They’ve been hosting a series of outdoor gigs every Summer at Somerset House for the last 10 years. Tonight we have poet, author, singer and activist Gil Scott-Heron. His latest album “I’m new here” is his first studio album in 16 years, but he’s always quick to point out that he’s never gone away.
Support comes from producer, multi-instrumentalist and retro soul man Mayer Hawthorne. Hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan but now based in L.A. he wears his influences firmly on his sleeve. Peforming songs off his brilliant debut album “A strange arrangement”, the spirit of Motown, Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, Holland, Dozier, Holland and countless others ooze from his very soul.
His backing band recreate the warm, analogue sound of the album and “Maybe So, Maybe No” sounds particularly brilliant under the night sky. He even manages to inject life into his cover of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”, a song so cheesy you could serve it on toast. A perfect support act from a near perfect artist. Definitely one to watch, go check out his album if you don’t already know it.
A Rhodes electric piano sitting on top of a huge Rhodes amplifier has been set up practically at the lip of the stage and Gil Scott-Heron nonchalantly saunters over to it smiling and waving to the cheering crowd. With his gaunt face and lean frame he looks much older than his 61 years, but that’s a testament to his lifestyle. At least he looks fit and appears eager to play. Instead of getting straight into the music he chats for a good ten minutes in the manner of a stand up comedian, a feature of his show that has always been there and perfectly reflects his spoken word background and mischievous sense of humour. His monologue begins with how he heard from various critics that he had “disappeared” and that his new album was a response to how “angry” he is. He stresses that he’s not long been out of jail (for drug possession) and one thing you’re not when you get out of jail is angry. He says that he drew up a list of 50 songs, from which he picked about ten random ones to play for tonight. With his extensive back catalogue you know he’s not just going to promote the new album and leave it at that. He also says that if you want to learn a lot about yourself then make a CD, which is exactly why he made the new album.
He then sits at his piano and says that he’s a “bluesologist” and wouldn’t be able to call himself that unless he plays some blues. It’s a good set, with “Winter in America” sounding particularly haunting when accompanied by just his piano. He introduces it by saying it’s “an old African proverb” or at least that’s what some “old Africans” told him :-).
After a few more solo numbers he brings out his band. Congas, keyboards, a saxophone/flute player and a harmonica player. They’ve played with him since the days of the Amnesia Express band and it all gels together effortlessly. He then mentions that artists like Tupac, Common, PM Dawn and countless others have sampled his work so he must be doing something right before launching into “We almost lost Detroit”.
Prior to playing “Is that Jazz?”, he gives us a convoluted and amusing story as to how the word “jazz” originated from New Orleans’ “houses of ill repute” where would be patrons were entertained by pianists playing “jism music”.
He then stands at the front of the stage to perform “Pieces of a man”, and his cracked, raspy voice perfectly captures the sentiment of the song. After about an hour he introduces his female keyboard player Kim Jordan and leaves the stage while she plays one of her own songs accompanied by the congas. After his little break, he’s back with “I’ll take care of you” from off the new album and “Work for Peace” before engaging the crowd in some participation singalong. He finishes with his classic “The Bottle” which extends into conga and saxophone solos before coming back in for the final verse.
It’s a great showcase from a brilliant artist, and it’s telling that for all the great songs he played there are still classics like “Lady Day and John Coltrane”, “Johannesburg”, “Hello Sunday, hello road” and “The revolution will not be televised” that he DIDN’T play but which were not really missed from a good set.
He wrote his latest book “The Last Holiday” in 2003 and hopefully it’s being published next year so, along with the new album, it’s great that an artist this unqiue is still around with something to say.
Although of course, as he insists on telling us, he’s never been away.
The great Mayer Hawthorne song “Maybe so, maybe no”. Already a classic as far as I’m concerned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpfcydeSGeo