Just as James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, one Sylvester Stewart might now best be known as the Prodigal Son of Funk. The return of the groundbreaking and profoundly influential recording artist was anxiously anticipated at two local House of Blues concerts over the weekend, but a late-starting and rather abbreviated show in Anaheim left fans more frustrated by — rather than celebrating — his reemergence.
The goodwill generated by his joyous catalog nearly guaranteed that the audience, despite their impatience with the prolonged wait (both on the evening and over the years), was pulling for Sly and initially ready to party down with him.
With original members Rose Stone (keyboards/vocals), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet) and Jerry Martini (saxophone) offering support, this thankfully was no mere tribute act with a cameo appearance from the honoree, as it were. But no amount of rehearsal and soundcheck — which Sly evidently did not participate in — or on-the-fly cues from guitarist/musical director Tony Yates could keep the brief set from derailing every couple of songs as the musicians looked to one another while trying to keep up with the caprice of their mercurial leader.
“Hot Fun in the Summertime” was aborted and inexplicably never revisited after the first initial piano chords, as was the guitar riff of “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” just as it appeared some momentum had been built following the opening run of hits “Sing A Simple Song,” “Dance to the Music” and “Family Affair.” Sly’s voice, obviously not put to the test in quite some time, was reasonably strong, but he occasionally forgot lyrics, verses were repeated and band arrangements became loose, with plenty of vamping occurring (notably when Sly announced, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and apparently did, returning after the long slow jam of “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa”).
Sly seemed most preoccupied and ultimately distracted by a separate keyboard/microphone combination that, when working, served as a vocoder. But both its monitor level for him and P.A. level for the house seemed an elusive achievement for the tech support team. “I can’t hear my own good shit!,” Sly exclaimed at one point, and he was right, but that was of little consolation to the increasingly restless and weary crowd.
Evening concluded with a fairly potent one-two punch of “Stand!” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” But the night overall brought to mind the same kind of initial awkward phases of a career reclamation project as that of Brian Wilson, with moments of self-absorbed noodling behind the keys in a sort of performance autism while the band carried the bulk of the tunes. And yet other instances, especially at the end when he got up from behind his keyboards, found Sly, after years away, still a charismatic frontman beneath the dysfunction — if only he could focus.
Martini informed the crowd that a hoped-for encore would not be happening as Sly had “pushed himself” during the barely hour-long show, not a particularly encouraging sign for his latest comeback effort. But hopefully Sly can heed his own advice: “You Can Make It if You Try.”