In 1969, Sly Stone and his band of multicolored Bay Area musicians released Stand! -- a near-perfect album of searing psychedelic funk that went on to shape rock, jazz, pop, and some musical styles that didn't even exist yet, like hip-hop.
For three nights this weekend, more than 100 Bay Area musicians are going to focus their own creative juices on performing Sly and the Family Stone's multiplatinum masterpiece. And just as with the original, there's no telling where this project might go.
Stand! is the eighth and latest effort from Undercover Presents, a local outfit that recruits multiple bands to record and perform covers of classic albums, with each artist tackling one song. The musicians aren't required to maintain a close faithfulness to the original, so Undercover performances are as much a demonstration of the new artists' talent as the original's.
Undercover started with the Velvet Underground's debut album, and later moved through classics like Joni Mitchell's Blue and Radiohead's Kid A, each time honing the complicated logistics of corralling dozens of musicians into learning, recording, and performing a full-length record.
But Stand!, which will be performed at the Independent this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, might be the group's exciting effort yet.
For one thing, there's the source material: Sly and the Family Stone's fourth -- and possibly best -- album is loose and energetic, leaving plenty of room for Undercover musicians to experiment. It contains some absolutely classic songs and hits -- like "Everyday People," "Sing a Simple Song," and "I Want to Take You Higher" -- as well as near-structureless jams, like "Sex Machine" and "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey." It is, in many places, almost apocalyptically funky.
Then there is the album's vibe. Released in May 1969, at the near-peak of the tumultuous late '60s, barely a year after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, with the Vietnam War at its height and Nixon in the White House, the politically aware Stand! argues for inclusiveness, positivity, and tolerance, rather than cynicism or pessimism. Its critique of racism takes the form of urging people to be who and what they are -- and telling anyone who doesn't like that to shut up and deal. In retrospect, Stand! feels like one of the last bright flashes of Aquarian age optimism, the "crest of the high and beautiful wave" that Hunter S. Thompson described before the '60s ended: "that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
Stand! is, in other words, what you might expect from a brilliant band of black and white musicians based in the Bay Area. And that's just what attracted music director David Möschler to the project.
"Sly and the Family Stone was one of the first multi-gendered, multi-racial rock, funk, or anything bands in the '60s, and we're not just celebrating the music, but paying tribute to like the movement that they represented," Möschler says. "I wanted to choose an album that was not only iconic in its own right, but that represented the Bay Area."
Stand!, as it happens, is the first album by an artist of color that Undercover has tackled. This was also a priority of Möschler's.
"I thought it was funny, because if you look at David, he's this tall, gangly white dude," says Undercover Executive Producer Lyz Luke. "But if you look at the people he collaborates with ... every single culture, demographic, and age group was represented [among the Stand! muscians], and I think that's just what David seeks out in his whole life."
The artists Möschler chose to perform the album run the musical gamut as well. "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" will be handled by Ensemble Mik Nawooj, a hip-hop chamber orchestra headed by former San Francisco Conservatory of Music student JooWan Kim. Notable Bay Area jazz bassist Marcus Shelby is doing "Somebody's Watching You." Soul group Con Brio should find "Sex Machine" in their wheelhouse, and rock-folk outfit Tumbleweed Wanders landed "Everyday People." The title track went to Möschler's own ensemble, the 50-plus-member Awesöme Orchestra Collective. Based the snippets of the recorded performances in the Stand! preview video, we should expect some imaginative reinterpretations of the music this weekend.
Möschler has formal training in classical music -- he makes a living as a music director for local theatre companies, among other pursuits -- but rock and funk music, particularly Stand!, struck the native Southerner at an early age. "Sly was an artist that had been more influential to me than almost anything else," he says.
Not every choice of an album for Undercover goes smoothly. The group had planned to do Purple Rain for a previous performance and recording, but was informed by Prince's lawyers that, "Even if we were in the right, Prince would pretty much try to sue us," Luke says. They did a one-off show only, rather than the usual recordings.
For Stand!, though, the stars seem to have aligned. The laywers have given their blessing, and Sunday's show will feature two original Sly and the Family Stone members, plus Graham Central Station vocalist Ashling "Biscuit" Cole performing during the encore.
It's actually been going smoothly for a while now. As musical director of this project, Möschler was tasked with helping to choosing the album, picking the musicians to perform it, and then allocating each song to a group -- the latter especially a potential minefield. Once he'd chosen the musicians, Möschler asked each group to submit its top three choices for a song from Stand!. He hoped to be able to get them their first choice, or at least their second -- and, if it came to it, their third.
"They all got their first choice," he says, laughing. "They all chose a different song -- which was not only statistically improbable, but it kind of verified that we had gotten just the perfect lineup for this show."
Undercover Presents a Tribute to Sly and the Family Stone's Stand! 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Jan. 17-19 at the Independent.