It had to happen. Not five seconds after a smiling, lanky Gil Scott-Heron ambled onto the stage at Yoshi’s last night, someone shouted for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Scott-Heron, rail-thin and in a too-big jacket and flat cap, ignored the request. But he also completely ignored his acclaimed comeback album, I’m New Here—indeed, he played nothing from it. Instead, the singer, poet and musician delivered a joyous set of classic older material, providing a treat for longtime fans and a nearly two-hour introduction for newcomers who just heard about him last month on NPR.
“This has been a very eventful week,” Scott-Heron said, opening the show. “We been reading stuff about us we never knew. You get to have another life when you’re an artist like me—the one you live and the one they write about. I read, for example, that I had disappeared. I thought about adding that to my live act. You come to see me, and poof! I’m gone.”
To understate, Scott-Heron possesses a gift of gab. After 15 minutes of patter about dwarfs, encyclopedias, Winston Churchill, Black History Month, the radio, the news and his home state of Tennessee—all of which might seem self-obliging if not for his sharp, acerbic wit—Scott-Heron finally sat down at his Fender Rhodes and nestled his well-worn throat into “Blue Collar,” as autobiographical a song as any for the legend who’s recently spent time in prison for cocaine charges:
I been down in New York City, that ain’t no place to be down
I been been lookin’ at the faces of children, you see we’re lookin’ for higher ground
You can’t name where I ain’t been down
‘Cause there ain’t no place I ain’t been down
There is gravity in Scott-Heron’s voice—the kind of voice they don’t make anymore. It’s in shockingly fine form, a low bass, rich and full of purpose, flowering at the end of lines into breathy vowels. Take “Pieces of a Man,” for example: a song Scott-Heron’s sung countless times, and still a searing pain overtook it last night, as if he were experiencing the subject for the first time.
This is the most valuable aspect of Scott-Heron’s newfound rebirth. Unlike others who’ve fallen from grace and bestow the world with rote, financially-rewarding tours, Scott-Heron is a true original who appears incapable of going through the motions. Seated at his keyboard, head thrown back to the ceiling, he spent the set running through a catalog full of emotional intensity to a sold-out crowd.
Yes, it would have been better with a fuller band. And yes, some long vamps went on past their bedtime. But an energized Scott-Heron also fought the house lights and came back for an encore while even more patrons waited, lined up out the doors for the late show, clutching LP copies of Midnight Band. Waiting to be close to a legend. Wondering how the show would be. Wondering if Scott-Heron truly had come back.
The answer is yes. May his reemergence last.