Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
May 1, 2009
Politics has always been just as important to Gil Scott-Heron as his music. Perhaps more so. From the late 1960s into the 90s Scott-Heron preached the message of change; questioning the status quo; sticking up for the oppressed. Therefore Obama's election a few months ago must have seemed like a victory. "Change We Can Believe In" could have easily been a Scott-Heron tune. So it was somewhat surprising when he didn't mention Obama at his concert Friday night and instead focused on playing many old favorites from years past. But that was OK, especially if, like me, you spent considerable time listening to those tunes when they were new and fresh. Plus, although the songs addressed then-current events, it turns out many resonate just as deeply today.
Scott-Heron's music combines jazz, rock and funk and, 20 or 30 years ago, was typically served up with multiple percussionists and one or more horn players. Friday night at Cervantes, Scott-Heron appeared with a drummer, percussionist, guitarist and bassist. Scott-Heron sat front and center behind a Rhodes electric piano. His voice, too, was slightly altered from the past century. In his heyday, Scott-Heron's voice sounded like smooth, finely aged whiskey and he constantly embellished his singing with bluesy flourishes. In 2009, the flourishes are still there, although scaled back a tad and that whiskey-smoke vocal tone is a little rough around the edges, a little more gravelly; whiskey on the rocks. Physically, he's getting somewhat frail and what's left of the proud afro was tucked under a hat with fringes of grey on the edges.
Many of his songs are based on a two chord vamp (usually minor chords) giving the music a compact, intimate feel. "The Bottle" is a good example. But Scott-Heron used that tune to launch into an extended percussive jam resulting in a sound that is somewhat relaxed and urgent all at the same time. Some of the instrumental jams evoked bands like Santana and the Isley Brothers from the 70s.
Much of Scott-Heron's most popular music from back in the day included Brian Jackson on backing vocals, flute and keyboards. In the current band, Scott-Heron handles all the vocals himself and his Rhodes and the guitar are left to fill in some of the horn parts. The overall sound is more than sufficient to get the groove on, but compared to his bands of the past, it's just not quite as rich and deep.
He started the evening solo playing a tribute to voting rights activist and civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer with the song "95 South (All of the Places We've Been)." He showed his support for the workers with "Blue Collar" and, bringing the band on stage for the first time, "Three Miles Down," a song about miners. "The Other Side" was a tune from the only album of new material he did in the 1990s, Spirits. He concluded the first set with two of his more well known songs, "Winter in America" and "The Bottle."
The second set began with Scott-Heron once again alone on the stage, this time singing "We Almost Lost Detroit," an anti-nuke tune about a near melt-down at a Michigan nuclear power plant. That song got Scott-Heron invited to the No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden in 1979 which was organized after the Three Mile Island accident. Thirty years later, nuclear power continues to be controversial. The subjects of the next two songs were likewise not dulled by time. "Work for Peace" and "Better Days Ahead" can fit in any decade; or century for that matter. The closer, "Johannesburg" is arguably outdated because it is a protest against South Africa's apartheid policy. That's long gone, but perhaps the tune can now be viewed as a celebration. "What's the word? Johannesburg!"
Over the years, Scott-Heron relentlessly criticized one president after another; from Tricky Dick, to Oatmeal Man, to Skippy, to Ronnie Ray Gun and Papa Doc Bush. You'd think Baby Doc Bush would have been the biggest target of all, but Scott-Heron, to my knowledge, didn't release anything along the lines of prior raps such as the H2O Gate Blues or B Movie. That may have been due, in part, to a lack of a recording contract. However, it may have also been impacted by the time Scott-Heron spent in prison earlier in this decade. He went to the slammer twice, once for possession of cocaine and the second time for a parole violation for leaving a drug rehab center. His struggles with drugs seem particularly ironic in light of his warnings of substance abuse in such songs as "The Bottle" and "Angel Dust." Or maybe he was speaking from first hand knowledge.
In any event, it's good to see Scott-Heron back and out on the road. Besides being a singer, songwriter, pianist and band leader, he's also a poet and novelist. He's been a clever and articulate commentator on politics and it will be interesting to see if he continues his observations and warnings into this century.