Contemporary folk's odd couple
Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., October 16, 2003) – They’re the odd couple of folk music: one white, one black; one rural, one urban; one an intense, serious song-poet, the other a voluble, performing comic; one whispery and quiet, the other brash and hyperactive.
They’re also best friends of longstanding, and now with the release of “Side of the Road” (Philo), Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert – who perform at the Berkshire Museum on Friday at 8 as part of the “Originals in Song” series – are now officially a duo.
“I call this ‘The Ugly Loggins and Messina Tour,’” said Gilbert in a recent phone interview from his home outside of Boston, about hitting the road this fall with fellow singer-songwriter Paul. The two, who first met as aspiring performers at the Naked City Coffeehouse in Allston in 1989, have been best friends ever since and have occasionally shared concert bills, but they have never before embarked on a full-fledged tour together.
But with the release last month of “Side of the Road,” the former roommates are now tethered to each other -- at least for the time being.
The duo album and tour were sparked in part by the desire to address the aftermath of 9/11 in song. “We sat down and went through our respective album collections, looking for more peer-oriented things that were healing,” said Gilbert.
Some of the tunes they came up with were written expressly about 9/11, like Mark Erelli’s “The Only Way” and the album’s only Gilbert/Paul co-write, “Citizen of the World.” Others, like the Lucinda Williams-penned title track and Neil Young’s “Comes a Time,” more generally address issues of comfort and healing. The two singers, who alternate lead vocals and harmonies on each track and who co-produced, were helped out by an all-star team of Boston-based instrumental talent, including guitarist Duke Levine, bassist Richard Gates, keyboardist Tom West and drummer Lorne Entress.
Gilbert says it’s their obvious differences that initially attracted the two mildly competitive friends to each other.
“We couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in our approach,” said the Philadelphia native who now calls Arlington home. “I think our bond or tie came from seeing what the one had that the other did not. I was initially duly impressed with his whole approach to telling a story with a song, and I guess he was impressed with the fact that I was an entertainer who could keep people laughing. We took those differences to heart and upped our antes, looking at what the other was doing. It was sort of a coagulation of differences that brought us together musically.”
Gilbert says that over the years, the two friends have learned from each other musically.
“Ellis played steel-string guitar with a pick and I played finger, jazzy, acoustic nylon string,” said Gilbert. “Fast forward eight years later, you see Ellis doing finger stuff and I do steel string with a pick.
“Also, I felt my feet were held more to the fire because at that time I thought he was a far better utilizer of the English language and a far better poet than I was, and he thought I was a far better commander of an audience.
“Now we can switch at any point in time. I’d like to think of myself as a half-decent writer. It becomes a greater glow when Ellis sounds more like Sam Cooke and I sound more like Bob Dylan.”
This tour isn’t the first time Gilbert and Paul have shared close quarters for an extended period. A few years back they lived together for the better part of a spring and summer in Medford. “I was in between an apartment and buying a house,” said Gilbert, “and I moved into the empty room in his apartment. We were really worried what that would do to a great friendship.”
So if they were the Odd Couple, who was Oscar and who was Felix?
“We were both pretty dirty guys I think,” said Gilbert. “We cleaned when we needed to. But I did most of the cooking. A lot of spaghetti, and a lot of beans.”
While Gilbert and Paul, who recently moved back to his native Maine, haven’t given up their day jobs as solo singer-songwriters, they’re not ruling out the possibility of further duo projects in the future.
“Who knows, if something really big happened with it, we’d be fools to say no,” said Gilbert. “We’re just doing this for fun, but you never know -- anything could happen.
There’s no formal plan of us being the next Loggins and Messina. But if there were, I’d be Loggins.”
For tickets call 443-7171.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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