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Vince Gill satisfies musically at start of Houston Livestock shows

Vince Gill, Houston Astrodome, Feb. 16, 1996

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - Each year at the end of February, the Astrodome hosts the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo - three weeks of bronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing, bull riding, and, oh yes, country music.

In fact, 20 of country music's biggest acts played in the concerts closing each night of this year's rodeo, and the series started with a bang with Vince Gill.

After two-and-a-half hours of rodeo, many of the 47,000 people in the crowd started to get antsy.

The horses were safely in their stalls. The rotating stage was in place at the center of the arena. Suddenly, the announcer gave a warning, and the Astrodome's lights went out. The crowd began to applaud in anticipation, welcoming Gill to the stage as the headlining act on the rodeo's first night.

And musically, at least, he didn't disappoint.

Throughout, he showed why he was a popular studio musician before reaching fame as a solo act with his crisp, clean guitar solos on uptempo songs like "One More Last Chance" and "You Better Think Twice." The picking behind him was also outstanding, particularly Gill's other lead guitarist, who traded solos with him.

However, the Country Music Association's male vocalist of the year hasn't earned that title four years in a row for nothing. His beautiful tenor shone throughout, especially on the ballads.

Early on, he dedicated the gorgeous steel-guitar-driven love song, "Look at Us," to George and Barbara Bush, whose son, Texas Gov. George Bush Jr., was in attendance. He also turned in beautiful renditions of the Dolly Parton classic, "I Will Always Love You," and his own aching ballad of new love, "Whenever You Come Around."

Although Gill is known as one of the highest-singing guy singers in the business, some songs were placed in a lower key, perhaps to reduce the vocal strain of performing the same songs every night at such a high pitch. "Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away," for example, sounded a little too low, although Gill's high lonesome breakthrough hit, "When I Call Your Name," wasn't tuned down at all.

Despite Gill's beautiful singing and near-perfect guitar playing, he appeared somewhat detached and uninspired. Sure, he smiled quite a bit for the cameras during the first two songs, but after that he smiled very little, and patter with the audience was even rarer.

He did allow himself one little grin at the end of "What the Cowgirls Do" when he included the line, "What those Houston cowgirls do," and got the expected reaction from the women in the audience, a reaction that was so programmed, however, that one couldn't help but wonder if Gill's smile was programmed, too.

In fact, aside from one comment to the sizable audience that "you make us feel like Elvis," Gill, who is known for his sense of humor offstage, seemed very reserved onstage and never really developed a connection with the crowd. He looked comfortable in a blue-and-white-plaid flannel shirt on top of a white T-shirt, but he didn't really seem happy to be performing. As a result, the crowd rarely got very excited.

However, one song did energize the audience, but sadly enough, it wasn't a Gill song, or even a country song by origin. The song eliciting the biggest reaction was "When Will I Be Loved," a tune that Gill recorded for the "8 Seconds" movie soundtrack a few years ago and a big hit for Linda Ronstadt. "When Will..." sounded so different from any of Gill's other music that the audience couldn't help but take notice. Hopefully, that reaction is not a warning that modern country music, which owes so much to Seventies pop music, can't live up to that era's accomplishments.

Artistically, Gill is one of country's best musicians and vocalists, and he showed off his talents to their fullest in this hour-and-a-half performance.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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