True to his roots

There’s no getting around what’s growing out of Vance Gilbert’s head.

It isn’t quite an Afro — they traditionally have a more definitive shape, and Gilbert’s hair seems to go every which way at once. But to say only that his considerable coiffure is “long” is to vastly diminish its sheer presence. His hair is, simply put, a marvel.

Which means he might just have the most honest locks in folk music — because Vance Gilbert lives up to that hair.

His jazz-inflected voice — hinting of Al Jarreau — is sweet enough to stir in tea, while his guitar work deftly walks that tightrope between effectiveness and beauty.

As for the songs: Gilbert’s writing has always served as a fine vehicle for his disarming voice. But with his third Philo/Rounder release — the beautiful, spare, self-produced Shaking Off Gravity — the reverse is now equally true. Songs ring not just with passion and maturity, but with a bold sense of craft.

His writing has grown like, well, his hair.

“I feel like I’ve come of age,” he says. “When I present something to the public now, it’s gonna be stinging and ringing a little bit!”

For the adventuresome listener, Gilbert is a delight. But if you like your folk music served up neat, and delivered in polite little installments, then don’t go see him perform: Stay home with your old Kingston Trio albums. Gilbert isn’t safe. God bless him.

His concerts are kind of like hootenanny talk shows led by an irreverent, soulful comedian, whose copious between-song patter recalls Leo Kottke’s — but minus the latter’s morbidity and deadpan delivery.

Gilbert’s rapport with audiences is virtually unparalleled. Shows are often like group-therapy sessions held around a leaky nitrous-oxide tank — everybody laughs, everybody smiles …

most of the time, Gilbert counters by phone from his Boston home.

A few nights ago, he recalls, a woman arrived late to one of his shows. To Gilbert, that invited a conversation.

“I made a point of pointing her out,” he says. But after the concert, the woman told him that she’d had to step outside the room, where she’d broken into tears. She decided to come back in anyway.

“‘I think you’re really hard on an audience sometimes,'” Gilbert says she told him. “‘You’re really kind of berating.’

“And I said, ‘Well, I’m glad you stayed. But did you … just come [here] out of the blue? Didn’t you realize that I’m raucous, and that I’m an entertainer? What are you doing here tonight?’

The woman replied that she loved the music.

“And I said, ‘Welcome to the show — it’s a show! You’ve got to take a little bit of everything. I mean, what’s up with you freakin’ folkie people?'”

Gilbert has a few theories.

“I think people often want a very safe black man,” he posits. “They grit their teeth and are like, ‘Geez, we didn’t come to hear the Richard Pryor black man. We came to see a really safe guy.’

“They got their safe one with Tracey Chapman, who tucked her chin in her chest and never said a word to audiences for the next decade. But you’re not gonna get that out of me, because I’ve got a story to tell.

“I take part in my shows,” he continues. “And I let other people take part in them, too. And I let people know that I’ll poke fun at [them]. The only difference between [them] and me is that I happen to be standing here behind the guitar, hiding my waistline. That’s the only difference.”

No, it’s not. The fact is, Gilbert is a pro. He has the rare gift of being able to connect. And it means the world to him.

Gilbert keeps a box of rejection letters and bad press — he calls it his “humility file” — right out where he can see it. After some prodding, he digs out what he describes as the worst write-up he’s ever received. It’s a Washington Post review of Edgewise, his 1994 debut.

The article is ridiculously malicious, brimming with vitriol. And Gilbert is genuinely hurt by it, no matter how much he jokes around the subject.

But tucked away in a less-accessible file, there’s a handwritten note from a Massachusetts coffee shop Gilbert once played. He’d taken the gig knowing he wouldn’t make much money, he says, but that he’d probably have a good time.

Gilbert recalls asking the audience for requests — he knows an incredible slice of the American songbook — and a woman in the front row called out a song, which he performed.

The two were soon bantering back and forth — “We had a ball!” — and Gilbert discovered that she was not only blind, but also mildly retarded.

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