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Pop / Poetry: Shaggy dog tales of the half-unexpected

GIL SCOTT-HERON long ago established a tradition of missing his own gigs. Half the thrill of turning up to a concert has always been finding out whether the man actually remembered to get on the plane. The Internet is littered with the disappointed wailings of first-timers who have never been stood up before. "Yup, happens a lot," reply the battle-scarred. "Keep booking - one day he'll be there." Well, it seems like the day has finally arrived.

They kept us waiting but, one by one, members of his band Amnesia Express drifted absent-mindedly on to the stage. For 15 minutes only the bassist remembered to play then, gradually, the conga-player floated in still eating an apple; the drummer tried to finish his roll-up in time to welcome sax, flute, keyboards and, long-after, lead guitar. Then the beanpole figure of Gil Scott-Heron loped down the stairs.

"Hey, slow down," he croons. "Your life is coming soon." He looks several centuries older than his 49 years: hair tumbling in grizzled waves from a black leather cap, bones jutting out from his too-big grey suit, cheeks cadaverously gaunt. He is all angles, but his voice still slides smooth as sex.

A toothy, lop-sided grin takes up his whole face. This man is happy. He is done with setting the agenda and will take requests - such as the soaring, feel-better jazz anthem "Lady Day and John Coltrane" (to Billie Holiday and the great tenor saxophonist - "Ever feel you've lost your way... they'll wash your troubles away"). The audience is surprisingly white and smoochily inclined; they want "Winter in America". He obliges via a long ecological preamble based on an African folk-tale: "Wonder how summer's doing? We'll just assume that he will be back. Then winter decides to stay."

Gone are those consciousness-raising caustic directives of "Inner City Blues" or "The Revolution Will Not be Televised". He is in mellow mood. "You got to take care of somebody. Take hold of your life. You got to believe in your brother. Raise your hands if you believe in peace."

After A break he lollops through one of his shaggy-dog monologues - a genial Maureen Lipman-style digression on the importance of "getting an -ology". He loves linguistic conundrums: "Do women still go every three weeks or so for what they call a permanent? Weather man says there's a 50:50 chance of rain; what you gonna do - take half an umbrella?" Then he launches into an anti-space-age eco-rant: "Space Shuttle - turning seasons upside down. Space Shuttle - raising hell down on the ground. Hole in the Ozone layer - putting the fear back in atmosphere."

Basking in the fluttering waves of Brian Jackson's fusion-fired flute, and the frenzied duelling percussion, Scott-Heron smiles avuncularly down. "Celebrate your life!" he cries.

Celebrate Gil Scott-Heron.

Gil Scott-Heron and Amnesia Express, Jazz Cafe, 3-5 Parkway, Camden, London NW1 (0171-916 6060) to Friday