All you need is a drummer?
Sly & The Family Stone
with The Baker Brothers & UnkleJam
28 July 2007
Opera House, Bournemouth
Expectations were low for Sly & The Family Stone’s first European gig in thirty odd years. Would they turn up? for starters. The Opera House is the old Royal Ballrooms in Boscombe rather than Bournemouth, and was always famed for its horrendous acoustic. It has been massively face-lifted and is trying to establish itself as a major venue. Coming up after Sly are Isaac Hayes and Brian Wilson.
We grabbed seats in the upper gallery and local band the Baker Brothers got a decent sound. They’re rather like the Average White Band with less catchy tunes. Sound is going to be the theme here, so I noted that bass player Chris Pedley got a clear chunky bass sound, and horns and keyboards were well separated, though vocals were too low in the mix. Vocalist Vanessa Freeman was outstanding anyway.
Second support were UnkleJam. They exploded onto stage, the three singers hit their mics simultaneously and they were away. They were far, far too loud. It was painful, and left my ears ringing for twelve hours afterwards. That’s beyond health hazard level then, but they had swagger, style, energy, attack … and ability. Something that Sly & The Family Stone had forty years ago.
It had taken thirty minutes to set up UnkleJam, including preparing the three mics for instant use. Noticeably, The Baker Brothers had said at the end of their set that they’d heard UnkleJam soundchecking and they were fantastic. Ah, soundchecking. Yes. Working out the levels, pre-setting them, checking the different parts of the hall.
So, ominously it took seventy-five minutes for EIGHT people to set up Sly & The Family Stone … that is, move their gear forward and reposition mics. I noticed the bass player, guitarist and keyboard players setting up their amps and trying to adjust levels while the DJ played funk loudly. Did they have any input into this? Well, let’s say you don’t play Curtis Mayfield through a good sound system loudly (Pusher Man) unless you think you can match the quality. Ah, hubris. You also, as a cardinal rule for headliners, never under any circumstances let the support band play louder than you, let alone much louder.
The Family Stone meandered on finally forty minutes late at ten past eleven. In contrast to UnkleJam exploding onto the stage, they started with “One … one … one two” and final adjusting of bass and guitar for a few minutes. Then they did a thirty second instrumental, stopped and said “one two, one two” several times. Finally the three vocalists came on for a medley of Dance to The Music, Everyday People and Hot Fun in the Summertime. First thought, they were sitting on vastly better songs than the support bands. Second, was that all you could hear in the balcony was the hugely amplified drummer and muffled but screeching vocals with feedback. The bass guitar was a muffled muddy blur, the horns and guitar near inaudible, and the keyboards odd sudden loud interventions. I put it down to the acoustic of the hall … then thought, hey, but you could hear both support acts clearly. And the local guys The Baker Brothers had a horn section who sounded like they’d played together before too.
So around eleven twenty-five we got the unedifying spectacle of the band standing around for ten minutes while the guitarist did the “One two” business again, then started haranguing the sound crew. As the mix was appalling, that’s got a point, but what was crystal clear is that these people had not soundchecked at all. So blame the sound crew? Well, if you have two people on the board, as they did, you do send one upstairs to see what it sounds like there too. A voice called out “Thirty-five quid for this?” and got a large round of applause.
Finally they got going again and at last managed to drag Sly Stone onto stage. Sly was dressed in silver and black with a hat obscuring his face. That’s the most interesting thing to say about him really. Dragging this addled person around concert venues is cruel. His first vocal was inaudible, then he lurched around the stage yelling off-key into the mic. I think they were doing Stand, but as you only had the drums and odd muffled shrieks to judge by, I wouldn’t guarantee it. Six or seven minutes was enough for him and he staggered off. The band continued, making me realize that when you can really only hear the drummer, you do have to like his playing. I didn’t.
They managed to drag Sly back on for another spell with Thank You Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Again … He lurched along the front, jumped off the stage (or possibly fell off the stage) and wandered about by the audience, before he managed to get back up lifted by three bouncers and wandered into the wings again.
At this point, I felt it unfair to judge the acoustic from the balconies anymore and went down to stand right behind the soundboard. Amazingly you could now hear separate notes on the bass and it turned out the guitarist was plugged in after all. The trumpet was even distinguishable from the other horns. They weren’t as good as either support band though. They seemed to stumble to the end, and there was fairly concerted booing from the audience, then Sly’s daughter came on and did thirty seconds of rap. The band kept playing Higher and Higher, perhaps in a vain attempt to get vaguely near the contracted ninety minutes. Sly ambled back on but thought it was Thank You Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Again (again). They switched between that and Higher Higher. He wandered off. The Family Stone kept playing bits of Higher and Higher. People stared to drift away. We joined them.
Sly is not a functioning musician or singer or performer anymore. The band is not good. They hadn’t soundchecked and sounded abysmal. I’d say to anyone who’s invested £35 in a ticket, tear it up and don’t bother to go. You’ll only see 12 or 15 minutes of Sly, and frankly The Family Stone sound better without him, but they’re not good either. The hall’s acoustic is poor … I’m going to drive 110 miles to see Brian Wilson in London in preference to driving four miles to see him at the Opera House, but as dire as the sound was, both support acts achieved a reasonable. So don’t blame the sound crew entirely, and “All you need is a drummer” was proved wrong once and for all.