Gil Scott-Heron has lived a life many thug-posturing African-American artists can only write about. Establishing himself in the 70s as a formidable lyricist with poetic, political and hard-hitting soul, his later years were riddled with drugs, prison and HIV. His return to the spotlight came earlier this year with the critically acclaimed album I'm New Here, a gorgeously sparse record with an unnerving, world-weary power in its songs. Unsurprisingly, when the Chicago-born legend stepped onto the stage of a packed HMV Picturehouse, he was met with an audience electric in its enthusiasm.
After introducing himself with a tongue-in-cheek speech about how Black History Month should be in May (because it's easier to say. Or at least that's what I understood), a confident, charismatic Scott-Heron sat at his keyboard and launched into a stunning solo rendition of 'Blue Collar'. The restless, anticipating crowd was instantly silenced as Scott-Heron's voice cast the decades aside with its soulfulness. An equally arresting version of 'We Almost Lost Detroit' followed, before the first member of Scott-Heron's band, keyboardist Kim Jordan, took to the stage for 'Work For Peace'. The pair's alternating vocals built into a hypnotic climax, prompting the audience's enthusiastic approval.
"This is one of our favorite places in the world", Scott-Heron stopped to remark, to a roar of approval from his fans. The remainder of his stripped-down band (percussionist and harmonica) then emerged for a quirky version of 'Is That Jazz?' with Scott-Heron taking to the front of the stage and encouraging the audience to dance and clap along, though they needed no such persuasion. Such an engaged, participatory atmosphere has long been a hallmark of Scott-Heron's live act, and the ambiance was infectious.
Following an ecstatic, albeit slightly bizarre, solo keyboard performance from the gifted Jordan, the band launched into the classic 'Pieces Of A Man', a reminder that Gil Scott-Heron knows exactly when to bring the mood back down. Age has not withered the song's emotional impact in the slightest, and the audience response was rapturous. The band continued through 'Your Daddy Loves You' and 'Three Miles Down' before exiting the stage. In less than a minute, thunderous foot stamping and applause dragged them back. A euphoric, moving performance of 'The Bottle' provided the night's dizzying climax, and the Picturehouse transformed into an almost spiritual mass of drunken singing and dancing. This is what makes Gil Scott-Heron such a unique figure in modern music: his songs and stories will teach you the horrors of the ghetto, but rather than batter his audience into depression he lets his concerts highlight music as a catalyst for unison and recovery. His audience at the Picturehouse were moved, and left with something positive at the end of the night. Scott-Heron's resurrection is without doubt one of the great comebacks of recent years, his message as essential as it ever was.