On the surface, Vince Gill’s sold out, all-acoustic marathon concert last night at the Opera House was a celebration of string music spirit – a robust but relaxed overview that honored bluegrass standards by Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers and a few fine, like-minded tunes penned by the host. And on that score alone, the show came up a solid winner.
But the concert reached far deeper than that. By balancing the bluegrass material with a cordial, unaccompanied segment devoted to his ‘90s hits and an unexpected gift of performance gab, the concert formed an expansive yet intimate portrait of a veteran country music celebrity that was celebrating his past (as well as his music’s heritage) while remaining remarkably at home with where his career has placed him today.
The 2 ½ hour set opened with a pair of chestnut tunes – East Virginia Blues and Lonesome Wind Blues – that introduced the stately string music firepower of an all-star band (fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarist Jeff White, bassist Dennis Crouch and banjoist Jim Mills) and the three-part harmonies (the combined force of Gill, Duncan and White) that formed its front line.
Sometimes the tradition Gill and his band zeroed in on was very specific, like the elastic tuning adopted by Mills during Earl’s Breakdown (one of two tunes honoring the late Earl Scruggs; the spry Pick Along, played near the show’s conclusion, was the other). But there were other instances where tradition was generously adopted and adapted.
A three-song run of the Gill originals Sweet Augusta Darlin’, High Lonesome Sound and Give Me the Highway smacked of Bill Monroe. While none of the tunes were built for bluegrass speed, each possessed effortless harmonies and gentle country-ish strides that remain less obvious trademarks of Monroe’s best tunes.
The solo section, where Gill switched from mandolin to guitar, was a real delight. Again, bluegrass tradition informed songs not necessarily bluegrass in design. For instance, last night’s solo version of the 1989 breakthrough hit When I Call Your Name was more plaintive than the bluest of the bluegrass tunes. It also remained a regal vehicle for Gill’s high tenor singing, which last night sounded slightly huskier and more sagely than in the past.
The evening’s biggest surprise was its presentation of Gill as a raconteur. The singer offered jokes, impersonations and lengthy between-song stories, the best of which revolved around his late father, who was described as “a lawyer by trade and a redneck by birth.” An earlier reflection centered on the realization Gill was now eligible, at age 55, for the senior menu discount at Denny’s was also a hoot.
And just when you thought the chat might overtake the show, the bluegrass came roaring back by way of a ferocious flatpicking duet with White during Black Mountain Rag, a spry take on Martin’s My Walking Shoes (which Gill dedicated to Martin alum and Central Kentucky banjo great J.D. Crowe) and a crisp, efficient encore of the Monroe gem My Rose of Old Kentucky.
It made for a grand and comprehensive visit with a country giant on acoustic holiday having the onstage time of his life.