He was on time, too – well, almost. The question wasn’t how much Gil Scott-Heron had left, it was whether he had anything left at all. His shows during the early part of the zeros were a trainwreck: he needed rehab, but he got jail, more than once. Happily, tonight uptown at Marcus Garvey Park, Scott-Heron reaffirmed that he’s still got it. Like Johnny Cash, Scott-Heron is an American icon with a pantheonic body of classic songs and a history of addiction. And like Cash, he imbues his gravitas with an impish sense of humor. A little heavier on the drawl now than he was ten years ago but no less lucid or entertaining, the 61-year-old pianist/songwriter and what amounted to a pickup band drew a joyous response from an impressively large and diverse crowd on his home turf up at 124th and Madison.
He’s got a new album out, I’m New Here, a new take on the proto-rap style he mined on his classic 1970 debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, although he only played one song from it, a stripped-down, skeletal cover of the Bobby Bland soul/blues hit I’ll Take Care of You. Scott-Heron opened solo on his battered Fender Rhodes, taking his time: “For those of you who did not know that I played piano, you might be right,” he chuckled, slowly launching into a spare, withering version of Blue Collar, a chronicle of the down-and-out across the country that resonates even more today than during the Gerald Ford-era recession when he wrote it. All the Places We’ve Been, dedicated to Mississippi voting rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer, got a gentle, stripped-down mid-70s Stevie Wonder-ish treatment. He then ran through a couple of verses of his classic anti-nuclear power anthem We Almost Lost Detroit before bringing up the band – Kim Jordan on keyboards, Tony Duncanson on bongos, Carl Cornwell on tenor sax and flute and Glenn Turner on harmonica and percussion.
The rest of the show was a party. Scott-Heron is rightfully best known for his scathingly witty social criticism and intricate wordplay (he’s been called the godfather of rap, or the equivalent, for decades, and although he didn’t actually invent the style, his work remains a powerful influence on every new generation of hip-hop artists). But this show focused on the more upbeat material. Jordan played the catchy bass hook to Is That Jazz on the low keys – if she sustained any lasting damage from the nasty U-Haul accident that nearly cost her a career in music, the good news is that she’s fully recovered, crashing and burning with a staccato ferocity uncommon even for her. Cornwell added several bop-flavored solos, Turner more subtle color and Duncanson – celebrating his birthday – took a very long solo at the end that might have seemed pointless at another venue, but was spot-on here, considering how vehemently (and bigotedly) the yuppies in an adjacent new “luxury” condo building have fought to kick out the African drummers who congregate in the park at night. They wrapped up the show with dynamically charged if somewhat loose versions of the harrowing Pieces of a Man, a brief version of the iconic 1978 latin soul shuffle The Bottle and encored with a slow, soulful and raptly crescendoing version of Better Days Ahead, an old song from the mid-70s. Nice to see an old favorite shake off the demons and do what he does best. Scott-Heron is at B.B. King’s on October 7 at 8 PM.