“Music has the power to make me feel good like nothing else does. It gives me some peace for a while. Takes me back to who I really am.” – Gil-Scott Heron
At the Roundhouse earlier this month an ensemble of guest vocalist and a star-studded band – led by The Invisible’s Dave Okumu – paid a fitting tribute to Gil-Scott Heron’s imitable legacy. We arrived with mixed emotions of excitement and apprehension, aware of the enormity of the task.
As Andreya Triana’s woozy version of ‘Winter In America’ entered, these fears rapidly unbound. Her soft vocals enveloped themselves round thick bass and gorgeous saxophone playing from Jason Yarde, setting a high standard for the project brimming with talent. In truth, there was never trepidation regarding this group of musicians, featuring Sam Shepard (Floating Points) on keys / synths, Leo Taylor on drums and guest vocal performances from Jamie Woon and Kwabs. Concern came from how Heron’s work would be recast in a contemporary context, and after two hours of enchanting experimentation, it was the victory of this revisionist approach that tasted sweetest.
Jamie Woon sung two favourites, ‘Angola Louisiana’ and ‘We Almost Detroit’, with a soulful swagger that tipped its hat to the original, yet injected supplementary pace through funky bass licks and instinctive synth work. Loyle Carner, a surprise highlight of the evening, took ‘Whitey on the Moon’ and refashioned the poem into a smooth jazzy hip-hop number. Anna Calvi captured the soulful essence of ‘Is That Jazz’, and Joan As Policewoman stamped her personality onto ‘Peace Go With You Brother’ and ‘Running’.
Things sounded less convincing when imitation was the name of the game. Comedian Reginald D. Hunter’s performance of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ was remarkable for it’s novelty, but the absence of Gil’s tour de force personality in the delivery of his proto-rap was noticeable; a fact admonished by Hunter when he confessed “I’m no musician”. Kwabs performances on some of the biggest hits, ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’ and ‘The Bottle’, demonstrated his dynamic vocal range, and gave the band a chance to flex their muscles to a faster beat, but also felt indistinctive compared to the creativity of other vocalists.
Most starkly contrasting these, and certainly remaining the most memorable performance of the evening, were special guest appearances from Kate Tempest and Solomon OB. They performed their own Gil inspired material, the latter in a competitive mood while the former an incendiary one. In truth, it was Tempest’s prophetic scolding of modern society’s many ills and ‘happiness’ the brand, which was harrowingly on-point, keeping the audience silently enraptured (apart from the couple behind us). To hold a room of that size with simply a microphone and long list of gripes with 21st century life is no mean feat. For us, it was a this moment that rose above all virtuoso musicianship. It resolutely showed that Gil’s relevance – as a performer and, most importantly, a source of inspiration – hasn’t weathered under the strains of time.
Finally, an aside to the Convergence team who triumphantly co-ordinated this show on. Hopefully many more will get the chance to see the project in the flesh, or even listen to it on record. It was simply too good for there to be no re-runs brothers!