Vance Gilbert fans will tell you - when the eclectic folk singer takes the stage, all bets are off. Heartbreaking stories and songs intermingle with Gilbert's razor sharp wit, taking audiences on a roller coaster of emotions and musical styles.
Gilbert credits his broad musical language - which may switch from folk to rock, jazz, soul or the blues - to his days at Connecticut College back in the 1970's. “It was so eclectic,” said Gilbert, “I mean, that's where I got to hear everything from Parliament Funkadelic to Bonnie Raitt, and everything in between. You know, Keith Jarrett and Leo Kotke. I was really lucky.”
Connecticut College is also where he learned to play guitar and where he wrote his first songs. He said those first attempts were “horrific”, but he said he kept at it. His early zeal for songwriting even caused him to fail, of all things, a poetry class taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith.
“I kept bringing in songs,” Gilbert explained, “and he pulled me aside at the end of the semester and said ‘you know Vance, professionally I’m failing you for the class because you did not write poetry for me. You were busy trying to put music to things that were not complete.’”
After college, Gilbert moved to Boston. He worked as a cook and a creative arts teacher, all the while honing his musical skills at open mics in Boston's many cafes and coffeehouses. He says he thought he was doing pretty well, and then he heard singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin.
“I left that concert, I was totally blown by Shawn Colvin. She's a beautiful singer, and she wrote these incredible songs, and she played tremendous guitar. She was such an influence on me.”
Vance Gilbert would get his big break touring with Shawn Colvin in the 1990's. Since then, he’s recorded a dozen albums, and keeps a busy schedule performing at venues large and small, all the while striving to be a better guitarist and songwriter. He's in the studio now working on his latest album.
For fans of the folk singer, a big part of a Vance Gilbert concert is his storytelling prowess and rapport with the audience. Gilbert credits this aspect of his performance to his days touring with comics like Paul Reiser and George Carlin.
“I’ve learned more from the great comics than music people when it comes to live performance,” said Gilbert, “if you’re not paying attention from backstage to what these guys are doing, you are not doing your homework.”
Vance Gilbert performs this Sunday evening at mActivity Cafe in New Haven.