Although many of his wounds were self-inflicted, Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone) is a casualty of the industry that recently celebrated him -- and, ultimately, sensationalized him. The current image in people's heads is either of Sly's train wreck at the Grammys or of him living out of a van in Crenshaw, despite having the alleged use of a four-bedroom home in Woodland Hills that his attorney claims he rented for Stone. Look, forget the optics! What about the music, for Christ's sake?! Steven Bernstein seems to go with that thinking, as evidenced by the glorious tribute MTO Plays Sly.
It's arguable that the best moment on the original recording of "Stand" is its flag-waving rideout. Bernstein kicks off the song and the disc with a bubbling "ride-in," mixing rising lines by P-Funk/Talking Heads keyboardist Bernie Worrell with head-turning blasts from MTO's heavyweight horn section. When Bernstein turns the piece into the wind and the horns "sing" the song's chorus, it's a genuine "Holy shit" moment! We still get the rideout (complete with bodacious guitar solo by Vernon Reid), but "Stand" as a whole is a quick reminder of why Sly & the Family Stone had the same power and impact as an anvil that's been dropped from a helicopter. (Reid returns later to add a sizzling crisp to a muscular work-up of "Time.")
Bernstein wisely chooses not to re-invent the wheel, opting to play up single elements in Sly's tunes that may have gone unnoticed: The painfully plodding take on "Family Affair" shows that the original's funky backbeat shrouded the desolate scenarios within the lyrics. "Everyday People" has a jagged, jarring edge that goes beyond the original's peace-love-and-utopia vibe; the new version would work as background music for a film on Occupy supporters, or on the "everyday people" that have been jacked up by the 1%-friendly economy. Speaking of jagged, Martha Wainwright's bitter vocal takes "Que Sera, Sera" over the top, as her protagonist displays increasing frustration with continually being blown off by people she loves and trusts.
For longtime Sly fans, the vocals on MTO may be the hardest thing to get around. It's not just that Sly's singular vocal attack can never be duplicated -- Dean Bowman tries his best on "M'Lady" and "Time," only to come off as slightly unhinged; it's that vocals were literally a family affair in Stone's band, with bassist Larry Graham and trumpeter Cynthia Jarrett carrying a fair bit of the load. That said, Sandra St. Victor's gospel-drenched voice makes the messages in "Stand" and "Skin I'm In" bigger and more spiritual, while Shilpa Ray's indie-centric vocals make "Everyday People" both bleaker and brighter.
MTO closes with two instrumentals: Bassist Bill Laswell's grooving mix-tape of "Thank You for Talking to Me Africa," and a ragtime mash-up of "Life." One recalls the glittering funkmeister Sly Stone was, while the other alludes to the damaged vagabond Stone has become. As such, Bernstein's vision acknowledges the reality of the man, and proves that rose-colored glasses weren't part of the package here. The message of MTO Plays Sly is simple: If you're too busy obsessing about where Sly Stone lives to talk about the songs he wrote or the bands he inspired, then do us all a favor and shut the fuck up!