By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
WASHINGTON, DC – The “more info” tab on the Blues Alley Website informs the curious that Gil Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because it was the alma mater of his hero Langston Hughes and that he has a Master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Informative, but hardly enlightening.
From the twilight of the ‘60s until the early ‘80s, Heron was a groundbreaking artist, fusing poetry, jazz and soul into militant anti-establishment statements. The first chapter of his career extended from the high point of the Black power movement to its nadir, the height of the Reagan administration.
Heron has only released two studio albums since 1982, appearing more often as a sample in works by Public Enemy, PM Dawn and Kanye West, and making the news for his intermittent stays in prison. Heron responded to both occasions the way he handled everything during the next-to-last show of his summer residency at Blues Alley: with humor.
“The first thing you do when you find out you’ve been sampled,” Heron said “is go someplace private and make sure everything is in the right place. Then you want to want to play the song every once and a while make sure it’s still alright.”
After a shout-out to Common, who sampled the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” for his 2007 single “The People,” Heron proceeded to play the original number without the signature keyboard line that had been lifted. Few seemed to mind.
Dressed in a dark beret, oversized suit jacket and baggy, untucked white dress shirt, Heron split his time between standing behind the mic and sitting behind a Fender Rhodes. His voice was in fine form, gruff, but not as raw as on “I’m New Here,” his aforementioned new record. Halfway the nearly two-hour performance he was joined by a four-piece ensemble of keyboards, saxophone/flute, congas and harmonica.
Heron opened with 15 minutes of stand-up comedy, riffing on Black History month, cable news experts, meteorology (“I’ll tell you what a high-pressure front is: Three bothers walking toward you smoking a joint.”) and inventing your own “ology.” He joked about the volcano that stymied his – and many other’s – travel plans and the difficulty pronouncing its name.
“Does Norway have a brother who sells consonants?” Heron asked. “It seems like they put every vowel in a row then tell you ‘say that.’”
He was just as chatty when the songs began, opening “Winter in America” with a lengthy retelling of the African folk tale that inspired the metaphor. He recounted the history of jazz, from its brothel-parlor origins to big bands, before “Is it Jazz.”
“Is It Jazz” provided the first explosive moment of the night, igniting the previously silently respectful crowd with the succession of solos. Saxophone and flute player Carl Cornwell was the perfect foil for Heron’s verbose verses, punctuating each phrase with a sharp blast from his horn.
Despite the fierce and sometimes bleak politics of Heron’s lyrics, the night was relentlessly upbeat. “Detroit,” a dark recollection of a near nuclear meltdown in the Motor City flowed seamlessly into the hope-filled refrain of “Work For Peace.”
The night ended with “The Bottle,” one of Heron’s most popular songs that hit No. 15 on the R&B charts in 1974. Buoyed by a funky organ line, the lyrics paint a harrowing portrait of alcoholism in the inner city. It was odd when Heron gave a short designated driver PSA before the song, and even more puzzling when the band moved into a joyous chorus of “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.” But for whatever reason, it worked and everyone in the club had smiles on their faces as they sang along.
As the crowd shuffled outside, the line for the 10 p.m. show snaked around the block. For the previous four nights, Heron had played two shows each evening, and the upcoming performance was the 10th and final of his stay at Blues Alley.
It was clear the set wouldn’t start on time, but the fans in line fed off the beaming faces of the emerging crowd and started to whoop and holler in anticipation. They would not be disappointed. Although there was no encore, and Heron omitted his two biggest numbers, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Johannesburg,” the evening felt more than complete.
A note on the venue: Blues Alley is literally tucked away in an alley off Wisconsin Street in the Georgetown district of D.C. The sun was bright outside when I entered, but it was dark as midnight inside. The only illumination came from small candles placed at the center of each circular, formally decorated table. With its old brick walls and thick ceiling timbers, it felt like walking into a colonial cellar. The tiny stage barely had enough room for the grand piano, let alone the emerging quintet. A waitress told me the venue was originally a colonial carriage house that was converted into a jazz club nearly 50 years ago.
Setlist: Stand-up set, Blue Collar, Winter in America, We Almost Lost Detroit > Work for Peace, Is It Jazz, Pieces of a Man, Three Miles Down, I’ll Take Care of You, The Bottle > Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.