The music of Gil Scott-Heron is full of clear-cut social commentary and inconvenient truths. Compassionate, controversial and occasionally comical, his art has influenced a generation of hip-hop and spoken word artists.
Under the direction of The Invisible’s Dave Okumu, an ensemble of guest vocalists and poets, including Andreya Triana, Kwabs, Nadine Shah, Loyle Carner and Anna Calvi, performed spectacular reinterpretations of Scott-Heron’s music at the Roundhouse, London, on Sunday. This wasn’t just about celebrating one of the finest poets to walk the earth: this was about rekindling the spirit of revolution.
It started small, with the gentle emote of Andreya Triana as she unpacked Winter in America, one softly sung verse at a time. If the Triana’s quivering high notes signalled an end to the winter, Kwabs quickly brought the spring. Fuelled by the vigorous churn of the band’s Brian Jackson-inspired jazz funk, he raised the temperature with his version of Home is Where the Hatred Is, lolling across the stage to the music, arms swinging to and fro.
The night moved quickly from there. All 11 guest vocalists were sat together on a leather settee, on the far left side of the stage, like a travelling musical family. From there, they swayed to the music, beamed at the band, and applauded one another on the energy they were creating. “Look at all these people here. I have to keep reminding myself this is Gil’s party – not mine,” joked Okumu.
Joan as Police Woman drew the audience in with her solemn solo of Running, from Scott-Heron’s final album, I’m New Here, and, later, her face became a jigsaw of emotion as she strained the words of Piece Go with You, Brother. Jamie Woon – when his voice could be heard above the dreamy, pulsating jazz of the band – sidled through the social injustices laid out in Angola Louisiana and We Almost Lost Detroit. South London’s Loyle Carner administered a smooth hip-hop rework of Whitey on the Moon. While the gaunt tones of Gwilym Gold, over a cascade of moody synths, resulted in a thoroughly surreal version of Lady Day.
This clash of familiar words melded with usual arrangements continued. It was impossible to look away from Whitburn-born singer Nadine Shah as she wailed thunderously on I’ll Take Care of You. And twice Mercury-nominated rock huntress, Anna Calvi, brought a hint of Massive Attack and her on own guitar-playing glamour to the eerie Me and the Devil. Both set the room alight in a manner that would make lesser musicians slip quietly away to the bar, lest they be called upon to follow the disarming acts before them.
But this night was not about any single performer. That fact was shown by the massive cheers that greeted Reginald D Hunter when he took the stage to perform Scott-Heron’s best-known song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. “I’m not a singer” he confessed, before diving headlong into this anthem of revolt and awakening, backed by the steady percussion of the band.
The call to revolution was driven home by stirring performances of spoken word poetry by special guests, Solomon OB and Kate Tempest. Solomon’s poem was a lifting contemplation on indecision and wasted ambition, which closed with the line: “You choose your path, because there are as many people who look up to you as you look up to”. Tempest, meanwhile, bought Scott-Heron’s words of revolt and self-reflection full circle with a provocative, uncomfortably accurate condemning of modern life and its illusion of “happiness the brand”, in an exhausting eight-minute scolding of big business and celebrity, prostitutes with plastic tits and politicians getting slapped wrists, terrorists and anarchists, rising water and rising bills, and the drink-drugs-sex-and-selfie culture that we buy into to forget it all.
Tempest’s fiery speech was a phenomenal moment, which, even for organiser Dave Okumu, brought an element of unruliness to the evening, which was in keeping with Scott-Heron’s own disregard for society’s inequalities. The night closed with Kwabs and the band giving up the groove on a jazz-filled recreation of The Bottle. It’s hard to believe the show lasted just two hours.
Gil Scott-Heron was a man who poured feeling into his life and work. The poet and piano player would have been 67 this April, had he not passed away in 2011. Quite what his reaction would have been to this unlikely ensemble of musicians, vocalists and poets celebrating his music and legacy we can’t say. But we’d like to think that – much like the performers and a great deal of the crowd – he would have left wearing a smile.
Pieces of a Man: The Gil Scott-Heron Project was presented by the Convergence Festival 2016 in association with Roundhouse.