“Three minutes to Gil Scott-Heron” the PA insisted and everyone in the packed foyers and bars was ushered into their seats. As the house lights half-dimmed, there was a huge cheer – the anticipation and excitement was palpable. However we still had another 10 minutes in our seats with no sight or sound of the man or his band. Normally large venues like this want you spending in the bars, maybe tonight a benevolent management wanted to make sure no-one missed a moment of this sold-out and highly-anticipated gig.
When Gil Scott-Heron walked on stage it was to rapturous applause – it felt more like a homecoming rather than just another tour date. He took the microphone, walked to the front of stage and began with a long and genuinely funny pre-amble: “when you release a new album, you read things about yourself you didn’t know. Apparently I ‘disappeared’. But I’ve been here all the time.” With the relaxed patter of a time-served stand-up, he gave us a couple of gags, comic thoughts about Black History Month and anecdotes about his life and music before taking a seat at the Rhodes keyboard centre stage. And he was still talking as played the opening notes of the first song.
He was dressed in a slightly shabby, slightly too large gray suit and cap - EXACTLY the same as in the press shots for his most recent record “I’m New Here”. You got the sense he lives in this attire, that he is the same person on stage as off-stage, with no boundary between.
The first three songs were performed by Gil alone at the keyboard – and possibly were my favourite moments of the evening. He still has a fine, deep voice if a little time-worn, and was a commanding but never imposing presence even seated. During the third song he was joined by Kim Jordan playing a second keyboard and then by fourth song the remaining band members came on: Glenn Turner on harmonica/tambourine (and good-time vibes) and Tony Duncanson on bongos. It was a simple but effective set-up – surprisingly intimate for such a large venue and somehow they gave the impression the stage would have felt crowded with any more players on it.
The short’ish set list below makes the evening seem more meagre than it was: many songs had extended intros (the musical prelude to ‘Winter in America’ was based on an old African folk tale (“told to me by an old African”) about the competing seasons) or had Gil sharing stories and anecdotes. I think Gil played for a total of 80 minutes taking a short-break during Kim’s instrumental number mid-set . However I would have happily lived without the extended bongo solo in ‘The Bottle’ in return for another song.
Now in his early sixties, Gil Scott-Heron is still able to live up to his reputation and status. It was a shame not to hear any material from 2010’s “I’m Not Here” but judging by the shouts of recognition and the two standing ovations there was a lot of (older) soul boys and girls happy to revel in his earlier material. So my only nagging doubt after the gig was whether the absence of material from the new record means it was a project conceived and led by producer Richard Russell with Gil just going along for the ride. This is perhaps too cynical a thought even for me – it doesn’t diminish what a great record “I’m New Here” is or take away from the congratulations due to Russell for his part in helping keep the profile of Gil high and thus in part ensuring tonight’s gig was met so enthusiastically. As the man said: “I’ve been here all the time”.
The Set List:
‘Ain’t No Place I Ain’t Been Down’
Winter in America
We Almost Lost Detroit
Is That Jazz?
Pieces of a Man
[Instrumental by Kim Jordan]
Your Daddy Loves You
‘Be Safe Be Free Be Strong’
Gil Scott-Heron plays Liverpool on 29 April and Dublin on 2 May before a long European tour. He's back in the UK over the summer for some festival dates and a London gig. More info here.