Vance Gilbert,
Somerville Live
(Disismye Music, 2000)

Somerville Live is a straight-through, no editing recording of a performance Vance Gilbert gave at the Somerville Theater in Massachusetts. Ellis Paul, also in the show, has released his part of the evening's performance on another live CD, and it would be interesting to listen to both, as I hope to do.

One of the joys of live performance can be the spoken bits between songs. Gilbert is wonderful at this! His stories range from the practical uses for hair wraps, through some of the differences between men's and women's friendships, to his claimed desire to join the Teletubbies cast as "Puff Tubby." Sometimes these pieces can get very tiresome on a recording, though, and it's to Gilbert's credit that these didn't. Only one of the pieces directly related to the song it introduced; the rest were peripherally related (if related at all), and left us to understand the songs on their own. The CD has separate tracks for the spoken parts as well, which is a nice touch.

Other joys of live performance are hearing different versions or favorite songs, and getting to hear new songs not yet on a recording. In these aspects, too, Somerville Live is almost like attending a show. I loved the looser, more spontaneous style of many of the songs here, and the acoustic guitar accompaniment gave Gilbert's warm and expressive voice room to shine and improvise. Most of the songs are from his earlier release Shaking Off Gravity, with a few from other CDs and two new songs.

Two of the songs here regularly brought tears to my eyes. This is not normally something I like; I frequently feel manipulated when it happens. I don't feel that way with Gilbert's songs. I don't feel like he's writing or singing with the purpose of tugging at my heart. He's describing, gently but passionately, situations and people who touch me.

"Taking It All to Tennessee" depicts the hurt and anger felt when a close friend moves a long way away. Gilbert wrote this when Ellis Paul moved away, and did let us know that he'd now moved back: "Such," he said before the song, "is the power of folk music!" It's wonderful to hear such a heartfelt song written about a friend; most emotional songs seem to be written about lovers and romantic love, and friendship also has a power that seems too often overlooked.

"Charlene," about a woman who committed suicide, manages to communicate the pain of those who miss her without reproaching her for her choice. And it's at time like this that words fail me -- but they don't fail Gilbert. He captures reality in his words and music, while all I can do here is report it. Both "Charlene" and "...Tennessee" share true and strong emotion.

"Icarus By Night" is a beautiful speculation on what Icarus might feel and do, if he'd survived the fall when his wings were burned by the sun. And "Imagination" is an amazing vocal tour-de-force, with Gilbert, unaccompanied, sounding so much like Billie Holliday that I almost expected to see her on the liner notes.

Both new songs, "High Rise" and "Why Are We So Cruel," are wonderful. "High Rise" has amazing, dream imagery evoking love: "I love you just like thunder;" and "I need you like Scotch whiskey needs a man who is addicted." Gilbert says that "Why Are We So Cruel" is about language and how we use it, saying "it's the silence between these words that makes these words of war," asking "Will we ever shake our history or will it follow us forever?" and praying to save the children from our tongues.

This CD has a bonus: two Quicktime movies of Gilbert performing at the Cafe Passim in Cambridge, Mass. One is a different performance of "Tennessee," and the other, a duet with Ellis Paul, is called "Amelia." For those of us who have not seen Gilbert live, it gives us a picture to accompany this live recording, and I enjoyed hearing and comparing both renditions of "Tennessee."

This album has confirmed my desire to see Gilbert perform. The combination of light and friendly commentary leavens the serious and sometimes heartbreaking songs, but does not detract from their impact; a tricky balance to achieve, and one Gilbert does beautifully. When I can't get to a show, though, this CD is a nice substitute, and one I recommend to those who love modern folk music.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]