BWW Review: BILLY GILMAN Comes Of Age at Joe's Pub
Billy Gilman is living his best life. He's planning a wedding, singing new music, trying new things, and thanks to The Voice he is connecting with his die-hard fans, fans that drifted and came back, and new fans to the fold. He is being authentic in his life and in his work, and even helping people in need, through leading by example. There is no reason in the world for Billy Gilman to be anything but satisfied and happy, both of which he appeared to be at his eponymous show at Joe's Pub last night.
For those hearing the name Billy Gilman and thinking of a little kid with a freakish voice, it is time to adjust the picture on your screen, because Billy Gilman is a grown man in his thirties, and everything about him says he is an adult. His singing, his eloquence, his thought processes, his choices are all based in the mindset of a grown-up person making grown-up decisions, and people who have yet to shake off the image of a precocious child with unfathomable musical skills need to wake up and come to the party because today's Billy Gilman is worth every ounce of attention he is getting, and there is certainly more on the way. Billy Gilman has taken his destiny into his own hands, and the view from the stands is sensational.
Mr. Gilman's show at Joe's Pub was a real treat for this writer, one of the new fans. Always aware of Billy's presence in and contribution to the music industry, I eschewed his CDs because, frankly, I take no interest in child singers. However, when the competition talent show reintroduced Gilman to the world, it was difficult to ignore the beauty of his gifts, beauty that is only magnified by a live concert. Television is wonderful at casting a wide net but television cannot capture the thrill of hearing Billy Gilman sing live. With a vocal instrument that makes one shake their head in disbelief, Gilman is also a wonderfully engaging presence, physically. He talks to his audience like old friends (indeed, some of them are fans who grew up with him), his conversation with them is frank and upbeat, and his dancing skills are enough to make one wish for a double date to go dancing with him and his fiancee sometime. In short: Billy Gilman is one hell of an entertainer, and it would be great to see him back at Joe's Pub and in other smaller venues around New York City because, while those enormous concert halls are lucrative and big enough to contain his (still) freakish voice, the intimate setting provided by smaller clubs is a warm and welcome place for a man of Gilman's pleasing performance style.
The Billy Gilman show last night was a mixture of songs he made famous and songs he has longed to sing for years. The adorable devoted fans tended toward gasping or crying out upon hearing the first three notes of "One Voice" or "Oklahoma" or his hit from The Voice, "Surrender," and often they would mouth the words (not sing along, because they wanted to hear Billy) and their admiration of their idol was truly enjoyable and heartwarming. Every artist should have such ardent fans and don't think Billy Gilman doesn't know he is lucky, don't think he doesn't appreciate them, because he sincerely expressed to the crowd how much he loved them. There is a palpable energy exchange between the artist and the admirers that is a lovely sight to behold, indeed the entire evening was a pure delight, particularly when Gilman surprised his longtime friend and vocal coach, Angela Bacari, by insisting she join him onstage to sing the showstopping Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand duet "Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again." The display created by the twosome was a massively exciting moment for all the audience, most of whom filmed the happening on their phones.
The greatest thrill for this writer, though, was Billy Gilman sitting down, accompanied by the (it has to be said) incomparable legend that is Mike Renzi, to sing "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Gilman has spoken about wanting to sing his music, the music he has always wanted to sing, and this is it. It is wonderful hearing the hits and the vocal prowess, but it turns out that Billy Gilman is quite a good actor. When singing country, pop and rock songs in the big-venue manner to which Mr. Gilman has become accustomed, it is very easy to drop out of the moment and the story inside of the song to wink at a fan or wave at a friend, and it is what we come to expect of our rock stars. But when an artist (and make no mistake, Billy Gilman is an artist) sits down to do some Jacques Brel, there is a story to be told, and it is imperative that the singer stay inside of the story. During his performance of this great and epic work of art, Gilman transported himself and his audience to a new place and that exciting thing that happens, but not every day, came over Joe's Pub: everyone remained still as the Texas sky, quiet as the dead, captivated by one of the most riveting musical performances a person can see on a stage. Absolutely in the pocket and in the moment, Billy Gilman performed "Ne Me Quitte Pas" from start to finish without, once, showing anyone Billy Gilman -- who he became in that performance is known only to himself, but it was a person, a character and a story that people need to see, conjuring for this writer a dream of a future where Billy Gilman sits down on a stool with Mike Renzi and sings "Begin the Beguine" and "Too Late Now" with a little "Isn't It A Pity" and some "Not While I'm Around" -- and as long as we are thinking Sondheim and Sweeney, how about some "Joanna"? Mr. Gilman speaks a lot about living in this moment and looking toward the future, so it would be a real treasure to have him do a show in which he looks, not back at what he has done, but ahead to what he will do. A show without the hits, without discussion of past accomplishments, with only new material, new philosophies on life, new outlooks on musical adventures, would be a thing o' beauty, and it would bring even more new fans to his doorstep. That "Ne Me Quitte Pas" was a little life-changing for this writer, and it could be for Billy Gilman, too, if he gives it some thought.
Billy Gilman's got nowhere to go but up. He has successfully reintroduced himself and what he is presenting is solid, sexy, self-assured and spectacular - all the parts of him that are showing now, living in the light. Billy Gilman declared his intent to be "as transparent as possible" while sharing "pieces of me that I've loved for so long." Well, that transparency is going to keep the fans, old and new, with him for a long time because those pieces of him that he loves, they all love, too.
Because he's beautiful and because he's worth it.
Photos by Stephen Mosher