Off The Stage: Vance Gilbert

For most casual fans of music, the forty-five minutes that a band spends on the stage is all they can see. However, when the guitar cases are closed and the venue’s floor is littered with empty beer cans and trash, most bands load their gear into the van and return back to their normal lives.

Mother Church Pew’s Off The Stage is a series that celebrates a band’s path to where they are and the things they do behind the scenes to stay there.

When looking at the website of Massachusetts-based folk maestro Vance Gilbert, there’s a tab called “rants.” That’s how we knew Vance Gilbert was our kind of guy. He’s the best kind of storyteller – an emotive and defiant speaker – or singer – of profound truths. He’s been described thusly: “If Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens had a love child, with Rodney Dangerfield as the midwife, the results might have been something close to the great Vance Gilbert.” We tried, but we just can’t top that.

In January, and before life as we’d always known it was changed forever, Gilbert released his latest collection of tunes, Good Good Man. With tracks like “Pie & Whiskey,” “Cousin Shelly’s Station Wagon,” “Zombie Pattycake,” and “Another Great Day Above Ground,” the album is nothing short of a superbly entertaining yet simultaneously poignant listen. We were thrilled when he offered to share with us a pandemic-related anecdote:

“So, about this science of aerosol droplet dissemination and its confrontational cousin, mask shaming. Charlie Baker, level-headed governor of Massachusetts, close-listener to his Department Of Public Health (where my nurse practitioner-trained Deborah works), and privy to all up-to-date national epidemiological sensibility, has decreed, and I quote, that people sport ‘masks or face coverings in public places where they cannot socially distance from others.’  OK, he didn’t say ‘sport,’ but still, masked lady, with the black Shepherd all the way across this lonely street, waaaaay past six or even 12 or even 20 feet, when I said good morning to you and you actually sneered ‘Hello’ with a look down your nose….OK I get it. I’ll greet someone a little less judgy.  

My aged Standard Poodle Bessie and I then pass that elderly Latino man working in his garden. My brother. I feel a kinship with this man as we are both of some slight color. I’m African-American. He’s….what he is. I want to rush home and get my guitar and play ‘Guantanamera’ in my oh most imperfectly-honed, phonetically-learned Spanish ever. I see him so very into his work, probably humming some Tejano song behind his mask. I interrupt him with another sprightly ‘Good Morning!’ from my quiver of cheer.

Wide-eyed, he looks at me with one hand on his hoe, and gesticulates with his hand to the mask on his face, then points at me. I give him the thumbs up. He glares. I know some of the Spanish language’s words. But rather than go to them, I do my hands apart like I’m saying ‘keep distance’ and I smile, nodding vigorously. He shakes his head no, points angrily at his mask and damnationally back at me. I finally throw my Deborah out into the middle of the street: ‘My wife….. Public Health nurse. She says….. distance good!’ I figure that if I leave vowels out I’ll be far better understood. Oh dear, is there such a thing as a ‘gringo negro’? I just made that up. Am I a privileged one of those? Will I look more earth-salt if I tell him I’m a musician?
He motions back at his mask slowly, like some strange Latino/Kabuki theatre scene-ending gesture, raises his hand and points at me accusingly again like some angry Our Town Stage Manager, and says ‘EVERYBODY!’

Did I mention that I don’t speak any Spanish? What is that thing they say – ‘musicians have a natural affinity for learning languages’? Maybe. I had two years of junior high French. I can ask for an apple or the bathroom in a few languages. And God help me, I’m in deep Golden Delicious McIntosh poop if I ever get flustered and confuse them.  But I had about had it up to the proverbial here with my poor-assed ASL (yes I know a few words in that language too) so I made the hands apart gesture again and said in my finest Spanish (see above re: Spanish language skills) ‘Sir, six feet is just fine, thank you!!! And it came out thusly: ‘ Señor! Siete zappatos mwuay bueno, gracias!’

Yessir. I told him, yes I did. ‘Sir, seven shoes is very good, thank you.’ That old geezer hombre has been served. Where’s that lady with the black Shepherd?”

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