Vance Gilbert is a frequent headliner at Hillsdale, New York’s renowned Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. He’s been featured at ten of the annual festivals, and he invariably dazzles the main stage audience. Sublime as his festival performances are, they hardly prepare one for the magic and intensity of seeing Vance play in an intimate setting like the Empire State Railway Museum. After a nearly four year absence, Vance Gilbert returns to the Phoenicia Train Station for a long anticipated encore to his 2011 show that marked the resumption of the Flying Cat Music concert series at that museum in the wake of damage done there by Hurricane Irene. Like that storm, Gilbert is a force to be reckoned with. Unlike Irene, his is very much a healing energy. And though he’s more than willing to ruffle a few feathers when he blows into town, Vance does so in lovely ways.
He is a man of whom Music Matters Review writes, “He expresses yearning like Einstein expresses cosmic concepts…” Dirty Linen calls Vance Gilbert, “Among the quintessential musical poets,” while New Texas Magazine writes, “Gilbert’s songs have the piercing quality of a dart shot right through the heart.” None of these accolades hints at Vance Gilbert’s secret weapon, his unique way of getting audiences to drop their emotional guard. That would be his off the cuff, and generally quite spontaneous, brilliant humor, which emerges between songs. Though Vance radiates a warm and kind presence, it belies the sharpness of his wit. There is no subject out of bounds for his incisive on-stage banter. It’s almost a classic set up, one that renders a crowd now full of smiling and relaxed listeners defenseless against the barrage of emotional hooks Gilbert’s potent music unleashes.
“There’s no one like him” Music Matters Review also wrote, which is a point hard to overemphasize. For starters, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else who both Shawn Colvin and George Carlin would choose to open for them while on tour. Beside Vance Gilbert, who could win billing as a featured special artist at both a Janis Ian and an Aretha Franklin concert? Factor in Gilbert also being asked to open for stars as diverse as Arlo Guthrie and seven- time Grammy Award winner Anita Baker, and you begin to get a sense of the musical breadth and quality of his work, as well as the esteem in which Vance is held by leading entertainers.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram saw it coming when early in Vance Gilbert’s career they observed, “With the voice of an angel, the wit of a devil, and the guitar playing of a god, it was enough to earn him that rarity: an encore for an opener.” Out of the ordinary encores remain standard for Vance as this 2013 passage about on him in Performer Magazine reveals: “…to have the great Anita Baker, whom you’re opening for on that particular night, whisper to you from behind the backstage curtain, “Go ahead, play one more… you were fantastic!” is not something that many can boast about on their resume.”
Nor can many boast of having as gorgeous and soaring a voice or the fluid jazz, pop and folk fusion mastery of the guitar that Vance Gilbert displays whenever he takes the stage. The Boston Globe describes Vance Gilbert’s music this way: “His catchy, pop friendly melodies support keenly crafted, hardhitting lyrics. His guitar is supple, his milk-warm tenor honest and gently acrobatic…he does not duck hard truths and never succumbs to the temptation to tie his points up in neat platitudes or truthisms. He writes powerfully and uncompromisingly about the wrenching separation suffered by single parents, the tug between love’s desire and its demands and the bitterness of being nonwhite in this Eurocentric culture.”
Vance Gilbert can do all that and still leave you laughing, by no means an easy trick. See him perform that magic at the Empire State Railway Museum this Sunday, March 29.