After the madness of the last decade, it's just great to see Gil Scott-Heron alive and onstage again. After a great unannounced set by a young East Oakland poet named Ice Life (hope I got the name right...we need to hear more from this guy) and some energetic funk by Orgone, one of the greatest sharp-witted honey-voiced black protest singers of all time came swaggering casually toward his Fender Rhodes piano as members of the audience leaped from their seats and rushed the stage to shake his hand. It was a tremendous show of respect, and a good omen for what was to come. We had come to witness the dry humor and righteous anger of the genius showcased in the excellent documentary Black Wax, but I had some fear in the back of my mind that we might get something more on the order of Arthur Lee's final show, where the reverent crowd got a serious challenge to their reverence. (One day I'll write about that show. It was great drama.)
No need to fear. Scott-Heron, while showing some signs of having had a rough time of late (a slight slur in his speech, a touch of nervousness in his gestures), was all there and focused on his music and his message. Opening with a long monologue that began with a sincere tribute to civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, then veered into 10 minutes of hilarious stand-up comedy covering everything from the internet ("I go online and I read about things I NEVER did"), rambling bits of autobiography, and his new plan to move Black History Month from February to May because everyone can pronounce it and the weather's nicer. Simultaneously cranky, quirky and warm, he had the whole audience in the palm of his hand from that moment on.
Sitting down at the piano and laying down his distinctive jazz-soul chord progressions and bringing out a group of veterans from his past bands, he ran through a string of classics, stretching them out with long improvised introductory monologues, improvisations and new choruses. "Home Is Where The Hatred Is" became an exorcism of his recent troubles, alternating an extended "kick it, quit it" chant with a mournful repetition of "I'm going home tomorrow". I wondered how, after being MIA through most of the Bush years, Gil Scott-Heron might comment on these times, where we actually have a black President, but real change is still frustratingly slow. Scott-Heron never mentioned Obama by name, but in a long prelude to "Winter In America", while telling a humorous parable about the seasons, he kept coming back to the lines "NOT. QUITE. SPRING. YET.", which seemed to sum up what a lot of us are feeling right now.
Some of the frequent instrumental breaks left me impatient after a while ("OK, you're great musicians, thank you, but I want to hear more Gil and less jazz showboating , please!"), but otherwise the show was riveting. Gil Scott-Heron is as vital, witty, conscious and soulful as ever, and you need to spend some time in a room with the man while he is still here. Thank you for coming back to share yourself with us, sir.