Yes, it really is him on that stage at his beat-up Rhodes piano, telling us we “need to fly to better days ahead”. Some 40 years after A New Black Poet kicked the doors in with his revolutionary proto-rap and protest poetry, Gil Scott-Heron is still rushing headlong forward – but for now survival is enough. His crumpled grey suit is hanging off him and his flat cap all but covers his eyes, but when he hits the first chords of We Almost Lost Detroit, it’s obvious he’s not hiding anything. His stripped-down band the Amnesia Express are taking care of congas, flute, sax and organ, but it’s the voice everyone’s here for. It’s deeper now, rougher round the edges, but he’s got even more stories to tell this time round.
Gil Scott-Heron’s last Irish show was 10 years ago in Vicar Street, and until a few months ago a return visit was such a long shot there was no point even hoping. From 1970 to 1982 he released 13 albums, joining the dots between Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and the polemic of Malcolm X and The Last Poets. Then his life began to imitate his own art – years of drug addiction and jail that saw him go to pieces like a drifter in one of his songs. Apart from 1994’s Spirits the well seemed to dry up, until I’m New Here dropped in February, a mix of spoken word introspection, scratchy blues and stark electronic soundscapes that could well be the album of the year.
“I ain’t new in Dublin but I’m new here,” he tells the sold-out Tripod, before the plaintive soul of I’ll Take Care of You, the only new song in a crowd-pleasing set that spans four decades. He’s got a long request list he’s working through but when someone screams, “Play Whitey on the Moon” from the back, he laughs it off. There’ll be no Whitey…, no No Knock and the revolution will definitely not be televised tonight. So Scott-Heron has eased on the polemic, but he hasn’t been put out to pasture yet. During Work for Peace he steps away from the piano, raised fist, spitting out the words: “Peace is not the absence of war/ it is the absence of the rules of war and the threats of war and the preparation for war,” as Tony Duncanson pounds the congas. And on the wailing cry against addiction, Home Is Where the Hatred Is, he’s transfixed, the veins in his neck bulging during the exorcism.
Scott-Heron has been crudely called the ‘Black Dylan’ but maybe Springsteen, champion of the everyman, is closer to the mark these days. He orders the audience to join in on the chorus of Three Miles Down, a lament for coal miners “working in a graveyard”, and the solo piano number Blue Collar could be about any dejected Springsteen factory worker. And while Dylan keeps his distance (playing with his back to the crowd), Gil Scott-Heron is in full raconteur mode, beginning the night with a stand-up routine then spinning tales of journalists’ reviews, “deadbeat motherfuckers in the front row” who won’t sing, and getting his own back on rappers who sample his tracks (he sampled Kanye’s Flashing Lights for the intro to I’m New Here).
This inclusiveness and banter wins over the crowd, who whoop for every solo from the band, more so when harmonica player Glen Turner turns on his synchronised clap shtick. For the most part, the Amnesia Express ensemble veer between bluesy R&B and jazz-fusion with Gil’s piano to the fore, but they shift a gear during the set’s raucous final act, The Other Side (parts I & II), followed by a breakneck version of The Bottle. One or two solos stray into Ron Burgundy Jazz Flute territory, but no one’s denying the band the indulgence – especially Gil, who leads the cheers for a curtain closing conga solo.
And it’s been 10 years, so Gil wasn’t escaping without another encore. After a five-minute ovation the band is back to Celebrate Celebrate Celebrate, as the bluesologist pleads: “Enjoy yourself, enjoy your life”. He sets the mic down and slowly paces the front of the stage, mouthing the words: “I’m in heaven… I’m in fucking heaven.” It’s a final lump in the throat moment in a show that we’ll be talking about for years.
First published in state.ie