For one night only the legend Gil Scott-Heron launches Liverpool Sound City 2010.
Sloping on stage like one of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons that’s been shopping for suits in Scope, Gil Scott-Heron wears his blues on his sleeve.
A bag of bones topped off with Percy from Corrie’s flat cap, his rhythmic ebonic rumble seemingly emitted from a body made of stronger stuff than what’s stood before us.
But what is stood before us? A prophet, a musician, a thinker, a vocal wrecking-ball of anger, a one-man genre, a wry observationalist, a lyrical colossus – a revolution? Poet Gwendolyn Brooks called him a ‘rough healer’ – an apt description for an artist who’s uncompromisingly raw and unaffected by conformity.
In an opening 20 minute address, where we’re given a rundown on why February is Black History Month, the origins of native American folk songs and how journalists re-write history, our Scott-Heron history lesson also reveals our host likes to call himself a bluesologist.
‘If you want to be something, just put ‘ologist’ on the end…‘ Simple as.
He’s as engaging as he is informative, as astute as he is funny (though not as funny as the bint behind me, seemingly wetting herself even when he clears his throat) and as playful as he is political. Who’d have thought ‘jazz’ derives from the words ‘jism’ and ‘ass’ because it was originally performed by horn players to entertain johns in the whorehouses. The world according to Gil Scott-Heron.
So entertaining is his opening flurry of stories and fables that we’d happily kick back and listen to an hour plus of spoken word but the words then turn to song and a light tinkle on the electric piano cascades through the art deco white wash and we’re transported to a world of struggle.
It’s here where things get shaky; his voice is his instrument – and it’s his voice and exactly the message that he conveys which is his appeal – and with the addition of a variety of session musicians, albeit a mini troupe of percussionists, lead keys and backing singers, his music has the tendency to drift into pastures too close to Fast Show jazzzzzz.
Sure, Winter In America is plain beautiful and Blur Collar has a catchy coda and refrain but words of hardship and pain don’t seem to resonate quite so much against a backdrop of MoR lounge lizardry usually found emanating from a Malmaison bar.
Perhaps it’s all down to expectations, but when the man teases us by namechecking an array of his signature tunes – including The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, only to play the Common-sampled We Almost Lost Detroit you’d be right to think many an audience member was left scratching their head.
The same goes for those who’ve heard his latest record, I’m New Here, a magnificent return to the critical limelight, yet he never ‘disappeared’ he’s quick to remind us while also failing to remind us of its brilliance by omitting it completely from his set. Hardly the promo trail XL would have been hoping for.
But that’s Gil. He’s never sticked to the script – because he doesn’t need one.
The night reminded me of the first time I saw Prince in Manchester’s GMex. Due to a falling out with Warner over his master tapes, he had laid to rest Prince and assumed his ‘Symbol’ moniker while steadfastly refusing to play any of his old hits, instead blasting out a two-hour set of never-heard-before material. It was incredible but strangely unsatisfactory too.
But, it’s these moments you have to cherish; the flashes of inspiration are evident and they’ll certainly never be repeated – tonight’s a one-off, never to be televised.
Gil Scott-Heron: Set
1. Blue Collar
2. Winter in America
3. We Almost Lost Detroit
4. Is That Jazz?
5. Pieces of a Man
7. Your Daddy Loves You
8. The Bottle
9. Be Safe Be Free Be Strong
Gil Scott-Heron pictures courtesy of Mark McNulty.