As recently as 2007, Gil Scott-Heron was serving time at Rikers Island Penitentiary, New York, for cocaine possession. Now, three years later, he presides over an audience that’s crammed into a neo-classical London courtyard and an audience is hanging on his every word.
This relatively swift turnaround in fortune can be attributed to the deep reserves of goodwill upon which Scott-Heron continues to rely. Not for nothing does he get the most enthusiastic shout-out on LCD Soundsystem‘s Losing My Edge (“Gil! Scott!! HERRRROOONNN!!!” bellows James Murphy), and he’s still spoken about with hushed reverence by those who refer to him (without too much exaggeration) as ‘The Godfather of Rap’.
Scott-Heron’s newly-found good fortune doesn’t appear to have gone unappreciated by the man himself. He’s in fine spirits this evening, entertaining the audience with a series of quips and anecdotes, one of which concerns the etymology of the word “jazz” (a fusion of the words “jizzum” and”ass” he claims, perhaps apocryphally).
His voice is a remarkable instrument that’s improved with age. It’s as warming as burlap, and comfortably covers all four corners of the Somerset House quad. Following a long spoken preamble, he sits to sing two songs with only hisRhodes piano for accompaniment – Blue Collar (from 1982’s Moving Target) and 1974’s desolate Winter In America.
Even so, it would be asking a lot of Scott-Heron to play a concert of this size by himself. He’s joined eventually by a band and that, unfortunately, is where the gig begins to unravel. It’s as if the set is designed to reflect the self-sabotage that’s blighted much of the last 20 years of Scott-Heron’s career. First, the (admittedly fine) backing singer Kim Marsh is given her own solo spot, and then a lengthy jazz instrumental threatens to kill all momentum at around the two-thirds mark. Unsurprisingly, audience members begin to stream to the bars en masse.
Indeed, the set list as a whole seems oddly chosen, resembling an iPod shuffle selection of Gil Scott-Heron tracks. There’s only one song from 1971’s classic Pieces Of A Man (the title track) and, perhaps stranger still, only a solitary selection from this year’s warmly-received comeback album I’m NewHere.
Fortunately, an up-tempo The Bottle and the lovely Better Days Ahead ensure the evening ends on a high note. Ultimately, Gil Scott-Heron’s charisma remains strong enough to survive this patchy and frequently frustrating evening. If bizarre song selections and dubious musical choices are what audiences must endure in order to see this genuine legend on stage in 2010, then it’s a price worth paying.