Don’t ever think you can out-funny Vance Gilbert.
The celebrated Boston-area singer/songwriter answered his cell phone recently with a bland “hello” as he minivan-ed across New York City, bound for a co-headlining gig with fellow frontline folkie Ellis Paul.
Goody — I’ve caught him off guard, I think greedily.
“I’m trying to reach new California Gov. Ah-nold Schwarzenegger,” I pretend, badly.
Staticky laughter explodes like a giddy rocket in my phone-pressed ear. Point for the smart-ass interviewer.
Then, in a campy, clipped German accent a la TV’s Hogan’s Heroes: “‘Schwarzenegger’ — that means ‘double-black’ to a black guy,” declares Vance, a black guy. “Double Negro. Schwarz-nigger.”
OK, so now it’s me that’s guffawing (actually, I’m snorting). Game point for Vance “Col. Klink” Gilbert.
That’s pretty much how it always goes with him, Vance’s old buddy Ellis had noted a day earlier, en route to New York City in a separate vehicle. Vance is little different offstage than he is on.
“He’s that funny in your kitchen,” Ellis reveals.
Pair of aces
Although Vance and Ellis have just jointly released the very folksy, frequently lovely Side of the Road (Philo) — turning spot gigs together over the past couple of years into the current short tour for their new duo album — their individual idiosyncrasies don’t immediately suggest a simpatico pairing.
The two performers, both on the short list for most distinctive singing voices in contemporary folk, typically travel in dissimilar musical directions. Vance is the consummate cutup, full of ’70s-funakalicious bluster that masks a staggering fragility; Ellis is like some well-scrubbed summer-camp counselor with a Beatles fixation and a battered acoustic guitar that keeps bumping the heart stitched boldly to his sleeve.
“We’re definitely not spooning one another,” posits Ellis with a chuckle. “Y’know, it’s more like a fork and a spoon; it’s not a perfect fit musically.”
Vance, a comedic showman in graying dreadlocks (when loosed, they create a staggering halo of hair), has grown by leaps and bounds artistically in recent years. His luxuriously sweet singing packs astonishing power, tinged with R&B and jazz inflections that cast a velvety net around the pirouetting melodies and increasingly complex and honest writing. Last year’s misleadingly buoyant “Waiting for Gilligan,” for instance — from one thru fourteen (Louisiana Red Hot) — sheds layers of meaning like some existential onion.
Ellis’ own best writing conveys a voyeur’s obsessiveness in its chipped-nail attention to detail, while his mercurial voice dances with butterfly grace around even his most openly delicate songs: “Don’t Breathe” from Stories (Philo, 1995); “Weightless,” Carnival of Voices (Philo, 1996); “Beautiful World,” Sweet Mistakes (Co-Op Pop, 2001); et al.
“He’s a writer’s writer, when it comes right down to it,” Vance proclaims. “When it comes to being a poet, he’s my hero.”
Plus, y’know, chicks dig him.
“He brings out the babes,” quips Vance. “I bring out the thoughtful women — God, did I just say that? They look at Ellis and say, ‘Isn’t he just dreamy? And, oh, Vance, he’s so funny!‘
“Twenty pounds overweight and no butt,” Vance roars ahead. “I’m like a cricket: I gotta keep ’em laughin’.”
Yappily ever after
Both men have been traveling that Next Big Thing road for years now, navigating the ceaseless accolades while steadily honing their considerable gifts. Yet success in folk circles rarely translates into financial abundance (even if you land soundtrack cuts in popular Farrelly brothers movies, as Ellis has). You know you’ve finally arrived when the same eager faces turn up again and again at your shows.
“I don’t feel like I’m waiting for an audience anymore,” ventures Ellis. “I feel like I have one that I can trust, and that’s great. Now I’m just looking to learn how to live, and make a difference, and learn stuff about relationships with family, and a place, and a community.
“It’s not a midlife crisis,” insists Ellis, who married less than two months ago (he and his wife have officially settled back in his native state of Maine; Ellis lived in Boston for years). “A midlife crisis is where you buy a convertible and get a hairpiece. I just want to be home more.”
Ditto, agrees Vance, who’s also now deep in the throes of the “M-word.”
“Mortgage,” he elaborates.
“I have a minivan,” Vance adds. “A house with a garage. And a poodle. I’ve got a poodle, man.”
A full-sized one. Named Louise.
“They are amazing animals,” Vance proclaims. “It’s like having a daughter that poops in the yard.”