“We would like to play a few songs,” says Sly Stone at the onset of the second disc to the monumental new archival release Live at Fillmore East – October 4th & 5th, 1968. With that, the vanguard rock and soul stylist gathers the Family Stone for a party chant that makes you think you’re on hand for a sporting event rather than a pop concert. Then the combustible soul groove of Sly and the Family Stone blows up and the party is underway.
As a concert chronicle and timepiece, Fillmore East is a diamond mine. A four-disc set that collects a quartet of performances captured over a two-night stand at Bill Graham’s famed New York venue, this music was recorded with the intention of an official release over 45 years ago. Stone and company were rising stars at the time with Dance to the Music already a major hit. But then came the avalanche – the chart-topping success of Everyday People, the atomic fourth album Stand! and a career defining 1969 appearance at Woodstock. Subsequently, the live recordings were shelved. Now they emerge as a long belated affirmation of the Family Stone’s ceremonious soul charge.
Fillmore East is rich with performances that reveal just how wildly resourceful the band was. Sly Stone may have been the ringleader with an organ and vocal punch that connected gospel fervency with pure pop immediacy. But there was so much more going on, like the electric bass runs of Larry Graham that sounded positively monstrous on their own (during solo snippets of M’Lady and Dance to the Music) as well as when strapped to the band’s two member horn team on the first disc’s introductory Are You Ready. Sister Rosie Stone also stretches out with versions on each disc of the 1961 Aretha Franklin hit Won’t Be Long. Hearing her voice crack and crackle with R&B vibrancy is one of the many great sleeper moments to Fillmore East.
All of this combines for a soul sound with a remarkable sense of dynamics. The Sly original Color Me True swirls with fearsome funk urgency but also cools down to where the only sounds driving the ensemble are organ and percussion. Later on the first disc, We Love All (Freedom) suggests the psychedelia that exploded within the band’s music in 1969.
You also can’t discount the calls for peace and unity the Family Stone offer as rallying cries – vital stuff considering the performances came just five months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Don’t hate the black, don’t hate the white,” Sly offers during Are You Ready. “If you get bitten, just hate the bite. Make sure your heart is beating right.”
That party vibe remains as vital today as when it rang out at the Fillmore East in another lifetime.