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He looked a bit like some old black guy who'd just come out of the bookies having put a tenner on a sure thing... Albeit one who'd raided the thrift store's designer clothes section.

He looked a bit like some old black guy who'd just come out of the bookies having put a tenner on a sure thing... Albeit one who'd raided the thrift store's designer clothes section.

originally published: July, 2007


Lovebox is an open air two day festival which grew out of the club of the same name organised by Groove Armada. Therefore it has a nice anything-goes spirit left over from the heyday of the Balearic/Caf?© del Mar scene. This year's hot acts included Hot Chip, The Rapture, the B52s, Blondie, Groove Armada themselves, and Sly Stone's triumphant - if awkward - London comeback.

The B52s played the worst set I've even seen by a professional band, lacking integrity, majesty, or character. It was like post-punk Fleetwood Mac without the rhythm section. But they're white and middle class so its OK.

The Lovebox site in the middle of Hackney's Victoria Park was cleverly considered with lots of space given over to fairground attractions, toilets, tables and chairs, chill out zones. One merry-go-round I passed pulsated to the jumpy rhythm of Johnny Cash's Get Rhythm.

There was a good Scandinavian band, Who Means Who, in one of the tents. They sort of answer to the description of new rave punk and raise the question: are there any exciting new rock acts at all coming out of the English-speaking countries? All the compelling guitar noise today seems to be from Denmark or Norway or Malawi or Mauritania. Johnny was singing Hey Porter as the merry-go-round went round and round as I made my way to the main stage to see Blondie.

I saw Blondie shortly after they reformed, at a small Dublin venue where they did a warm up for an arena tour. It was a nasty, offbeat, and undeniable event with a set full of intelligent cover versions and album tracks. Since then they've toured a lot, visited some of the less salubrious summer festivals, and been interviewed for what seems like a thousand NYC punk documentaries.

Sly Stone wasn't the only person playing Lovebox who'd helped build hip hop. Chris Stein crossed that music over several ways, in addition to putting out classic records by Iggy, the Gun Club, and Panther Burns on his own label. His guitar work with Blondie has been groundbreaking. So it's strange to see him do a greatest hits set in the middle of a strange sound mix with his guitar seemingly turned way down and Clem Burke's brisk drumming trashing the audience into submission.

Debbie Harry looked exceptionally beautiful, so good that it was hard to believe that she was real. To say that age had not withered her is something of an understatement. Less stout now, she's pure Rita Hayworth or Lana Turner. Stein and her have this crowd-pleasing human jukebox shtick down perfect - and London is the best place in the world for them to do it. I think they've had six No.1 singles here so their set was a casually triumphal romp. Since they kicked out keyboardist Jimmy Destri they've ceased to be the original Blondie and his absence is felt in the sound. They're still terrific, for all that.

And the whole fraught matter of original line-ups, reformations, human jukeboxes, value for money, what the white man expects from the black man, and other worrisome shit - annoying the white male bourgeois chattering classes of Europe for the last few weeks - was about to take centre stage.

A lot of people, in their postcolonial way, like to hear black music being served up like a satisfying meal, with a good waiter service and impeccable presentation.

I was planning to go see Sly at the Montreux Jazz Festival when I heard that they were doing a European tour which, mysteriously, avoided London. I gather that his appearance before the gilded Swiss cognoscenti was particularly brief and troubled so I'm glad that Lovebox decided to import him to play, in front of a huge crowd, most of whom can't have been born when he was doing his thing, about twenty minutes from my front door.

The audience had all heard - mainly via an article which appeared in The Observer a week ago - that he'd be hitting the stage after an hour long set by a lame Family Stone tribute band and that, if we were lucky, he might stumble through two songs while looking exceptionally strange.

It didn't get off to a great start. It took the crew forever to set up the equipment. This has been mentioned in all reviews of the current tour and suggests that Sly should think about getting a more big time tour manager.

Then it was off into the tribute band thing for over twenty minutes. The crowd were more than restless - half of them were loudly and angrily shouting, 'Sly Stone!' or other things. The Lovebox curfew looming at 10.30, Sly was summoned amongst us at about 10.10.

On he walked, rather amiably really. He looked a bit like some old black guy who'd just come out of the bookies having put a tenner on a sure thing. Albeit one who'd raided the thrift store's designer clothes section. He is 64 and the carry-on of the likes of Jagger and Iggy has led us to expect strenuous physical antics from our iconic sexagenarians. It wasn't much like that.

For twenty minutes he sang, played keyboards, did a crazy lopsided dance around the stage, encouraged the crowd to dance to the music, and dazzled. There was nothing of Brian Wilson's "the lights are on but there's no one home" act about him. Neither was this a Wilson-style con offering up slick presentation in lieu of a real human performance - this was the real thing. He sang the sharpest versions of If You Want Me To Stay, Stand, I Wanna Take You Higher, and Sing a Simple Song.

Then it was curfew time and over and he was gone. It doesn't get much better than those moments of magic.

Joe Ambrose

Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.

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