A little bit of Gil Scott Heron goes a long way. Which is a good thing, because after years of drug abuse, imprisonment and hard living, there isn't a whole lot left in the 59-year-old singer, who looks about 93. There were times during his show at Toad's Place Wednesday night where it was hard to look at the pitiful man behind the keyboard, but never a moment when you didn't want to hear more.
After a lengthy introduction from opening act and his former label mate Plunky Branch, Scott Heron strolled onstage with the gait of vagrant approaching a handful of change. After a brief speech, he sat down began to play "Save the Children," his hopeful plea for change and responsibility. After the solo performance, he said he considered doing the entire show by himself but decided to treat the audience to his band, The Amnesia Express.
Despite their name, the supporting cast for Gil Scott Heron won't be quickly forgotten by the sparse crowd seated at Toad's. Each member played with a dexterity and emotion that distracted the audience from their leader's emaciated appearance. Pianist Kim Jordan, who has played with Heron for 12 years and was late arriving to the stage, assumed a commanding presence once she got there. Her thick braids and facial expression accentuated her intense performance, which occasionally brought the audience to their feet.
After the second song, "Work for Peace," from his 1994 comeback record, "Spirits," Heron began a monologue about the seasons. He said the story he was about to tell was an African proverb, and he was sure of its authenticity because the guy who told him the story was African. The story stretched the length of a song and appeared to have a refrain, but maybe he just lost his place a few times. It didn't matter much. His performance of "Winter in America," was one the higher points of the evening. The good vibes continued with "Your Daddy Loves You," a song that is often overlooked by critics who tend to focus on his more militant fare such as "Johannesburg" and "We Almost Lost Detroit."
In another extended monologue, the singer recalled growing up in Tennessee and watching miners prepare themselves for work each day. He described how their difficult job made their days long and hard, and he recalled seeing the strain on their faces.
"Yesterday beat them up for some time next week," he said.
He then asked the crowd to sing along to "Three Miles Down," his ode to the coal miner. Unfortunately, some in the audience found it hard to follow his direction and stumbled over simple backing vocals they were asked to perform.
"Maybe I'm going too fast for you," he said, after several failed attempts.
Eventually, it all came together, or close enough for the song to continue. The crowd was thankful that they had finally met his approval and that they didn't have to get their own coal.
In his career, Gil Scott Heron has called out politicians, presidents and rappers with thoughtful and sharp lyrics. Some might say that the dissolved man who sings about the way things ought to be is hypocritical, as he has been unable to shake the addictions that have gotten the best of him. That's a strong argument. But any serious consideration of Scott Heron's work will recognize that he doesn't exempt himself when he talks of personal struggle and failure. It's evident on songs such as "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" and one of signature songs, "The Bottle," which he closed with Wednesday night.
The spirited performance featured the percussion talents of Tony Duncanson, joined by the Elegba Folklore Society's Janine Bell. As various members of the band showed off, Heron lingered at the rear of the stage, ignoring pleas to return to his instrument and with song requests. The music played on, but Heron was done for the night.