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Ellis Paul

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Picture at top of page: Robert Corwin
Picture at bottom of page: Mike Devlin

    Vance Gilbert
    Somerville Live
    2000, Disismye Music

Vance Gilbert leaves nothing in the dressing room, no strategic reserves, nothing for a later inning. I’ve seen him outdoors at folk festivals, filling the hillside with sound. Even standing at the back of the crowd I found myself taking a step backward from the torrent of poetry, emotion and guitar playing that ignites from the man. I’ve also seen him in a small Congregational Church and found myself wondering if the building was designed to survive such a storm from the inside.

He’s not one of a kind; he’s four one of a kinds. Gilbert’s between song comments would be a highlight tape of many a comedian’s stand-up routine. As a guitar player he draws from a melange of styles, with revved up strumming and picking, and a variety of jazz shadings. His singing is always inventive, intimate, roaring or soaring to the needs of the lyrics and mood of the song. His songwriting is like his performing style, as tasty and varied as his guitar work and as all out passionate as his singing. Hyperbole doesn’t sound out of place in his lyrics. In "Taking It All To Tennessee he sings "I loved you, and your reflection, and your shadow…," then he backs it up with everything he’s got. [Click here for sample.]

Somerville Live captures the essence of his live performance to an audience of fans. One can feel the energy surging back and forth between the musician and the crowd. Although he frequently jokes about his status as one of the very few black performers on the singer-songwriting circuit, there is more to his comedy than a need to get laughs. Being a black man in front of mostly white audiences gives him a unique opportunity to communicate. In an interview in Issue 8 of the Music Matters Review, Gilbert responded to a question about this. "Do you know how many people it pisses off when I remind them of that? It’s calming to me. They get mad at me because I reminded them of the fact that here’s something different. Whereas my job in a lot of ways is to remind people that there’s people out there that look at me different…." The unstated vulnerability seems to balance the untriggered defensiveness of an audience that would rather pretend that there is no difference to overlook (You’re not talking about us, right Vance?).

As much as Gilbert entertains his audience by involving and entertaining them, he also invites them to follow him to the depths of his soul’s exploration. The Icarus story in his hands is a deeply personal flight into the dark skies of a father and son relationship and self-knowledge. "Charlene," a portrait of a woman who commits suicide, is painted with the details of her apartment, in the light of a loving friend. "They left their rubber gloves like you were coming back to clean." There is not a word of comment about this song either before or after it…how could there be?

There are a few new songs on the album, but even if they were absent, this would be an essential addition to his fans’ collections. For those who have not yet discovered Vance Gilbert, this would be a good place to start. If anybody is wanting more than a live album from a man who holds nothing back…well there is more. There are two QuickTime movies from Club Passim performances—a stunning version of "Taking It All To Tennessee" and "Amelia" featuring harmony vocals with Ellis Paul. Enough?

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