Monday, August 27, 2007

Roots Manuva

[written around 2001, getting published here in celebration of the upcoming Big Dada 10th Anniversary. Roots is a GOD.]

The setting is Pimlico school, Westminster, in the mid-1980s. "Hip hop was everywhere, everybody was writing things on their tracksuits and colouring their white trainers black, having freestyle battles on the concourse," reminisces Rodney Smith, aka Roots Manuva, aka British Hip Hop's Brightest Hope. "It was like the hip hop school, huhuhuh!"

And so it was that young Rodney was bitten by the hiphop bug - then written off as some flitting fad - as it swept through the UK's nightclubs and playgrounds. "I tried break dancing. I even tried scratching, totally wrecked a lot of records. I thought you were supposed to drag the needle across the record ... Sorry, Mum! It was something I loved, but I never imagined it would pay my rent. It never felt like something I could be a part of."

Ironic words, considering Roots Manuva's new album, Run Come Save Me, proves that hip hop is no longer an exclusively American culture but an international language encompassing a thousand tongues, including Rodney's London accent and his Jamaican roots. Whereas previous British rappers have been scuppered by their parochialism, he has taken the loose, mix 'n' match cultural identity of contemporary London and created an album that sounds global .

Roots, now 28, draws as much on the sounds of Brixton - dancehall reggae, skronky techno and smoked-out dub - as American funk and rap. Like Tricky, like Muslim agit-rappers Fun'Da'Mental, like 1970s ska-punks The Specials, his music celebrates Britain's unique, messily integrated eclecticism better than Robin Cook's clumsy tikka masala metaphors ever could.

"I'm a second-generation UK black, just trying to find his feet, spiritually and economically," he says. His lyrics are complex and spiritually troubled, and the question of identity is a key theme. "I'm just trying to make sense of this Roots Manuva character," he laughs. "Where Roots ends and Rodney begins."

His parents, immigrants from Banana Cove in Jamaica, were strict; his father is a Pentecostal deacon. A career in hip hop, Roots remembers, "was not something they encouraged; it was something they discouraged". And yet many MCs - from Fugees's Wyclef Jean to Mos Def - come from religious backgrounds, swapping preaching for another form of oratory.

The transition isn't so simple in Roots's case, however; moral turbulence courses throughout Run Come Save Me. Track after track finds Roots tussling with religion, spirituality (pointedly two separate things to him) and guilt.

"If I'd had parents who were really into music, who had a massive record collection, I don't think I would've been so into music," he says. "That I had to go next door to hear the latest reggae tune, or that our parents wouldn't take us out to the cinema or to the arcade, made me really appreciate it when we did do those things.

Have his parents accepted his lifestyle choice? "Yeah, they're cool. They still can't believe I'm making any money from it. They always ask: 'Why aren't you on Top of the Pops?'" And he really should be. Last week, when his sublime Witness (One Hope) single entered the UK charts at 45, Atomic Kitten were at number one with their insipid cover of Eternal Flame.

Which is a better representation of modern young Britain? Yet Roots is sanguine about the mainstream culture that has yet to embrace him. "Radio is all about midrange frequencies and melodies, and Witness isn't too melodic. It's harsh."

But he is convinced he's part of a burgeoning revolution. "There's a whole brand-new class, people in music and the arts and sports ... a new uneducated middle class. We're shopping in Marks and Spencer and using balsamic vinegar, but we've got no GCSEs, no A-levels and no degrees.

"Technology is changing everything," he says, and he should know. He just bought a DVcam so he can make his own movies. "They're just abstract art movies at the moment 'cos I can't work the camera properly. Maybe I should go to one of them weekend courses that teach you how to be the next Steven Spielberg."

Or maybe he could just continue being the first Roots Manuva.

(c) 2001 Stevie Chick

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lauryn Hill Loses Her Self

[this began life as a proposed MOJO blog idea, and subsequently grew into this mess of ideas inspired by a song that I'll admit I've been obsessed with most of this gloomy Summer. I have been reliably informed by my friend Tom that Surf's Up is actually a pretty good film; whatever the truth is on that score, go find this song.]

The best single you’ll hear all year isn’t actually being released as a single, despite being the comeback from an artist whose absence has been so keenly felt, so breathlessly chronicled. Indeed, to hear it at all you’ll have to undergo the indignity of catching Surf’s Up – the cruddy end of a long line of obnoxious, celeb-voiced animated kiddy movies – at the cinema, or chancing your shekels on its otherwise-unappetising soundtrack album, offering as it does such other grody confections as Sugar Ray, 311 and Incubus.

What I’m saying is, if you haven’t heard Lauryn Hill’s ‘Lose Myself’ yet, don’t blame yourself; this absolute gem of a song, pregnant with quirk and joy and soul, seems to be charting a course evasive of all radars, and it’s a terrible shame. Not least as it sounds like a desperate final healing gesture from an artist whose solo debut – 1998’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill – promised such future riches, but in truth foreshadowed the brutal running aground of its creator.

What made Miseducation such a pleasure was the sheer joy of the album, the performances possessed of a most deliciously unforced perfection, an album nodding towards both the burgeoning neo-soul movement, and the Hip-Hop from whence Hill’s group The Fugees had sprung. The production was etched with the lush drama of 70s soul, the rich tympani rolls scoring the epic ache of ‘Ex-Factor’, the itchy clav-funk of ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’, the satin-clad afterglow calm of ‘Nothing Even Matters’, building a canvas referencing the politicised, auteurist soul of artists like Curtis Mayfield and, most abundantly, Stevie Wonder. Still, Hip-Hop’s respect for The Word, lots of them, imbued with undoubted deep personal meaning and squeezed into verses that could barely hold them, was key.

Given the rapturous reception the album enjoyed, Lauryn Hill should have been poised for glorious success; Miseducation having staked a claim for Hill as a true creative force within The Fugees – something often obscured by the considerable success of bandmate Wyclef Jean’s solo and producing careers – its follow up would surely galvanise everything the debut had achieved.

Almost a decade later, that follow up still hasn’t arrived. In the interim, Hill has visibly struggled; the gossip pages have constructed their own myth, and perhaps there is truth tangled in there, of breakdowns, and of artistic struggles, and of turbulence within her relationship with Rohan Marley, father of her four children. While she continued to collaborate with and produce and write for other artists with great success – Mary J Blige’s sublime ‘All That I Can Say’ is as close to the soul confection of Miseducation as has surfaced since – MTV Unplugged 2.0 was decidedly not the album audiences seduced by ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ were expecting, when released in 2002. Gone were all the ersatz soul adornments, any echoes of Hip-Hop; in their place, acoustic guitar and Hill’s voice, rawer than before, older, more characterful. The album wrong-footed many, not least the critics; where Miseducation had been honed, taut, MTV Unplugged 2.0 rambled.

Diverging from the typically-lucrative Unplugged format, Hill’s double set offered more than just tasteful, stripped-bare renderings of her hits; indeed, all of the songs – barring a cover of traditional song ‘The Conquering Lion’ and Bob Marley’s ‘So Much Things I Say’ – she performed were new, unrecorded (and still so, this release aside). These songs were often in an unfinished state, the set peppered with long, meandering, painfully honest conversations between Hill and her audience, where she confessed a lack of confidence, in her self if not her music, and evidenced the struggles she was then enduring. The songs concerned love and religion, war and politics, Hill rocking back and forth, strumming and signifying, tapping into her partner’s bloodline and recalling Bob Marley in her ragged zeal, her raw passion. But where Marley’s songs were anthems, Hill’s were soliloquies, confessionals; she wasn’t offering any more salvation than was contained in any voice honestly airing fears and pain. To these ears, Unplugged 2.0 was a fine album, worth experiencing; five years after the fact, however, and the CD nowhere to hand, I’m struggling to recall any of the melodies. But perhaps the album’s strengths lay elsewhere.

And so on to ‘Lose Myself’, being as it is the next chapter in Hill’s discography. It follows a faltering Fugees reunion, begun at Dave Chappelle’s 2004 Brooklyn Block Party and undone somewhere along the way, with Pras indicating Hill was the stumbling block. It follows rumours of completed sequels to Miseducation, rejected outright by Hill’s label as uncommercial. It follows high-profile meltdowns, like a 2003 performance at The Vatican where Hill spoke out onstage against child abuse within the church.

It is, in many ways, a redemption song, a song about returning to somewhere after a long and fateful journey that has left Lauryn changed, and seeing all anew, as never before. It’s a song of renewal – romantic, spiritual or artistic. Indeed, it’s never clear whether Lauryn is singing to her God, her lover, herself, when she sings “I had to lose myself, to love you better”; the truth is probably an amalgam of the three.

These are words sung after longer than forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, words heavy with a jittery confidence, the narcotic first buzz of healing after a long time spent just ailing. Lauryn’s left the acoustic in the cupboard this time around, switching instead to a fizzy, brash 80s sound, a symphony of neon burbles and singing synths and disco pulse; almost comically upbeat, roller-rink music. Lauryn’s voice, singing over this, chews up a blizzard of words like Subterranean Homesick Dylan, so much to say after so long spent silent, catching her breath long enough to return to a delectable see-saw refrain of “All… I… Ev-er…Wan-ted was Love”.

For all the souls bared in modern R’n’B, the heartbreaks raised to operatic cataclysms, the moral quandaries played out on mellifluously melodramatic canvasses, few are as transparently, as openly confessional, as cathartic, as Hill. Mary J plays out her every private heartache in such a public arena, but still albums like No More Drama don’t lay her persona as open as Lauryn does when she picks up the lyric book. The drama played out within ‘Lose Myself’ is a grand, deep and torturous one, for sure, a long dark night of the soul reaching its end (but not quite ended, underscoring the track with a further poignancy), a soul questioning itself and struggling with the answers.

She touches upon every troubled corner of her life, her music (“I used to do it for the love of it a long time ago”), her relationship (“I used to love without fear a long time ago”). Her current disharmony, her distance from this idealised sense of self, is played out as a lover who “Took a true love and tried to make it dirty”, but is in truth Lauryn’s own distance from her muse, as much as from her heart. Indeed, this seems the song’s key message about Lauryn and the troubles she’s been going through – that these battles haven’t been fought on a single front, that they’re all linked with and related to each other, and that’s why it’s been so hard.

In its airing of grievances, its tale of a tough road travelled, and its hopeful belief in redemption, there’s a gospel spirit to ‘Lose Myself’ which bests any blues lurking within, and yet ‘Lose Myself’ is no gospel song. There’s no chorus of voices backing Lauryn; she may have reached the end of her exile, but whatever wisdom she recovered from her journey was won single-handedly. The spectres she’s had to confront are opponents she could only best alone, because they were inside of her; the “paralyzing fear of facing failure” in her art, in her relationship, in her love for God. It’s this fear that’s most palpable, the source perhaps of her other heartaches, all presented as insoluble riddles. “Couldn’t stay but I never meant to desert you,” she sings, torn up by the conflict.

Bound up in these dichotomies is that which makes creativity, spirituality, love so very frightening, and so powerful – that it can leave one so changed, that it is so much of a risk, that none of these are games for cowardly or dishonest hearts. So many untruthful souls out there, ready to trick an honest one for kicks alone, it gets so even good love gets treated with fear and suspicion. “There’s something awkward about the selflessness it takes to give love,” she sings, teetering on the edge of a cliff she feels she needs to fling herself from, to find peace and redemption; a leap of faith, in her God, in her love, and in herself.

The trope of dream or fantasy as means of irony reached its apex in pop with The Temptations’ dulcet, hazy lullaby ‘Just My Imagination’, hyper-realist scenes of romantic bliss ultimately revealed as the simple pipe dreams of a perennially lonesome soul. “When her arms enfold me, I hear a rhapsody,” croons Eddie Kendricks, in blind love. “But in reality, she doesn’t even know me.” It’s tempting to see ‘Lose Myself’ as a song possessing a similar poignancy, that it’s a prophecy made in hope of self-fulfillment, that the song is, rather than a simple song of celebration, more a song willing the deliverance Lauryn sings of to come about. It’s a song of yearning for an end to all the lessons, a song hoping that enough wisdom has been hard-won that she can go on living again, rather than just breathing; that she’s healed, not just healing. Maybe love, spiritual peace, are just different degrees of hope and delusion anyway. The song also seems to suggest that this newfound equanimity is fragile, tentative and, like the love of which Eddie Kendricks so sweetly sang, ultimately chimeric. Certainly there’s a shiver, a vulnerability to the hope ‘Lose Myself’ expresses, a flinch skulking behind the bravery.

The sense of Lauryn reconnecting with her music, with her artistic voice, is as problematic. ‘Lose Myself’ is a wonderful song, but also definitely weird, and not exactly built to take on a popscene so tooled for perfection. It sounds cheap, the beats bursting too loud and almost overshadowing synths that sound like cheap Casio presets. But ‘Lose Myself’ triumphs as much because of this ‘demo’-esque quality, as over it, establishing an intimate tone recalling Neil Young’s ‘Will To Love’, a desolate home-recorded fragment which could never be bettered in its shields-dropped resignation. The simplicity of production – unadorned vocal, synths playing out the melodies and dynamics but little else, the sketchy feel – recall the raw honesty of Unplugged 2.0, sweetened with enough pop sugar as to be supremely palatable.

But there’s something about this song that feels intriguingly broken, naggingly ‘wrong’. Certainly, the sentiment of suffering for salvation leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth; in places, there’s an uncomfortable echo of The Crystals’ infamous domestic-violence torch-song ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’ in ‘Lose Myself’’s sadomasochistic moral, in the self-abnegation and self-flagellation Lauryn feels she needs to undergo in the name of regeneration. And herein lies the essential poignancy of ‘Lose Myself’: the victim throughout, of a careless lover, an absent God, an abused creativity, she feels resolution will only come with her surrender to these forces, an absolute capitulation, losing her ‘self’ to better serve her man, her God, her muse. And so, rather than the brave, bright statement of survival the song seems on first inspection, it is in fact a symptom of sickness, a brief flash of something darker and cloudier than vulnerability, a window upon a very tortured soul, albeit one seemingly functioning – at least fitfully – on a creative level. The song seems strangely lucid, in its exposure of Lauryn’s tragic self-delusion; she isn’t waving hello to a brighter future, she’s drowning.

Which now leaves me a touch uncomfortable about loving this song quite so much. I’m not revelling in Lauryn’s pain by proxy, am only minutely thrilling on a voyeuristic tip, certainly no more than any listener does in the presence of raw and unmediated soul music, which ‘Lose Myself’ most definitely is. It reminds me of songs from the album I’m most likely to turn to when feeling inconsolably blue, the first volume of the late Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures compilation series. Selecting tracks from the soul hinterlands, slow-dance 45s and torch-song jukebox disks, Godin collated an album of brutally bruised soul, stirring grand, near-operatic drama and tragedy. Songs like Kenny Carter’s ‘Showdown’ (a man has to tell his best friend he loves his girl), Larry Banks’ ‘I’m Not The One’ (a man realises he isn’t good enough for his woman), Jimmy Holliday’s ‘The Turning Point’ (a man acknowledges he will be haunted by lost love for the rest of his life), and Irma Thomas’s ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’ (a woman justifies her undying love for a man who cheats on and abuses her) painted, with scything strings and wounded but valiant vocal performances, epic stories of eternal paradoxes, problems without solutions, cognitive dissonance that made sense only to the protagonist, insulating them within their tragic loneliness.

‘Lose Myself’ fits within this lineage, even if its deceptively-bright synthesiser bounce stands in stark contrast to the scratchy soul of Godin’s selections. Like these great, grand soul songs, ‘Lose Myself’ is a story told without fear of how it will be received, a heart turned open enough to let its wounds breathe freely; and, like the great soul songs, Lauryn lays that wound open for all to see, to let others draw wisdom from her story, even if the path her protagonist takes seems ultimately a harsh and negative one. Set to a stricken but upbeat melody, sung with a sense of life that belies the pain contained within that voice, these songs hum with a potent dramatic irony, making something positive and alive from the most deathly and dark emotions, and delivering something truthful, with an unforgiving honesty. And like those great songs, ‘Lose Myself’ looks likely to remain an obscure gem, prey for the aficionados excavating this era of soul in the decades to come.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick
Blinkered idealism defuses a time bomb blindly
Sorting through a tangle of mixed messages
Selecting only the strands that flatter bluffing fingertips
Ensuring eventual explosion

Grace Paley, 1922-2007


What has happened?
language eludes me
the nice specifying
words of my life fail
when I call

Ah says a friend
dried up no doubt
on the dessicated
twigs in the swamp
of the skull like
a lake where the
water level has been
shifted by highways
a couple of miles off

Another friend says
No no my dear perhaps
you are only meant to
speak more plainly

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pissed Jeans

[for Plan B, and put up here mostly in honour of the friend mentioned in the piece, who is a dude I haven't hung with in far too long. A bit nervous uploading this one, now I know my mum reads my blog; Mum, I don't think you'll like this one, it's a bit rude]

Hope For Men (Sub Pop)

I’ll never forget the night I was devirginised by The Jesus Lizard, sometime back in the 1990s at a dingy, mirror-walled basement in Charing Cross called the LA2 (now known as the Mean Fiddler). It was everything I’d dreamed it could be, from bassist David Wm. Sims’ murderous stare and relentless foot-stomp, to David Yow’s encore appearance clad only in a nappy, which he soon shed. It was at this point that my companion that night (name withheld to protect the shameless) returned after sortie down the very front, a look of impish, irrepressible pride on his sweaty face. “I just took a piss in the moshpit,” he beamed. As I gazed at the dark patches on his trousers, and then switched my gaze to Yow, naked and fucking the stage, I had to admit it was a pretty Jesus Lizard thing to do.

I share such golden reminiscence at this juncture because that same guttural, animalistic mindset is also the preserve of Pissed Jeans, a quartet from Allentown, Pennsylvania whose second album, Hope For Men, is a more abrasive scour of ugliness than I’ve heard in a long time. They are noise rockers, adept at both noise and rock, never allowing one ingredient to get the better of the other. Often, they sound like two different groups playing at once, recognisable and gnarly melody fighting chaotic din for your attention, a tension that keeps this forty minute set so addictively taut.

Opener ‘People Person’ sets vibes to ‘bad’ from the get-go, with a knitting machine beat that feels like a drumstick hammering your temple, guitarist Bradley Fry seemingly tossing his guitar about a room carpeted in twisted steel and broken glass, furnace-mouthed frontman Matt Korvette babbling street-person talk somewhere near the microphone. Korvette sings pretty much like Jon Spencer did right back in the early days of Pussy Galore, a throat-shredding snarl thick with disgust, marshalling a group who sound as if they’d like nothing better than just whaling at their gear for an hour or so with chains and crowbars. In places, it sounds exhilaratingly like that’s exactly what they did.

Pissed Jeans are a tissue of grisly pigfuck reference, from the chainsaw-juggling sleaze of Jesus Lizard, to the molten sludge-blues of late Black Flag, to the ecstatic grind of Melvins; they share with these bands an artful, blunt fascination with subterranean ick, with a musky, ugly sense of manliness, all threats and derangement and debasement. Pissed Jeans smear fine new shapes in the mud and pus and cum and shit and sweat and dirt that is their milieu.

Neil Kulkarni once described Jesus Lizard as the sound of “homosexual panic”; certainly, Pissed Jeans are the sound of a soul in a state of deranged terror, an exorcism, a catharsis of an animalism we’re taught to abandon for civility. Frustration, fear, anger course through all this unruly sound, unleashed and, for a moment, expunged. Malevolence like this shouldn’t be kept inside to fester – the dissonant ooze of noise-poem ‘The Jogger’ profoundly unnerves – so consider this like Fight Club for ‘rockers’, maybe.

Certainly, the hurtling, ricocheting din feels good, especially when the raging shriek quietens down enough so the planet-flattening riffs can breathe, or when the raging shriek swallows those riffs whole. I dare say it feels as good as taking a piss in the mosh-pit of a Jesus Lizard show and spraying your jeans with urine, although I wouldn’t know, as I’m not the sort to do such a thing. I listen to Pissed Jeans instead, and revel in the debasement by safe, hygienic proxy.

(c) Stevie Chick 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007


[for London Lite; TY is an absolute diamond]

Rap’s a genre obsessed by location, location, location. Few can forget the infamous East Coast/West Coast ‘beefs’ of the 90s that pitted Californian gangstas against their Big Apple brethren. The biggest noise in mainstream hip-hop the last couple of years has been ‘crunk’ – a lewd and loud rap hybrid from Atlanta with a peculiarly Southern swagger.

By contrast, Britain seems forever doomed to be rap’s ‘country bumpkin’ cousin. We have vibrant local rap scenes, we’ve concocted unique hybrids of the genre, like grime. We’ve even sent the cream of our homegrown talent – Roots Manuva, Dizzee Rascal, The Streets – over to ‘conquer’ the States, and while they’ve won the respect of the rap cognoscenti, America’s charts remain untroubled by Brit-accented emcees.

But tales of street-life in Stepney can’t hope to compete with the grimy glamour of Brooklyn or South Central, and the British accent remains too alien for American rap-fans to embrace (even though seminal 80s rap legend Slick Rick was born in South Wimbledon). Since British rap-fans mostly follow the American trends, even success at home can elude the most deserving Brit-rapper.

TY is aware of all of this. The Vauxhall-based rap perennial hosted the Lyrical Lounge club-night at this venue in the 90s, where young rap talent performed with live musicians to electrifying effect. His third album, ‘Closer’ (on the unimpeachable Big Dada label), matches droll wit, fiery verbals and an inventive, futuristic funk sound that should be swamping the radiowaves. If it vexes him that he’s unlikely to achieve the limos’n’Cristal lifestyle, he’s keeping it to himself, saving the space in his lyric book to mull over grander themes like love, frustration, and the numb horror of the Damilola Taylor murder.

Like his erstwhile labelmate Roots Manuva, TY’s music rejigs the hip-hop template to reflect local sounds like reggae and British R’n’B. Similarly, he doesn’t fake an American accent (like some of Brit-rap’s sorrier forebears). He speaks in his own voice – loudly, clearly, wisely. And that, more than the glitz, the guns, the glamour, is what hip-hop is truly about.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

Daniel Johnston

[for London Lite]

Innocence and darkness figure equally in the music of Daniel Johnston, a Texan singer-songwriter whose frail, homespun pop has won the hearts of rock superstars, and whose unlikely, unhappy life story was the subject of award-winning 2005 documentary, The Devil And Daniel Johnston.

Johnston is, in many ways, the ultimate ‘outsider’ artist; diagnosed as manic depressive soon after moving to college, he returned to live with his parents, recording his rustic, simple songs on a tape-recorder, selling his home-made cassettes through record stores in nearby Austin, Texas in the mid 1980s. These songs, while achingly amateurish in execution, won Johnson a cult audience, seduced by the lyrics which referenced both the comic book heroes he loved in his youth (Captain America, Casper The Friendly Ghost), and the obsessive, unrequited love affairs that composed his adulthood.

The Cult Of Daniel has only grown with the passing years; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston tee-shirt to the 1992 MTV Awards, indirectly winning Johnston a deal with Atlantic Records a year later (he was dropped after the album sold barely 6000 copies), while an all-star tribute album in 2004 featured covers by the likes of Tom Waits, Beck and The Flaming Lips.

Johnston’s condition has threatened his career, and indeed his life, on occasion: in 1990, flying back from a performance at Austin’s South By South-West music festival, a manic Daniel damaged the plane enough to force his pilot father to execute a desperate crash-landing. Live performances, meanwhile, veer from the sublime, to the sad, to the ridiculous, depending on Johnston’s mood.

Despite all this, though – or, for some, because of it – Johnston’s cult audience remains loyal and continues to grow, fans drawn to songs so poignantly and perpetually caught between the innocence of childhood and the disillusionment of adulthood, between blind romance and painful truth. Tonight, he performs at London’s Union Chapel, a grand setting sure to compliment the childlike simplicity of his songcraft. If the mercurial Johnston’s on form, it promises to be an unforgettable night, and those with the stomach for a more intimate experience of Daniel’s performance should be informed that he will be playing The Windmill in Brixton the following night.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

Sly Stone

[a preview for Sly's performance at the Lovebox weekender; wish I'd made the show, whatever it was like]

If it seems like the 60s superstars were doomed to Icarus-like fates, few soared as high or plummeted as sharply as Sylvester Stewart. As Sly, he led The Family Stone through a dizzying run of smash singles and acclaimed albums, their upbeat riot of soul, funk and rock evoking the optimism of the era as surely as their integrated line-up – men and women, blacks and whites – terrified the more bigoted corners of the establishment.

While their classics – ‘Dance To The Music’, ‘I Want To Take You Higher’, ‘Everyday People’ – remain dancefloor dynamite, darkness always stalked even The Family Stone’s brightest hits; 1969’s ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’ was a sly comment on the riots that had razed poor neighbourhoods that year. Their next album, 1971’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, offered a turbulent, enervated funk reflecting the mania of Stone’s increasingly drug-damaged lifestyle, as well as an America at war with Vietnam and itself.

Stone seemed to have surrendered to the chaos of his life; a regular on the TV chat show circuit, he was visibly addled but still ineffably cool, but often failed to arrive at his own concerts, prompting riots and lawsuits. The Family Stone dissolved, while Sly’s subsequent solo albums failed to stop the rot; seemingly relinquishing his throne to Prince as the 1980s dawned, Sly retreated to obscurity, any comeback seemingly a crack-pipe dream.

Then, early in 2006, Sly improbably resurfaced at the Grammy Awards, performing briefly during an all-star celebration of his music. With his shocking white Mohawk, hunched posture and neck brace, he more resembled a Gremlin than the Sly of yore, but that he even turned up at all was, by Stone’s standards, miraculous.

A year on, with the Family Stone catalogue re-mastered and re-released, Sly is back on the road. Early reviews of the tour suggest Sly only appears for a few songs of the reconstituted Family Stone set, but Youtube footage of Stone singing ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ a month ago suggests that remarkable, sublime croak is still intact. A Lazarus-like resurrection is probably too much to hope for, but this Icarus still has enough feathers to take you higher.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick