Skip to main content

GIG REVIEW: Gil Scott-Heron at the Warehouse, 28/4/10

They was callin' us militants when they was the ones with all the guns...

A long beat.

We stew for an hour or two, growing leany and questioning the man's dramaturgy (or sloth). It is a ex-firebrand beatpoetnovelist-protorapping-politico-bluesman I'm expecting, and such people are punctual, if indeed they are at all. You await a walking historical will, memories and testament of import falling from his tongue like ash.
What we get is better than any of that idolatry nonsense; who stotters on is a human being. A flatcapped, slyly charming, grandfatherly kind of Name.

He opens the night not with oratory; not with his old funked-down blues; not with his new, life-marinated trip-hop, but instead with 20 minutes of warm story-jokes about the volcano-airspace ("Only volcano that ever messed with me") but also effortless history lessons; he's playing a down-to-earth line, complaining about spelling, but there are flashes of the arch poet underneath - as when he conjugates Latin numbers to a beat, to make an etymological point about months.

What hasn't been well-emphasised in the reviews is how his voice has changed; it's now a fucking artwork in itself. Grizzled and basso, certainly, but so warm, convincing, delivered in such a fast and loose accent, he makes ordinary shit-shooting inimicable. I'd happily put on recordings of him reading tax law. This is true when he is rambling us through droll worldviews:
Everybody needs an ology, needs to form their ology to live by and spread. It's ok, though; there's more and more ologies these days, plenty for everybody. In the beginning there was only one - theology, 'the' and ology, cos 'the' is what you use when you only got one, after all... My ology is bluesology, which is simply the science of how things feel...
but especially when he finally sits to the keys and sets to the blues, a solo, haunting take of "Blue Collar". The cracks, belts and turnarounds are just it.

Live, rather than the lush soul of those thirty-year-past albums, his music is sparse, highly repetitive; his keyboard tone is lounge-glass-organ; his lyrics can be forced (as in "Work For Peace", with its eponymous refrain). But he sings as if he's never said the damn thing before: each time you're bludgeoned by his meaning, however prosaic it actually is.
The first quarter of the set is just him alone on keys, and to be honest it is this that gets me most; he holds us in place, insinuating his experience at us, all the acquisitions and far more frequent losses. It's so quiet that you can hear quite clearly the expensive rapid click of the photographers scuttling behind the Warehouse's utterly redundant crowd barrier, as well as an ordinarily drunk couple arguing stage right, sampling themselves into "Winter In America". He touches on hiphop in one interlude, and we are reminded of the magnate, the patron saint that he is to that particular newborn, hyperactive corpse. "I," he says, sucking in his breath sharply, "have been sampled. But I got Mr West back; we went and sampled him on the last one."
  • Kanye (whose "My Way Home" samples Gil's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is")

  • Tupac ("Ready 4 Whateva" ruining "1980")

  • De La Soul ("Area" vs "The Bottle")

  • Blackstar... ("Brown Skin Lady", vs "We Almost Lost Detroit")

  • and, Gil super endorsement, "I really like that kid Common"

Scott-Heron's a shaky-legged, slowed man by this stage, as rumours of his decline are pushing(these include suppositions of HIV, his acute self-destruction via drugs, his 'disappearance' for 16 years - this apparently meaning the fate of anyone halfway famous who doesn't speak to media types or sell work.) He brushes all aside with: "Since the new album, I have heard more dumb shit written about me than the cumulative of the rest of my life."
I'm going to draw a Johnny Cash parallel, see if you can stop me; the new album is akin to that renewal that JC managed (was managed to). I'm not sure if Gil ever reached Cash's County Fair-playing, shovel-release low of the 1980s, but still.

"During this time (that is, 1920s New Orleans)" Again; this man is steeped in history, so much so that he can describe eras that he didn't see without a hint of falseness. He frames a story of jazz as dance music and brothel music (a fusion of two existing styles, "jism" and "ass", but to which the refined likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie would not be held)

The air of the first four songs disappears entirely; we get the full band (impressive keys+vox soloist, bongos, harmonicist) out, and:

If you came here to enjoy yourselves, now's about the time to do it.

They explode into a full-on jazz-funk history lesson, "Is That Jazz?" For the long, six-minute breakdown he exhorts the harmonica solo, or just shuffles adorably on the spot, taking in his band. The keys solo is pyrotechnic, but again, I kind of long for him to speak to us, like he did, all that time before. (What? If he can pretend to have been present where he wasn't, why can't I?)

BIG GRANDOISE THREAD PULLING: This can, with your assent, be a truth about originality or integrity in music; it's not about what notes are played or what form is invented or whether you recognise what they're trying to do from something else. Instead maybe all that's needed is a basic distinctiveness, a quiet deuniversalising effort of style.

I'm hard to get to know
& near impossible to forget