Hold the plaudits for Gil Scott-Heron’s new album I’m New Here, and its inventive fusion of his renowned spoken word style with starkly modern, dubstep-inflected beats.
The oft-dubbed ‘godfather of hip hop’ took to the stage at London’s Royal Festival Hall determined to showcase not this latest twist in his career, but rather his musical roots.
Drawing on his background in spoken word, Scott-Heron opened his set with a few minutes of off-the-cuff stand-up comedy before launching into song alone at the electric piano – all the while dropping in side comments and more jokes.
The likes of New York Is Killing Me nowhere to be seen, within minutes his wiry frame had the swagger of a man half his age, and countering the well-worn image of a tortured soul Scott-Heron declared himself to be in a celebratory mood.
By the end of the set even Scott-Heron’s oft-dipped cap was raised, revealing twinkling eyes to complement his smiles and chuckles.
Rare is an artist who can return to former glories with such delight. The years and tribulations have given Scott-Heron’s voice an edge and urgency; though at times uneven, the jaggedness makes his social commentary even more powerful.
Completed by congas, harmonica and keyboard, the quartet jammed through various periods of the back catalogue, particular gusto reserved for anthemic favourites Is That Jazz and triumphant finale The Bottle.
Of course, it’s unlikely many ticket buyers’ first acquaintance with Scott-Heron was the concoction dreamed up by XL Records boss Richard Russell to lure the sixty-one year old back into the spotlight after 16 years away.
Nonetheless the absence of the newer material – which sees the Chicago-born performer further demonstrate his gift for the dark confessional – leaves questions lingering about how, or if, he’ll apply himself to those tracks live.
His sole nod to the younger generation was to give voice to the fear he felt in allowing his work to be sampled by the likes of Common and Kanye West.
Kind words were reserved for the former’s take on We Almost Lost Detroit; as for the latter’s numerous re-cuts, Scott-Heron joked, “we got him back,” by using part of West’s Flashing Lights to open and close I’m New Here.
Undoubtedly this was a performance to re-affirm Scott-Heron’s position as one of the most original storytellers of his generation, a man who can turn his hand as easily to a rant about the misplacement of Black History Month in February as to anti-war classic Winter in America.
Aside from a lengthy solo track by pianist Kim Jordan mid-way to promote her new album (of which the least said the better), the only truly curious moment came when pro-Palestine protesters shouted slogans between and during songs, apparently in protest at reports Scott-Heron was set to play in Tel Aviv next month.
Though at first he swatted off the criticism with witticisms, he later became visibly aggravated, later in the set denying any plans to perform in Israel had ever been finalised.
Moreover, Scott-Heron, who refused to perform in apartheid South Africa, suggested he would only play in Israel or the Palestinian territories once peace had been restored in the region.
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