If Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens had a love child, with Rodney Dangerfield as the midwife, the results might have been something close to the great Vance Gilbert.” As the above quote from Richmond magazine suggests, Vance Gilbert defies stereotypes. It’s little wonder then that he also exceeds expectations. In this case, those two qualities go hand in hand.
“I’m black, I sing, I play an acoustic guitar, and I don’t play the blues,” Gilbert insists. That may be a broad statement, but it rings with truth.
What he does do is make memorable music, as evidenced by the 13 albums he’s released so far, as well as the mark he’s made on the folk and acoustic music scenes in general. Over the course of a prolific career that extends back to the early ’90s, he’s recorded with his good friend Ellis Paul and shared stages worldwide with Aretha Franklin, Shawn Colvin, Arlo Guthrie, the Milk Carton Kids, George Carlin, Anita Baker, the Subdudes, Paul Reiser and any number of others.
He’s also made a prominent presence at some of the world’s most prestigious gatherings, among them the Newport, Winnipeg, Rocky Mountain, Calgary, Ottawa, and Falcon Ridge folk festivals, the Kate Wolf Music Festival, and Australia’s Woodford Folk Festival and Mullum Music Festival.
“There was also that one nude festival in Maryland,” Gilbert recalls. “I don’t recall the name of that one, but I have to admit that the name wasn’t the first thing I would remember.”
Naturally, Gilbert can be forgiven for that minor oversight, given the amount of praise he’s received from the pundits. His remarkable rapport with his audiences and his free spirited performances inspired one critic to hail him as “a folkie trapped in a vaudevillian body,” with “a voice that could have been on the opera stage, a wit that could have been on a comedy stage and a songwriting talent that’s thrust him on the folk stage for decades.”
Those descriptive phrases come to full fruition on Gilbert’s upcoming album, the appropriately named Good, Good Man, out January 24, 2020. Recorded with an A-list support cast that includes bluesman and singer/songwriter Chris Smither, Al Green‘s organist Stacey Wade, Tommy Malone of the Subdudes on guitars, Mike Posner on backing vocals, and Celtic harpist and vocalist Aine Minough it sums up the strengths that Gilbert’s always had at his command — that is, a gift for compelling melodies, insightful lyrics, a witty and whimsical point of view, and the ability to maintain an inherent humanity that translates to his connection with his audiences.
As always, the music is as varied as it is vibrant, from the philosophic musings of “Pie and Whiskey” and the rollicking R&B-flavored title track, to the swinging sound of “Zombie Pattycake,” the tender trappings of “Hitman” and the bare-bones remake of the 1972 hit “Wildflower,” a seminal song given Gilbert’s intimate and essential additives.
In short, it’s Gilbert at his very best, a set of songs that deserves to bring Gilbert the wider recognition that’s eluded him for far too long.
Then again, Gilbert’s unlikely trajectory isn’t what most folks might expect from such a talented troubadour. Raised in a Philadelphia row house, Gilbert was drawn to a variety of music early on, that is, the sounds of favorites that were always heard around the house, such as Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Earl Bostic, David “Fathead” Newman, Wes Montgomery, as well as the pop and jazz that occupied his family’s beat-up turntables. Later there were the sounds he discovered on his own, including Motown, Stax, the Beatles, Bread, the Spinners, the Stylistics, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Steely Dan. It was an eclectic batch, not exactly the standard musical mash-up you’d hear in that particular part of town, but nevertheless, it did help inform Gilbert’s musical sensibilities in a real and emphatic way. It gave him the impetus to perform jazz and then folk, and execute all of it so adroitly.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy. His parents were alcoholics and mentally unstable, and naturally enough that made for an abusive environment. Gilbert spent four years homeless while still a teenager. Eventually he enrolled in Connecticut College, in the mid ’70s, which allowed him to further expand his musical vocabulary as he absorbed a steady infusion of influences in his new environs. In his sophomore year he began playing bass in jazz and funk bands on campus. Then, when his brother gave him a 12-string guitar strung with nylon strings and with the top six tuning pegs chopped off, he became smitten by the possibility of fusing folk music, jazz and songs that shared stories in a most emotive way. Kenny Rankin, Joni Mitchell, Greg Brown, and Patty Larkin, became early inspirations.
With a biology degree in hand, Gilbert made his way to Boston, an eternal mecca for folk music enthusiasts, and shared a flat with friends who shared his same sensibilities. “I wanted to be in a place where the music was accessible,” he reflects. To that end, he continued to pursue his musical interests, earning his living working in restaurants by day and performing in coffee houses and at open mics by night.
“I wanted to be Earl Klugh, Al Jarreau, Stevie Wonder, and Julie Andrews all at the same time,” he chuckles. “Or more precisely, the acoustic version of each. I wanted to play on the streets and get gigs … that was my dream.”
It was a romantic notion, that idea of becoming an itinerant musician. Instead, he became a multicultural arts specialist in the Boston public school system and remained in that position for the next decade. Yet he never abandoned his dream of being a performer. One night, at the suggestion of a friend, he attended a concert at the Old Vienna Kaffeehause in Westboro, Massachusetts, a hangout he had frequented in the past. The performer that evening was Shawn Colvin, and from that point on, he knew what he wanted to do.
“I wanted to be a 5’5” white woman,” he says, tongue lodged firmly in cheek. “She had it all — guitar, voice, solid time, stage chops, and the songs — those perfect little impressionistic masterpieces.”
He also determined that his goal would be to open for Colvin within a year – reaching it 3 months later when tapped by her to be support for Colvin’s “Fat City” tour in its entirety. “It’s that tour that marked my rise from absolute unknown to the ranks of the relatively obscure,” Gilbert jokes. Indeed, it earned him his first kudos, and it even inspired the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to describe him as having “the voice of an angel, the wit of a devil, and the guitar playing of a god.”
Naturally, Gilbert didn’t stop there. Over the course of his career, he’s carved out a singular niche with songs that have resonated with his fans and drawn in new listeners. His classic compositions — “Old White Men,” “Charlene” and “Unfamiliar Moon,” “Goodbye Pluto,” and “Waiting for Gilligan” — are emotive and profound, offering certain truths in ways that make a meaningful impact in the most enduring and evocative ways.
Indeed, Gilbert posses a wide palette and perspective, from a co-write with Grammy Award winner Lori McKenna, “House of Prayer,” to a song on a Grammy-nominated children’s record by the duo Trout Fishing in America. Likewise, after alt-rock star Mike Posner heard Gilbert perform on a podcast, he invited him to take part in co-writing sessions and subsequently to sing on his recent single, “Noah’s Ark.” Posner reciprocated with a haunting background vocal on “Flyby,” a song featured on Gilbert’s forthcoming album.
“You take a broad idea and you infuse it for the most precise details,” Gilbert says when describing the essence of his approach. “That’s probably the hardest part of writing for any of us. Connecting the dots is very important. It’s not about the kitchen table. It’s about the placement and the fork on that placement and the food that was on that fork. It’s about creating detail after detail. It’s all about the detail.
“It’s about philosophy, humor, double meanings … any of those things,” he allows. “The things that I see in my head are mini movies. I see the genesis of the idea and then it becomes my job to iron out the details. The hardest thing to do is to take that concept and surround it with those philosophical insights. I guess I’ve done that in my work from time to time. You start illuminating things that you didn’t realize when you first began the process. It’s is the day to day things that motivate me to start writing and I’m frequently surprised by the things that I come up with.”
Ultimately, it’s the impact that he has on his audiences that matters to him the most.
“People take away from these songs what they decide they’re going to take away,” he reflects. “I would hope they walk away thinking. If that’s the case, then I’ve done my job successfully.”