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The wit and wisdom of Vance Gilbert

Vance Gilbert will celebrate the release of “The Mother of Trouble,” his 14th album, with a show at Passim Sunday.rob mattson

From a Taco Bell parking lot somewhere outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Vance Gilbert picks up the phone.

“The ‘Daley Planet.’ That should be the name of your podcast,” he says. I laugh. I guess that actually would be a pretty good name for a podcast.

“Oh my God, are you kidding me? About a modern-day woman journalist in a [expletive] world? C’mon!”

The fun of talking to Gilbert is also the fun of seeing him live. The long-time Arlington resident cut his teeth on the Boston folk/coffeehouse scene in the early ‘80s. Over the years, he’s made a name for himself as a quick wit with stage presence.


It’s maybe why he’s been tapped by comedians to warm up crowds with songs and well, just being himself — he opened for George Carlin for three years, and is currently supporting Paul Reiser (next up for them, a show in Lebanon, N.H., May 20).

He’s simultaneously touring solo for his 14th album, “The Mother of Trouble,” out Friday, with a hometown record-release concert at Passim on Sunday.

Gilbert, 64, considers the album his best work to date. “I’ll be eligible for Medicare in October,” he says. “Some people peak late.”

But it takes distance, age, and self-confidence to write a song like “Black Rochelle.” As a kid, Gilbert says he was nearsighted, chubby, often bullied. In the song — and black-and-white video — he recalls a day in grade school when he stood among the bullies to make fun of a dark-skinned girl, chanting “Black Rochelle.”

“It’s confessional and speaks to the bully that comes out of us when we’ve been bullied,” he says. “People get bullied because [bullies] are frightened; they want to belong to a club. I’d like to think people are generally good animals, but we’re screwed up as a species in a lot of ways.”


In a wide-ranging conversation, Gilbert spoke about homelessness, what led him to become a musician, and skipping out on Carl Lewis’s dad’s class for a Filet-O-Fish.

Q. You have your solo tour coming to Passim. And you also have a tour with Paul Reiser. How did that happen?

A. I’ve been doing a lot with Paul off and on since 2014. I opened for him in New Jersey once, and he liked what I was doing. I liked him; he was cool to work with. So I hit him up: “Hey, can I do more of these?” He said, “Yeah, that’d be great.” He kept to his word and kept hiring me. Some people don’t learn.

Q. You were born in Philadelphia. How did you get to Boston?

A. I went to Connecticut College. That’s where I first picked up acoustic guitar my sophomore year. I came to this late.

Q. What prompted you to pick up a guitar at 19?

A. 17.

Q. Wait, what?

A. Yeah, I went to college at 16. Not because I was brilliant. Halfway through second grade, they put me in third grade because the school thought a bunch of kids were bored and could be accelerated. I instantly had to go home and study because I wasn’t as accelerated as they thought. [College] was a strange time. I was homeless, too.

Q. What happened?

A. My parents had split up some years before. Then my dad went AWOL on his third drunk-driving charge, and my mom was diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic.


We lost our house [in New Jersey]. I slept there that first Thanksgiving vacation because I still had the keys. It was up for sheriff’s sale. There was no heat. A buddy said, “My parents say you can’t stay here. You gotta come with us.” So I ended up sleeping on couches and in yards and tents for the next four years whenever I wasn’t in college.

I mean, I never scuffled for a meal or anything. But my dorm was my mailing address for four years. Then in 1979, I graduated and moved to Brookline and signed a lease.

Q. Where did you live in New Jersey?

A. Willingboro. Most noted as the town where track star Carl Lewis grew up. Each of his parents, at some point, were my gym teachers. The only time I ever skipped class was Mr. Lewis’s gym class. A bunch of us were gonna go to McDonald’s. I had $4. I was gonna have a damn fish sandwich. Yeah, baby, fish sandwich and orange soda! We’re pulling out of the school parking lot, and there’s Mr. Lewis. He just shakes his head and says: “Just get back in time for your next class.” So it wasn’t even fun.

Q. [Laughs] Then you ended up in Connecticut College in the mid-’70s. What got you into music?

A. Everybody had a guitar. Connecticut College was pretty much 95 percent white — everybody was listening to Jerry Garcia, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, John Denver — all the white people whose names begin with J who play guitar. To hang, I started playing bass, then guitar.


I’d taken a prose class with William Meredith, [a former] poet laureate of the United States; I got a B+. Then I took a poetry class with him. And I had just started writing songs. And they were awful. But I was so taken by the fact that I thought I had a voice in there, that I was bringing them to class. And he failed me. He said, “All I asked you to do was bring me [poems], and you brought songs that had nothing to do with anything we were doing.” I was heartbroken. Near tears. I wish he was alive today to see the lyrics to something like “Black Rochelle.”

Q. When did you decide you wanted to make a living out of songwriting?

A. Couple of weeks into sophomore year [laughs]. I got a degree in biology, moved to Brookline, and half-heartedly went to one interview [at a lab] — with my guitar. The interviewer said, “You might need to change your focus of what you want to do.” Then a friend said, “Hey, I’m working at a restaurant in Harvard Square. They need a salad-prep guy.” I ended up cooking in restaurants for 3½ years.

Q. What restaurants?

A. 33 Dunster Street and the Modern Times Cafe [in Cambridge]. I was at Modern Times performing, and the owner said: “This is great, but have you ever baked bread?” Most people’s dream story is to work at a restaurant, end up playing at the restaurant, and get famous. I went there as a musician and ended up the lunch cook.


I was doing open mics. I made an LP and no one cared. Then one night, somebody said, “Let’s go to the Old Vienna Kaffeehaus out in Westborough. There’s a singer out there, she’s really good.” It was Shawn Colvin. After that, all I wanted to be in life was a 5-foot-6 white woman.

I ended up filling in for somebody [at an open mic] there. Next thing I know, I was out on the road with Shawn Colvin. That’s what brought me from Absolute Unknown up to the ranks of Relatively Obscure, where I am now.

Honestly, I have so much to be thankful for. I’m rounding third, for sure. But I’m also trying to compete in a lot of ways with the energy and verve of a Phoebe Bridgers or Ed Sheeran. I don’t feel that old until I try to get out of this rented Nissan Altima. Which is so low to the ground that I’m actually climbing out of the [expletive] car. l get out and celebrate: Yeah, baby! I’m not shaped like an “S.” Go ahead, now.


At Passim, 47 Palmer St., Cambridge. May 7 at 7 p.m. $28. 617-492-5300, www.passim.org/live-music

Interview was edited and condensed.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.