Few things bring me greater pleasure than a live music performance. If music is the universal language, live music is poetry in motion.
From a snippet of a concert memory, I can recreate a complete experience. This happens not because the artist was “on” that night or played the songs I wanted to hear, but because of the sense of connection on all levels – sight, sound and emotion.
For these reasons and more, I am so looking forward to seeing Livingston Taylor and Vance Gilbert at the Levoy Theatre on Sunday, February 24.
These two artists share some fine qualities. Both are musical craftsmen. Both are fluent and creative storytellers. And both Liv Taylor and Vance Gilbert take to the stage like … well, like seasoned artists who find pure joy in performing live.
That audience connection is a big part of why the Levoy is pleased to be hosting Taylor and Gilbert in concert together. Jessica Lotito, Levoy Theatre’s Director of Marketing and Design, explains, “The Liv/Vance show is quintessential Levoy programming: eclectic talent in an intimate setting that allows the audience to get up close and personal with two amazing artists.”
In September 2012, the Levoy reopened after extensive renovations and has been continuously operating since then, presenting more than 700 public events. The renovations included an upgraded sound system, designed to, according to Lotito, “not only bring the theater back to its historic aesthetic, but include modern amenities that make it comparable to a city venue.”
“The acoustics are exceptional and make this an ideal place for performers like Liv and Vance to share their music and stories with the audience.”
Both Gilbert and Taylor are passionate about what they do, as crafters and performers. And each has found a way to successfully share that passion.
Taylor, as you likely know, comes from a music-loving family and said he learned to play guitar from brother James, who Taylor calls his “strongest musical influence.” As a child, school was a challenge for Taylor. Despite his struggles, those early experiences helped him make a fundamental discovery about himself.
“I’m a curious enough fellow,” Taylor said, “but didn’t do well in school.”
What he did do well, though, was perform for people.
“Show and tell was my favorite thing in grade school,” he said. “It was just a complete delight to talk about various things that interested me.”
This inclination for storytelling and ease with himself helped Taylor identify his path early on.
“I knew I’d have to invent a life for myself,” he said. “My parents were encouraging, especially my mother. And, from my grandfather, who was a project-oriented sort of guy, I learned to have a vision and follow it through.”
It seems the timing was right, too.
“There was a rising tide of musical possibilities in the ’60s and ’70s,” Taylor said. “I caught one of those waves and I’ve been surfing it for 50 years.”
When I asked him about stage fright, Taylor told me that isn’t an issue for him. “I don’t remember ever being seriously wracked by nervousness. Being with an audience makes me feel part of something. I am honored.”
Shaped initially by what he heard at home – Broadway musicals, popular music and more – Taylor created his own style.
“I am a melody and word guy,” he said.
No surprise there.
I asked Taylor to name some artists he enjoys seeing in concert and he mentioned a few: Susan Werner (“incredibly versatile and such a quirky and compelling piano and guitar player”), Jimmy Buffett (“so beautiful in his presence”), his brother James, and Bruce Springsteen.
“Just watch them,” he said, referring to James and Bruce. “They are absolutely joyous.”
Taylor is equally gracious when talking about his concert-mate for Sunday’s show. “Vance is an amazing musical guy, with a wonderful spirit and energy. I’m a big fan.”
Gilbert, who started as a jazz singer and then switched to folk music, ascended through Boston’s open mic ranks in the early ’90s. His performing style – which he said “is like Pete Seeger and Chris Rock had a baby” – caught wider attention and landed him a guest spot on Shawn Colvin’s “Fat City” tour.
“It’s kind of an opus,” Gilbert said. “Fans are still sending in money weekly. I am truly moved by the faith people have in me.”He has 10 records to his credit, including a duo album with friend and fellow folk artist Ellis Paul, and a completely fan-funded record due out this fall that features mostly new compositions (“only one cover”) and includes players like Chris Smither, Mike Posner, Tommy Malone from the Sub Dudes, Celtic harpist Áine Minogue and others.
Taylor and Gilbert first met more than 25 years ago and, though the details differ in their individual memories, they concur on the outcome. Each made a powerful impression on the other.
And their friendship continues.
“Even if we’re just on the same bill, we’re very complementary,” Gilbert said. “Liv and I are both steeped in various musical traditions; that’s the through-line of our performances. He’s utterly terrific.”
Taylor and Gilbert also share another artistic-related endeavor: both are teachers. Taylor has been a full professor of stage performance at Berklee School of Music in Boston for the past 30 years and has impacted the lives of thousands of students during that time. Gilbert, who once worked as a multicultural arts instructor in the Boston area, now teaches songwriting and performance to high schoolers twice a week and occasionally fills in for Taylor at Berklee.
“I regularly use what I learn from teaching to hone what I do as a professional musician,” Taylor said. “It is so fantastic to figure out why something is good and why something works.”
Gilbert is more matter-of-fact. “Teaching is so much more nerve-wracking than stepping on a stage,” he said. “You can’t ever just blah blah your way through class like you sometimes do between tunes.”
Both Taylor and Gilbert answered my question about what new music they enjoy by telling me that teaching gives them access to some of the best and brightest young artists around.
For example, one of Gilbert’s students is singing background vocals on his upcoming record. And Charlie Puth, a student Taylor mentored in the five-week summer program at Berklee, has made a giant leap since then to become a certifiable music phenomenon.
Taylor, however, was quick to dispel any misconception about the ease or speed with which success comes to a young artist.
“Make no mistake,” Taylor said about Puth (in an interview by Kimberly Ashton that appeared on the Berklee website), “Charlie has been at this a long time. This is not overnight. It’s never overnight.”
While I could go on extolling the many merits of the performers who will take to the Levoy Theatre stage on Sunday, it is time to conclude this piece. I ended my chats with both Taylor and Gilbert with this:
If you were to put together your dream festival or concert, name the five artists on the bill.
Gilbert’s fantasy ensemble includes Dolly Parton and Billie Holliday, Andrés Segovia, Antônio Carlos Jobim, James Jamerson (Google him if you don’t know the name), Stevie Wonder, and Phil Collins. Even though he had little time to respond, Gilbert covered all the bases with his answer, assembling a complete and stylistically diverse band.
Taylor told me that it is, indeed, a very good question and, after pondering for a moment, came up with this grouping: George Gershwin, Ela Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan (and if Bob was unavailable, he’d ask Bonnie Raitt), and … wait for it, wait for it, Livingston Taylor. I laughed out loud when he said this and told him that no one else had ever given me that answer.
“Oh, no, I’m definitely on that show,” he deadpanned. “I’d have a great time listening to Livingston Taylor.”
So will you. Don’t miss it.
Writer’s confession time: When I was talking to both Taylor and Gilbert, I was not at all eager for those fascinating conversations to end. I’ve been a Liv Taylor fan since he started in the ’70s and continue to keep up with what he’s doing, right on through to a recent viewing of his engaging documentary, “Livingston Taylor: Life is Good.”
My appreciation for Gilbert’s music came more recently but was almost instantaneous. I started working on this feature, did some research, watched a couple videos, and was hooked.
Artists like Taylor and Gilbert are the then and the now. They represent a nod to what got us here and a way to keep us traveling on the path. And, to use a word they both used while we talked about music, they are authentic.