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Gill needs to add fire to ignite show

Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show, Houston Astrodome, March 2, 1997

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - 1989 and 1990 marked the changing of the guard in country music as the artists who would dominate the country scene up to the present were introduced to country fans.

Each of those new artists has a certain identity and fills a specific role in today's country scene.

Garth Brooks, of course, has raised fans' expectations of country concerts with his wild and crazy arena-rock-like stage antics.

Alan Jackson is the leader of the new traditionalist movement, one of the few artists who write and sing ultra-traditional country music yet receive significant radio airplay.

Then there's Vince Gill. As hard as it is to believe, he's been on the music scene for over two decades now and turns 40 in April. However, he's only been a solo act since 1983 and although he had a few top 10 hits in the Eighties, he only became a big star when the he released the hauntingly beautiful piano ballad of lost love, "When I Call Your Name," in 1990.

Thus, he was an important part of the changing of the guard in country music that accompanied the changing of the decade. But what's his distinguishing feature?

Gill is the multidimensional artist - the guy who not only writes and sings outstanding country songs but also plays a mean guitar, along with a few other instruments. And although it really doesn't relate to his music, he's also country's all-around nice guy.

Unfortunately, he's just not that exciting of a stage performer. Perhaps the problem is that when asked how to define Vince Gill, some would choose another characteristic - he's one of country's greatest balladeers.

Thus, at one point in tonight's show, Gill sang four ballads: "Look at Us," "When I Call Your Name," "Pretty Little Adriana," and "I Still Believe You," broken up by just one uptempo song. Although each of these songs taken by itself is a beautiful song, well written (except for the silly, contrived recent hit "Pretty Little Adriana") and gorgeously sung, back to back they can induce sleep in even the biggest fan.

Part of the problem, too, was that Gill didn't seem particularly inspired. His singing and guitar playing were nearly perfect, as always, but he seemed to be performing mechanically without really feeling the music.

Except for one song. Gill turned in a sincere, spiritual performance on "Go Rest That Mountain," a song about the deaths of his brother and country star Keith Whitley. He has cried many times in the past after singing this song, and although he's gotten accustomed enough to singing it now that he can avoid tears, the song does still seem to hit him pretty hard. As a result, it also draws a reaction from the audience. The pretty fiddle solo and Gill's heartfelt guitar solo also contributed to the effect.

Of course, Gill's show isn't all ballads, or else the average fan might have a hard time sitting through an hour of his music. He turned in good performances on several uptempo songs tonight, both vocally and on electric guitar.

And even on fiddle, too. On "Take Your Memory With You," one of Gill's most traditional-sounding songs, he played one of the twin fiddles and did a decent job.

He also performed "Ridin' the Rodeo" from "When I Call Your Name" album and recently resurrected by Perfect Stranger. Like all rodeo songs, this one was a big hit with the audience, 51,953 strong tonight.

Where Gill really shines, however, is on extended instrumental breaks. "What the Cowgirls Do" and the closing song "One More Last Chance" featured two of these, and Gill got the chance put in some outstanding guitar picking.

Unfortunately, Gill seems to some extent to have become a part of the general commercialization of country music. Some of his ballads, notably "I Still Believe in You" and "Worlds Apart," could easily become adult contemporary hits with only minor changes to the instrumental mix.

The changing of Gill's music over time becomes apparent when he plays one of his old songs, from before "When I Call Your Name" was released. He only reached back for one of these nuggets tonight, "Victim Of Life's Circumstances," which was his first solo single in 1984, but this song, with its great chugging beat, was more country than anything else he performed tonight.

Gill's sense of humor is also well known. Although his short set tonight didn't give him much chance to talk to the audience, he did tell one humorous story. Evidently, George and Barbara Bush came to the Astrodome tonight to see the Rodeo finals, and earlier today, Gill, an avid golfer, got the chance to play a round with the former president. He informed the audience with a laugh that he had won three ("count 'em - three!") dollars from Bush.

Gill is a jack-of-all-trades: singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, jokester, and all-around nice guy. Add a bit more energy and emotion, and he could be a great performer, too.

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