring the three original members that were on stage at this show and the backup bands were night and day. My favorite part of the show was in the lobby after the show, what appeared to be the promoter was chewing some guy a new one about what just happened. The guy he was yelling at said “Sir, you have to realize Sly is pushing 70″ to which the Promoter responded “I saw P Funk a few weeks ago play for 4 hours, George Clinton is 70 and he was out there the entire time.” Some security guard came and said “Would you guys mind taking this is a back room somewhere” to which the furious Promoter respond “Why? Cause you don’t want people to see what I’m talking about.” Classic. Not the greatest show I’ve ever seen but the greatest spectacle I have ever witnessed. The one thing the official reviewer failed to mention was that when he got on stage Sly was trying, asking the guitar player to give him a note, to figure out the key to which his sings “Stand” in. After 40 years he doesn’t know? This was embarrassing but definitely part of the spectacle that was.

  13. Hammad
    November 23, 2009

    There is only one success – to be able to spend your life in your own way.


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