Vance Gilbert is not a well-known name, or at least I had never heard of him before I listened to this CD, his tenth. But now I think everyone who loves a song with a good story should know Vance Gilbert.
Old White Men is appropriately named, as most of the songs reflect episodes in the lives of men. These songs, with minimal accompaniment other than acoustic guitar, clarinet and sax used sparsely but effectively, are complex and not the songs of the young and innocent.
The songs deal with love and loss, with those who are not as good as they should be (“Nobody Can Love You Like Mary,” “Dragonfly Wings”) and others who are better than you’d expect them to be (especially the poignant “New Year’s Day at the Lion Head Hotel” and “Go”), about being both good and bad at the same time (“The Brakeman’s Son”) and, with the sly, funny “My Bad,” about being entirely bad and not really being sorry for it.
Then there’s the title song “Old White Men,” which is about the role that old men can play in a boy’s life and how that gets passed on down the line.
Gilbert’s sound is similar to vintage Cat Stevens or Tom Waits. He has a true, strong, confident tenor. He is a singer/songwriter in the strongest tradition, and the people he inhabits in his songs are deep, flawed, and real. You feel what they feel. The subject matter covers broken families, unfaithfulness, neighborly feuds, old age, and, of course, love. A recurring theme is trains, which appear in “Boy on a Train,” “King of the Rails,” and “The Brakeman’s Son.”
These are not songs to be listened to lightly. Old White Men is a recording to listen to attentively, and one that makes it worth your while to do just that.