Bay Area artists pay tribute to Sly and the Family Stone
"If you're talking innovation, if you're talking community, if you're talking Bay Area, that's Sly," says Möschler, a Berkeley-based musical director and conductor who comes from the world of orchestra and musical theater. "It was a natural choice." He pitched Lyz Luke, UnderCover's director, after being "blown away" by the Joni Mitchell show last January. Möschler said it was time for an Undercover show highlighting an artist of color -- and that, while tribute nights to Michael Jackson, Prince and even Stevie Wonder are in no short supply, Sly's oeuvre seemed to be under-trodden territory.
Why Stand!? "Every song is so powerful and yet so economical. There are these huge political statements — 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey,' 'Everyday People,' 'You Can Make It If You Try' — but it's also just extremely good songwriting. And then there's this 13-minute jam with 'Sex Machine,'" says Möschler with a laugh. "You can hear that they were at the height of their creative powers as a band."
Möschler reached out to Bay Area artists that felt like family bands, as Sly's was. Seemingly impossibly, every artist, from the acclaimed jazz composer/bassist Marcus Shelby to the hip-hop/funk/Latin 10-piece Bayonics, listed a different first choice of song to cover.
"I think we said yes within two minutes," says Daniel Blum, drummer for the Tumbleweed Wanderers, a folky soul-rock outfit who'll be performing "Everyday People." "We were huge fans of the band, but we didn't want to fall into just covering the song. We played with harmonies, added some signatures of our sound." Aside from the thrill of reinterpreting Stone's music, UnderCover presented a rare opportunity to work with a slew of other artists the band respected, said Blum.
"Every show we do, we have artists tell us that they made connections they might never have otherwise, saying 'You have to keep doing this,'" says Luke. She had the idea for UnderCover late one night three years ago, over drinks at the Latin American Club with Jazz Mafia founder Adam Theis and Classical Revolution's Charith Premawardhana, then stayed up until morning crafting a dream-team lineup. "Our very first show [a Velvet Underground and Nico night in which Liz Phair and Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins took part], there were musicians running out from backstage just to see the next band, exchanging numbers afterward — they were in awe of each other."
Theis has since watched the shows evolve as both an organizer and a musician. Though it hasn't been the case with this show, "More than one previous UnderCover artist has told me that they actually didn't really dig the song they ended up with at first, but that it brought them to a place where they had to dig and search for what the song meant to them," says Theis, whose ensemble will be performing "You Can Make It If You Try." "For me, that's brought me to new musical places that I never would have gotten to just by staying in my comfort zone."
Speaking of comfort zones: Nothing's official, but this may be the first UnderCover show featuring members of the band being honored. Sly Stone famously fell on hard times in the early '80s, suffering from addiction, financial problems and alleged mental illness; the musician, who is believed to live in Vallejo again, has made public appearances only sporadically since. But at least a few other original members have happily said they'll be there. And Sly definitely knows about the show, thanks to Jeff Kaliss, a former Chronicle entertainment reporter who in 2008 penned the only authorized biography of the band, including the first in-depth interview with the elusive musician in over two decades. The verdict: Sly supposedly thinks it sounds "very cool."
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