If Vince Gill hadn’t made it as one of the pre-eminent country music singers of our era – with 20 Grammys in the bag to seal the deal – he very well could have succeeded as a session guitarist. He’s that good.
During Friday’s show at the Johnny Mercer Theatre, Gill tore off one dazzling solo after another on his Fender Telecaster, the electric guitar of choice for the high-kicking honky tonk music he and his six-piece band were delivering.
Of course, the concert was heavy with Gill’s emotion-laden hits – “When I Call Your Name,” “Look At Us,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain” – that put the spotlight squarely on his beautiful tenor voice.
When he rocked out, however, Gill showed us all what a masterful guitarist he can be. On a selection of tunes from his new Bakersfield album, including Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Gill tore up his chicken-pickin’ Tele. Steel guitarist Paul Franklin, the Nashville session legend co-credited on Bakersfield, was part of the band, and even he was shaking his head and laughing as Gill made mincemeat of those six strings.
Even the songs that most people had probably never heard were amazing, and received with thunderous applause. Gill sang a song he co-wrote with Rodney Crowell, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,” from a poorly-received album called The Notorious Cherry Bombs. Everyone laughed, and when he followed it with a story about hiding the song from his wife, Amy Grant, they howled.
Gill’s daughter Jenny, 31 and five months pregnant, was a surprise guest. Backed by her father and the full band, she sang four tunes. Jenny Gill has a Reba McEntire, sassy-gal sort of voice, and she knows (by osmosis?) how to engage an audience.
She sang “The Letter” (the Box Tops song, with the bluesy Joe Cocker arrangement). For this one, her dad strapped on a Gibson Les Paul (the electric guitar of choice for rock ‘n’ roll) and soloed like Eric-damn-Clapton!
Despite a nagging cold that sometimes affected his high range (Buck Owens’ “Together Again” was played in a noticeably lower key), Gill was an easygoing, charming presence onstage. He told numerous, tremendously funny stories, particularly during the concert’s mid-section. Here, he performed solo (“The Secret of Life,” “Bread and Water”), with just an acoustic guitar.
You could have heard a pin drop – and in the Johnny Mercer Theatre, THAT is saying something.