Vance Gilbert: A Black Musician In A Folk World

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“Less brisket, more chicken wing!”

A Tuesday in early August, Vance Gilbert shows up to his workshop at the Lyons, Colorado Song School complaining about getting older and living half a life on the road. “Singing is an athletic event. I mean look at what you’re doing. You’re working this whole stage,” he shouts.

Earlier, he went for a run amidst the Rocky Mountain cliffs. He doesn’t drink too much or eat too late at night anymore. He stops to stretch on long car rides to gigs.

But Gilbert – who burst onto the singer-songwriter scene in the mid-‘90s playing alongside Shawn Colvin – is proud of being a late bloomer. Being an African-American in the very white world of folk, he’s taken the road less traveled and found a sense of humor doing it.

Today, Gilbert is one of a handful of black artists playing all-acoustic music, a genre black audiences tend to ignore at best and disdain at worst. Gilbert’s opened for Aretha Franklin. “Twice I’ve gone over like a fart in church,” he says, at the same theater where he’ll share the stage with Anita Baker in a few weeks.

He calls black crowds “the singular hardest audience to play in the folk-singing world.” Not that there aren’t black troubadours. Think of Robert Johnson – all the blues greats. It’s just not a connection audiences tend to make. You strap on a guitar and maybe a hat. The next thing we think about is someone yelling, ‘yeehaw’,” he jokes.

Steeped in jazz and the blues, Gilbert’s found a way to straddle worlds successfully – touring with George Carlin one night, packing a jazz club the next. It’s a lesson he aims to pass on.

Lesson #1: Tell your story with confidence.

One by one, he pulls the Song School students to the mic, American Idol-style, interrupting with advice. Rhonda Lynn, from Canada, launches into a song about not being pretty enough to cheerlead, or smart enough to join the science club, so she became the school’s best stoner. It’s got a core of truth wrapped in a wry smile.

Own it, he coaches her. “What do you want to do? Let me throw a challenge out. If people aren’t hearing the story – which is what is most important – if you have to move around & dance to get your story across,” he leaves the thought hanging.

He names one folk artist, famous for jumping around the stage. “You don’t think of a story. Song-wise, it’s Chinese food. I’m hungry an hour later.”

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to get loose with it.

Teresa Storch launches into a sultry blues. “When you come into the solo section, what I’d like you to do is go ‘Hey hey’,” Gilbert says. He throws it out like a gospel call. “Then leave a lot of space.” And start moaning.

“Moaning?” Storch asks.

“For the love of Christ, you’re improvising. Stop asking me questions,” he responds.

She tries again. A wide grin spreads across his face. “Wonderful. I want the moans to be nasty and kind of sexy.”

Next up is a student of Gilbert’s from Boston. He’s short, balding, in his ‘60s. “Rick is a little white guy – I don’t love him any less. But I’ve been taking money from him every week to blacken him up,” Gilbert jokes. “Everyone playing folk has got a little white guy inside of him.”

Rick does an impressive rendition of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” “Moan it Rick,” Gilbert chides. “Less brisket, more chicken wing!” Pretty soon, Rick’s scatting like he’s on Basin Street in New Orleans.

Other advice is more technical. Jack the guitar up like a young McCartney. Angle the microphone so you barely have to move. Practice in the dark so you don’t have to look or think – just feel. Ease is everything. “You got to be solid in what you’re doing before you go off. Otherwise, you are a poser,” Gilbert says.

“If I don’t move around, isn’t it going to be boring?” pipes in one student.

“When Garth Brooks does ‘Tomorrow Never Comes,’ ain’t no dancin’ involved. I don’t need no dancin’. That songs kicks my ass,” he answers. “Groove is great. But if I want to boogie, I’m going to put on Sly, or The Average White Band, or D’Angelo.” In this music, it’s about how groove propels the story.

Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, D’Angelo, Alicia Keys are among the few who manage to meld songs with great stories and lyrics to a serious beat. But they’re up against the same wall. Lauryn Hill’s live acoustic album tanked, compared to her hip-hop produced debut. Babyface did an unplugged version of his hit “When Will I See You Again.” “Does anyone know of the acoustic version? No, no one gives a shit,” Gilbert shrugs.

One of the rare exceptions, where 12-string guitars meet clapping, stomping, and sing-along pop, is The Isley Brothers. Gilbert lost his virginity to “Fight the Power.”

“As much as I want to knock an audience on their ass, regardless of color, that’s our cross to bear. The legacy is a storytelling one.”

Many contemporary audiences see an acoustic guitar and hit the snooze button. But a great story can break down the wall. Gilbert picks out the chords to “Guess Who I Saw Today” – a songs older African-American women often request.

“You’re so late getting home in the office. Did you miss your train? Did you get caught in the rain? No, don’t bother to explain,” he starts singing.

The story unwinds. The narrator went shopping then stopped at a French café. Many students don’t know it. They’re hanging on every word. The narrator spots a couple, in the corner, so in love they filled up all the room. Gilbert builds, hitting his falsetto.

Guess who I saw today my dear? I’ve never been so shocked before. I headed blindly for the door. They didn’t see me passing through. Guess who I saw today? I saw you.

“Sing it girl. No, that Negro did not do that to you,” Gilbert imitates the catcalls he usually gets from the audiences then.

While audiences may not see the connections between a song that moves your body and soul, Gilbert does. “That’s where I come from,” he beams, “the jazz storytelling thing.”


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