Title: Live at the Fillmore East, October 4th & 5th, 1968
Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Format: 4CD set, LP
Release date: July 17, 2015
At the time of these performances, Sly & The Family Stone were looking to get their groove back. Recently returned from their first U.K. tour, which had been plagued by a lousy sound system and a marijuana bust, the band sought to get on track at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, and get back to riding the success of their latest single, “Dance to the Music.” They were still an up and coming sensation, hoping to build momentum in 1969.
The band’s label, Epic Records, took advantage of the excellent acoustics and sound system at the Fillmore East, plus the close proximity to parent company Columbia Records’ New York studios, and taped the four shows (two each on October 4th and 5th, 1968). Planned to be compiled into a live album, the recordings were shelved a few months later, after the band released their massive breakthrough #1 hit, “Everyday People.” Then, later in 1969, the band blew open the doors with their Woodstock performance and became a legitimate crossover pop phenomenon. These recordings were considered out-dated, as Sly Stone kept moving his band in different musical directions.
In today’s reissue business, nothing stays shelved forever. Rather than stick with the original intent to edit together a live compilation of the best parts of the best-performed songs, Sony/Legacy (current owners of the catalog) opted to release the unedited shows, one per CD. The result is a somewhat uneven series of concerts, with several songs repeated four times, to varying degrees of success. There were also recording equipment problems during parts of the first show.
The super-hardcore Sly & The Family Stone fan may want to listen to 3 1/2 hours of decent to excellent performances, with most songs repeated at least twice and several played four times. But most listeners will probably want to digest these shows one at a time. My favorite was the second show of the first night (CD 2). The band seemed most focused and in sync during that set. The second show of the second night (CD 4) is also quite good. The early shows seem more scattered, maybe because everyone wasn’t at the same energy level, or maybe because most of the songs played better a second time (there is much tune overlap between the first and second shows each night).
When the band was on, they were very good, putting out a heavy blend of funk, rock and pop, with layers of electric guitar, organ, horns and rock-solid rhythm. But they weren’t on for every song in every show, and that’s why the idea of an edited/compiled live album is appealing. Something approaching that was released as a 2-LP set on Record Store Day (April 18, 2015), produced by “Captain” Kirk Douglas, guitarist of The Roots. It’s not clear from Sony’s description of the 2-LP set if Douglas gathered what he considered the best complete takes or edited together the best parts of songs, as was the “old school” style of making live albums at the time of these recordings.
The Sly & The Family Stone devotee, or the completist collector, will appreciate the 4-CD set. For everyone else, seek out the 2-LP set, or borrow CD 2 from your friend’s 4-CD box.
Listen on Spotify here.
Reviewed by Tom Fine