Live review: Gil Scott-Heron at the El Rey
“For those of you who believed I wouldn’t be here,” Gil Scott-Heron told the El Rey crowd with an amiable smile Sunday night, “you lose.” It was the 60-year-old poet, musician, spoken-word sage and hip-hop harbinger’s first show in L.A. in several years. After decades of parsing media mirages in song, it was as if Scott-Heron’s mere appearance onstage were his latest political provocation. He said nothing about the drug- and health-related predicaments that had kept him from performing in the U.S., except to suggest that the rumors on the Internet had been, to borrow the words of another humorous and acutely race-conscious American raconteur, Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. The message was simply this: Gil Scott-Heron is still here.
Seated behind a keyboard, Scott-Heron introduced himself to the audience with a freewheeling and amusing monologue that took in the ludicrousness of CNN-commissioned “experts,” the trick of finding your own “-ology” and the problems with February as Black History Month and calendars in general. He announced a new record (his first in more than a decade and a half) to be released next year, "I’m New Here," which he joked would surprise listeners as much as “the old ones you have not bought,” and a book, "The Last Holiday," chronicling Scott-Heron and Stevie Wonder’s 1980s campaign to make the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.
Scott-Heron began the set by himself, with his song dedicated to voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in honor of her Oct. 6 birthday, “95 South (All of the Places We’ve Been).” He was then joined by his band, including saxophonist Leon Williams, guitarist Ed Brady, bassist Robert Gordon, keyboardist and vocalist Kim Jordan and drummer Kenny Powell. They launched into another song, “We Almost Lost Detroit” (also from the 1977 album "Bridges"), after Scott-Heron’s shout-out to a “brother named Common” who sampled the song for 2007’s “The People.”
It was a meditative and exuberant night. The set continued with the rousing rebuke to “the military and the monetary” in “Work for Peace,” the vivacious musicological query “Is That Jazz?,” his stirring national elegy “Winter in America” and “Your Daddy Loves You,” which Scott-Heron dedicated to his own daughter in the audience. The singer who boldly derided Ronald Reagan in “B Movie” and “Re-Ron” refrained from mentioning any specific political figures. This was not an evening for discussion of how “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or an open letter to rappers in a “Message to the Messengers.”
The melancholy addiction opus “The Other Side” from 1994’s "Spirits" meshed flawlessly into his 1971 classic “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” (younger listeners may know it from the sample on Kanye West’s “My Way Home”). The singer closed the evening by entreating us with Latin-inflected rhythms to “Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate” as he carried the crowd aloft with that danceable parable about the mayhem of alcoholism, “The Bottle,” but what the audience at the El Rey was truly celebrating was being back in the masterful presence of Gil Scott-Heron.
-- Anthony Miller