On the way to NY City yesterday I was thinking back, trying to remember the first time I heard Gil Scott-Heron. Hard to say. Late ’70s or early ’80s, I’d guess, right about the same time my world opened up with the discovery of a lot of different kinds of music. That’s when I got my first FM radio. Before that it had been AM only. Or, the 8-tracks and LPs my parents listened to.
One of my favorite first stations was KDKO – “The Hot Sauce” – Denver’s soul/funk/r&b station. Disco too, when that was cool. Barry White, The Spinners, Donna Summer, the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire…and Gil Scott-Heron. The world became a much bigger, more interesting place when I listened to KDKO.
Without being able to put a more exact date on it, what I still do recall clearly is how I felt when I first heard Gil Scott-Heron tunes like Whitey on the Moon and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. And, how I’ve felt every time since when I listen for myself or share with radio audiences works of art like Winter in America – played that one quite a bit this past fall, leading up to the election – or Pieces of a Man, which will always be as relevant and painfully touching as it was when it was first written some 30+ years ago.
I found out a few days ago he was going to be at the Blue Note last night for a one-night appearance. Two shows, and the early one (8pm) sold out almost immediately. That left the second set, starting at 10:30. Sounds like a road trip!
It takes around 6 hours to get to NY City from here. Great day for a long drive, with the green hills of the Adirondacks and Catskills rolling by in a blur of sunlight. The sun was just setting on the Hudson by the time the G. Washington Bridge disappeared in the rearview. As the Manhattan skyline came into focus it occurred to me that I’d just be sitting down to dinner at the same time I usually head upstairs for post-dinner, pre-bedtime reading on a normal Sunday night.
It should be harder to slip into the later lifestyle, with just a few hours car or train ride separating life in Vermont and visits to NYC. But it happens immediately. (Going the other way is another story. Always takes a day or two to catch up on sleep and downshift into real life again.) Dinner at 9 and a show at 10:30 on a Sunday night seem completely normal within the first few minutes of getting into the city.
Scored an ace parking spot next to Washington Square Park and walked to the West Village for dinner at Trattoria Spaghetto. Never had been there before, just stopped in on a hunch. (Hunch = garlic fragrance permeating the air around the place.) The freshly roasted vegetable antipasto/buffalo mozzarella plate was accompanied by a large 1/2 loaf of crusty white bread and tableside cruettes of olive oil and homemade vinaigrette. Could have been the meal, but it was the appetizer. Then came the ample plates of spicy chorizo farfalle, perfectly al dente linguine, and chicken with artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes in a clear, salty, sumptuous light tomato sauce. Excellent all the way around for a price that was surprisingly reasonable.
A short walk up 6th Ave. past the IFC, around the corner to W. 3rd Street, and there’s the scaffolding over Blue Note’s storefront. The building’s undergoing a surface renovation right now so the trademark marquis has been replaced with temporary banners. That’s not what struck me about the scene; the scores of people lined up along on the sidewalk in either direction from the front foor did. Line on the right for reservations; left side for hopefuls (though ‘wishfuls’ was more like it).
After around a half hour-45 min. waiting outside in the humid, concrete city August heat, the reservations line slowly began to move and file into the blessed air conditioning of the Note’s lounge area. Made me glad right away I had split for the extra $15/ticket for a table instead of bar seats; the viewing would have been uncomfortable from the bar seats at best – if possible at all. The hostess ushered us to the back of the room where a slightly raised platform held a few tables.
Another half hour later, once everyone in the place was seated, those few tables came to hold 43 people. And that’s just the count for the small platform in the back. In fact every table in the place had six overheated people jammed uncomfortably around it, with couples being given the curt instructions to sit across from, not next to, one another. Really? Well, alright. I can be accomodating. I thought there must be a reason for such a rule (?) but I never learned what it was.
Over the course of the next couple of hours I found this to be just one of the many small inhospitalities adding up to a disappointing first-time experience at the Note.
“No water”, everyone was immediately warned by the harried server once she navigated her way back to our table. Not until the first round of drinks had been served. OK. I guess.
And, by the way, she also mentioned, the first round would take a while because she had to get a drink to everyone at the same time. Fair enough. Not that I needed to be told that, really, but good info I suppose.
She followed that one up with the reassurance that the second round would probably come faster. However, if you want food, two of the other four folks at our table were brusquely informed, it’s best to get that order in right away or it could be very delayed in arriving. The guests had barely been given the menus when this latest statement was issued.
Tight seating and inattentiveness on my part led to spilling a full glass of wine that had just been delivered. It was replaced (along with club soda and a salt shaker for cleanup. That was helpful). Both glasses of wine later turned up on the bill. Ouch. The tacky table card reading “$35 (reservation) + $5 (drink minimum)” was never more present than at the moment when I opened the bill and found the wine charges. Clumsy me. Good thing I have inexpensive taste in wine.
Finally, about that tight seating. The stage was about halfway down the room, on my left. The table was situated parallel with the stage, so that viewing the stage had to be done by craning around – or past – the other two people seated at my side of the table. I saw the show through every single bite of mushroom farfalle pasta (juicy), Greek salad (big, unwieldy lettuce leaves), and apple struedel (gooey) the woman at the end of my table consumed. Before you think I’m being overly sensitive, I should mention that while the woman was at the end of my table, she was still no more than 3 feet away. Just enough room for one more person to be wedged inbetween us. He watched the show through her meal like I did.
So. I did not love much about the Blue Note experience. It reminded me all too much of the pushy, impersonal comedy club experiences I had in LA where it’s impossible to enjoy the show until you’ve bought the requisite two drinks, because the servers hover and won’t stop asking what else you want until you’ve ordered the second one.
It would take a very, very special show to make me inclined to visit the Blue Note again.
Considering how special this one was, I don’t imagine another one equal to this coming along anytime soon.
About the show itself: terrific. It was good enough I had put the rest of the experience out of my mind until recalling it enough right now to tell you about it.
Gil Scott-Heron began the show with a half hour or so monologue, and then he introduced the night’s band – the “Amnesia Express”, he jokingly called them – for a few new songs (CD coming out soon) and classics I mentioned earlier, Pieces of a Man and Winter in America. The voice is a little edgier than some of the early recordings, and that adds to its already distinct character. It still retains every bit of its power and soulfulness. So does the man. Scott-Heron’s bemused observations on modern society included the experience of trying to cash a check at a driveup window, and holding the pneumatic “tube” hostage as a bargaining chip to persuade the teller to cash his $350 check (in violation of the $300 daily withdrawal limit). He reflected in general terms on the current societal landscape, and talked a little about his career and some of the folks he’s worked with (like legendary impulse! records producer Bob Thiele). Scott-Heron is a poet of the first order whose observational acuity is his special artistic gift.
Happily, it was one of ‘those’ rare, exhilarating musical experiences whose memory no external circumstances, however persistent, could diminish.
If you go – a few notes on making your Blue Note experience better than mine:
– make a reservation to see live music. Be prepared for disappointment if you don’t. It’s not a big room and it fills up, even with as many people are packed in at those small tables.
– be prepared to wait outside on the sidewalk for a while, even if you have a reservation
– the food? Looked just fine. But for the price ($28 for not very spiffy pasta? please.) and for the luxury of elbow room and dinner conversation, do yourself a favor and have a nice meal somewhere else before you go hear music at the Note.
– drinks: don’t spill.
– seating: be assertive. People who came in long after us got closer table seats, in front of the stage. I heard the conversation, all they did was ask. No other special arrangements there.
Tags: Empire State Building, Flatiron Building, Gil Scott-Heron, Greenwich Village, Lincoln Tunnel, New York City, Pieces of a Man, the Blue Note, The revolution will not be televised, Times Square, Trattoria Spaghetto, Washington Square Park, Whitey on the Moon