Gil Scott-Heron concert review, New York, Jan. 14, 2001
For 12 years, this event of spoken word poetry and music has honored the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The connection between musicians and MLK is a little-known but direct one -- Stevie Wonder was instrumental in the movement for the national holiday and is credited with its formal success 1986. The show itself is a throwback to an earlier time, when art, music, and poetry were grounded in political agendas and community activism. Packing the stylish S.O.B.'s club was a crowd of true American integration - everyone from the glam to the righteous was represented, with spiky haired Asian teens, old school players, and Tribeca hipsters included.
As host, poet and "Oz" cast member mUMs was erratic but engaging -- his mantra throughout the night of "Happy Martin Luther King Day!" was irreverent without being disrespectful. His free-styling, lisped metaphysics sometimes lost the crowd, but an impromptu cockroach poem was so theatrically funny they were ultimately endeared. The opening poets were uneven - "Myself" performed three pieces that lacked remarkable impact. "Corey Choice" warmed up after 2 serviceable poems and ended with a fierce piece affirming the reconstructive power of language and a call to social activism that foreshadowed the presence of the headliner.
Hesitant to the opening artists, the crowd warmed at the arrival of the legendary Gil Scott-Heron. Tall and slim, the gray haired "father of hip-hop" seemed older than his 51 years. A suit and purple cap suggested easy-going gentility, which was addressed quickly when he cracked "I'm just wearing this suit to hide from my parole officer." His gravelly voice and pleasantly muddled Tennessee/New York accent evoked all of his 30 creative years.
For the first 10 minutes of his performance, what could only be called stand-up comedy poured from the man who has seen everything and been through it all. From the presidential election to the aggravation of withdrawing money at the bank drive-through, Gil spoke with a sly, casual humor reminiscent Richard Pryor.
Eventually sitting at a Fender Rhodes like someone's unbearably cool grandpa, Gil was joined by Amnesia Express. They launched into a short five-song set and immediately, the seamless groove of this 25-year-old band guitar, bass, sax, flute, drums, and congas) washed over the audience. Electric guitar solos of piercing melody, sax solos in the best tradition of lyrical jazz, and bass lines so fat they had heads bobbing helplessly, all fused with soulful inevitability.
Bridging the gap between earthy funk and ethereal poetics, Gil's voice conveyed hope, lament, humor, and pure intelligence. His assured melodies, like 1974's "In The Bottle," bluesy and memorable, lad into brilliant riffs on the drums and congas. The sound was evocative of artists like Curtis Mayfield, Prince, and the Roots -- this was original fusion funk and it still speaks in the present tense. Gil has been backed by many of these musicians since the '70s, and their unified soul was irresistible. Brilliant musicality, with rural grit and urban slick, infused each song and they slipped effortlessly by.
The crowd seemed worried to lose themselves in the music and miss the message, but the man who warned angrily in 1970 that the revolution would not be televised, smiled through most of the show and urged all to "relax and enjoy yourself!" The audience exploded in thunderous applause at the end of the brief set -- ripe for more -- leaving invigorated, enamored, and inspired. The celebration for King was subtly fitting, as Gil Scott-Heron reminded with his words and music how love and conscious creativity can endure.