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Still Sly; Funk legend Sly Stone declares 'I'm Back!' with new disc of mostly reimagined classics aided by an impressive lineup of musical guests

You didn't really have to be there.

The 42nd anniversary of the Woodstock Festival is fast upon us, but anyone who was there can tell you that you didn't really need to slog through the mud and what U2 might have called the event's "pride in the name of love" (which seemed even thicker to me).

You can see Michael Wadleigh's amazing film of the festival and know it plain as day. Or you can hear its best on two discs -- "Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock" and Sly and the Family Stone's "The Woodstock Experience."

They were the festival's two unquestioned musical heroes, Jimi and Sly.

You can dispute the performances of everyone else, but not of those two transcendent moments in the history of American popular music. In the middle of all the folk and folk rock epiphanies, Jimi brought the agonies and ecstasies of avant-blues and Sly brought rhythm and blues and a semi-new genre everyone was soon happy to call "funk."

Jimi excused himself and went to kiss the sky. And never came back. (He's still missed.)

Sly -- whom some refer to as "the J.D. Salinger of Funk" the way others refer to Terence Malick as the "J.D. Salinger of Film" -- has quietly lived his life away from the public eye and, somewhat miraculously, made it to the age of 68, as if he were just an ordinary fellow who owned a hardware store or worked at the post office.

He showed up in a blond Mohawk for a 2006 Grammy tribute, spent about three minutes on-stage performing and then disappeared back into the fog he prefers -- not a fog of wealth and privilege and corporate adoration, but a fog that has long been rumored to include homeless stretches, along with the occasional cocaine bust (the last one was back in April).

And now out of the mist comes something called "I'm Back!," the first new Sly Stone record (with "Family & Friends" is the billing) since 1982.

"New" is a relative term here. Most of this is a Greatest Hits Revisited collection in the modern style -- re-creations of old classics with big names dropping by for a tune or so each to pay tribute to the musician they dearly love (and why on earth wouldn't they?): Jeff Beck, Bootsy Collins, Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Ann Wilson of Heart, Johnny Winter, Carmen Appice of Vanilla Fudge and the great (and greatly underrated) jazz saxophonist Ernie Watts.

OK, so most of this seems to have been recorded more or less the Sinatra "Duets" way, with Sly knocking out tracks in advance and then the hallowed guests showing up to sing and play along later and replace whoever was on Sly's original track.

Nor surprisingly, on the new stuff do you get the transcendent strobe-lit ecstasies of the artist who seemed to mean it when he told the world he wanted to take it higher (unlike John Lennon whose declaration "I'd like to turn you on" disappeared into an echo chamber of ectoplasmic irony).

It's nice to have a new Beck solo on "I Want to Take You Higher." And Bootsy Collins joining "Hot Fun in the Summertime." But the method here accretes synthetic ecstasies over rhythms that almost entirely lack the snap of Sly's originals.

Listen to the horn riff original tenor saxophonist Jerry Martini dropped into "Higher" (not the same as "I Want to Take, etc.") at Woodstock. It's dropped here into the expanded remix of "Dance to the Music."

It is, in its Woodstock incarnation, a miracle of American popular music -- a witch's cackle from the chitlin circuit suddenly bequeathed to all kinds of middle class white kids whirling like dervishes so that they could celebrate the myth of a "Woodstock Nation."

It's played on "I'm Back!" as if by professional musicians reading notes, not one of R&B's greatest horn sections on a mission from God (or someone almost as lofty).

Drummer Carmen Appice has said that an injury kept him from playing drums with both hands on "Stand!" on this disc, but the whole approach here without the snap of Larry Graham's original bass, makes it all sound a bit like a Vanilla Fudge record, i.e. slowed down covers of great hit songs.

It isn't true that these versions slow every tempo down, as if Sly had the musical equivalent of arthritis. But they don't begin to have the rhythmic crispness of the original music that the world, quite rightly, fell head over heels in love with. It was the snap that even made something completely fresh out of that heavy killer guitar riff on "I Want to Take You Higher."

There are three "new" tracks we're hearing for the first time including -- would you believe -- a version of the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."

If you were Sly Stone and you'd somehow -- incredibly -- lived into your late 60s, you might want "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" on your new disc, too.

Don't take the disc's title seriously. When Sly, on a corporate product, declares "I'm Back!," he doesn't mean that he's willing to join rock's vast heaving retro-nation on its appointed rounds of keeping the music alive (for instance uber-guitar wanker Ted Nugent, the original Amboy Duke, plays at Artpark tonight, his bow and arrow and the stuffed head of a decapitated moose, no doubt, back on the tour bus).

Read the ample notes to "I'm Back!" and you'll discover how much labor was involved just getting Sly to sign a contract agreeing to it.

Don't expect a Sly Stone tour. Or a late night sit-down with David Letterman or Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon or Craig Ferguson.

He has just enough will to come in out of the fog and lay down some new tracks to remake some of the greatest R&B ever to grace vernacular America. And to get Beck, Collins, Wilson, etc. to lend their love and their names to it all.

Really, it's not a cynical ripoff in the slightest. It's just Sly's contribution to the ravenous modern news cycle -- the news that he's still alive and well enough to make a record, more or less.

And that's news that fellow musicians and Sly-lovers can celebrate, even in reduced and strained circumstances.

Don't ask us why.

It's probably a family affair.



"I'm Back! Family & Friends"

Sly Stone, including Jeff Beck, Bootsy Collins, Ray Manzarek, Johnny Winter, Ann Wilson and jazz saxophonist Ernie Watts.

Released today by Cleopatra Records.

3 stars (out of 4)

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