Laughs aside, Vance Gilbert wants you to hear the poetry
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., April 4, 2003) – When it came time to try his hand at being a folksinger, Vance Gilbert discovered he had a leg up on the competition. What at first he may have lacked in the poetry department he more than made up for with laughs.
“I was playing a coffeehouse in college and had written maybe two tunes,” said Gilbert, who performs on Saturday night at the Railway Café at St. John’s Church on Summer Street at 8, speaking in a phone interview earlier this week while getting his nails done in a salon in Arlington, where he lives. “Both were bad, and I played a couple of covers, enough material to get through twenty minutes of the set.
“But I needed thirty minutes of material. And I realized I was funny, and just went with that in the midst of these quintessentially abysmal tunes. But I was really funny, and it worked, and that was it -- I was hooked. My grades went up once I knew I wasn’t going to be a biologist for a living. And look at me now -- I’ve gone from absolute unknown up the ranks to relatively obscure.”
Gilbert has come a lot further than that, and while he still is renowned for his riotous, improvisational wit, he has made great leaps in the poetry and songwriting department, too. He has five albums under his belt, including three on the Rounder/Philo label. His most recent album, “One Thru Fourteen” (Louisiana Red Hot Records), showcases his versatile balladry, touching down in folk, blues, rock, soul, country, jazz and pop.
Gilbert knew he was funny from a very early age.
“I was funny in 1967 in the Boy Scouts,” said the Philadelphia native, “when I was sitting up against a tree in the Pine Barrens in New Jersey at Boy Scout camp, just riffing, taking off on these old Bill Cosby jokes I knew, and one kid snorted milk out of his nose and another kid peed his pants. So I knew I was onto something there.”
Gilbert has been known to evoke similar reactions from fully-grown adults during his shows, which verge on performance art when the singer-songwriter finds ways to draw audience members into his act. He has the impeccable timing and quick wit of a Borscht Belt comic; he admits to having studied the great comedians for lessons in how to grab an audience and take it anywhere he wants.
“It is the easiest part of what I do,” said Gilbert, “which doesn’t make it any less celebrated. I am in awe of the fact that it still works, and thanks above that I have that capability. However, I don’t take it for granted.”
But over the years, Gilbert has felt that his witty reputation has overshadowed his songwriting.
“I was so often busy being funny and really had not been very poetic,” said Gilbert. “I’m still at that of trying to be as poetic as the Dave Carters and the Richard Shindells and the Dar Williamses and Ellis Pauls. It’s a funny thing to watch some of them try to take a page out of my book and try to be funny.
“I guess I’m somewhat of a natural musician, but it’s as a poet the thing I struggle most with, and I’m most gratified by it when it does come together.”
Still, Gilbert is glad that he was one of the first to open the door to folk music being entertaining.
“The acoustic folk thing has changed,” said Gilbert. “When people read what you write, I can only hope it brings out people who aren’t folk aficionados. You can hate folk music and come out and think that’s not folk music, that’s like pop music that just happened to be done by a guy with a guitar.”
Gilbert has learned several other things over the course of his career. “I’ve learned to view the performance as a whole,” he said, “and to pay attention to and take stock of the dynamics, the loud and soft of what I do, to make sure that although I’m having a rollicking good time with the audience, that they hear the poetry.
“I’m now a veteran of the folk scene, which means I’m over forty, which means it doesn’t behoove me to do a full throttle, braying and screaming set any more. I’ve had to learn to pace what I do, and lo and behold, people listen more.
“I thought the higher or louder or more energetic I sing, that people would listen more. I’ve had to do a lot of maturing about that, and in retrospect I’m embarrassed to have figured it out so late.
“It was a confidence issue. I don’t think I was confident that people could hear me if I whispered that good lyric. But people are coming to hear me whether or not I whisper or scream.
“Here I am, hopefully a little bit wiser, hopefully not too late to take advantage of all these things that more mature songwriters are taking advantage of.
“On my best days I find the evolution very exciting. So I came to it late -- Al Jarreau didn’t have his big hit until he was in his forties.”
Brian Joseph opens for Vance Gilbert at 8. For reservations call 664-6393.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 5, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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