A Stoned Soul Weekend: New York Pays Tribute to Laura Nyro, Gil Scott-Heron and R&B's Living Legends

gil scott-heron laura nyro
David Redfern/Redferns; Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Gil Scott-Heron and Laura Nyro
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"His words were the story of our lives/In a world lost in lies," Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets chanted atop a rumbling river of percussion in the clear and cool night air at New York's Lincoln Center, in memory of his late friend Gil Scott-Heron. Oyewole's "My Brother Gil" came near the end of Pardon Our Analysis, a dynamic tribute to Scott-Heron's legacy in words and soul presented by the Black Rock Coalition on August 12th.

Oyewole's declaration was also a solid summary of the truths and hopes always alive in classic R&B and expressed all weekend at Damrosch Park as part of Lincoln Center's 29th Annual Roots of American Music Festival. The free shows, presented on August 11th and 12th in conjunction with the New Orleans-based curatorial specialists Ponderosa Stomp, included an all-star celebration of the Bronx-born singer-songwriter Laura Nyro and appearances by living soul men such as Stax vocal and songwriting master William Bell, Hi Records session guitarist Teenie Hodges and the outspoken-R&B dynamo Swamp Dogg.

A Revolution in Poetry and Beat

The BRC's salute to Scott-Heron, who died last year, featured the singer-writer's musical partner on his iconic Seventies LPs, flautist and keyboard player Brian Jackson. The set list stayed in that prime, with the BRC singers and players shaking up the fire and undertow in "The Bottle" and "Lady Day and John Coltrane." But the show's emphasis was on renewing the life and message on records such as 1974's Winter in America and 1975's Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day. Jackson noted that the name of the latter record was inspired by the idea that midnight was not just the end of a day but a "gate – you couldn't get to any of the other minutes without it."

In that spirit, Sandra St. Victor of the Nineties soul crew the Family Stand updated the chill and fear in "Winter in America" in a bravura duet with singer Martha Redbone. Oyewole led a three-way fire of voices in Scott-Heron's most famous alert, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," during which Carl Hancock-Rux slipped in a cutting update to Real Housewives clowntime.  No one mentioned addiction's toll on Scott-Heron's life and work; this Analysis stayed on the fight and wisdom before his heaviest midnight came around.

Stoned Soul Siren

The August 11th revue in honor of Nyro, who died in 1997, concentrated on her early magic: the prodigious breadth and commercial invention in "Time and Love," "Save the Country" and "Stoney End." "'Can you surry?' – nobody asked me that before," Melissa Manchester cracked before singing "Stoned Soul Picnic." 

Most of the special guests were close to the source, including hit songwriter Desmond Child, who is godfather to Nyro's two granddaughters; Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, who produced her 1970 album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat; and Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash of Labelle, the street-wise choir behind Nyro on the 1971 covers delight, Gonna Take a Miracle.  Hendryx and Dash's extended return to that record was an explosive delight – soul-siren fireworks packed into the hook-and-chorus grip of the Shirelles' "I Met Him on a Sunday" and Major Lance's "Monkey Time." Child, leading the reunited Desmond Child and Rouge, remarked that Nyro's record with Labelle was a a major influence on his group, then followed those roots into the ecstatic gallop and sensual church of Nyro's own "Beads of Sweat" and the heart's warning "Eli's Coming."

Living Soul Men

The writers behind the cream of Southern funk and pain – Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign," "I'm Your Puppet" by James and Bobby Purify and Al Green's "Take Me to the River," to name a handful – got their due in an interview-and-performance segment, Soulful Songwriters Circle, on August 11th. Bell recalled how he came up with his mighty Stax debut "You Don't Miss Your Water" while feeling homesick in a New York hotel, then performed it like it still hurt. Dan Penn admitted being miffed when the Purifys messed with the tempo and title of his "Puppet," written with Chips Moman as "I'm the Puppet," until he got the first royalty check – though when he sang it, he slipped the original chorus back in. And Hodges, a pillar of the Hi Records rhythm section and writing stable, picked his signature lick in Green's "Love and Happiness" with familiar stabbing effect, even on an acoustic instrument.

Otis Clay, one of the voices propelled by Hodges at Hi, closed the August 11th show with vintage strength, while the writer-producer and protest-soul giant  Jerry Williams a.k.a. Swamp Dogg opened on the 12th with a lot of jokes about his health. But Williams, who turned 70 in July, had no trouble hitting the high notes and heating up the argument in signature singles such as "Synthetic World" and his transforming cover of John Prine's "Sam Stone."

"I'm gonna pack my shit and go home while I'm ahead," Williams said, laughing, at one point. Instead, he stuck around to detonate his 1970 Sly-fi single "Total Destruction to Your Mind," then extended his funky closing version of the Bee Gees' "Got to Get a Message to You" for 15 minutes as he walked through the entire audience, shaking hands, posing for photos and hugging every woman in arm's length. Williams may be 70, but he's no lazy Dogg.

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