On the surface, Vince Gill's sold out, all-acoustic marathon concert Friday 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. On that score alone, the show came up a solid winner.
But the concert reached far deeper. By balancing the bluegrass material with a cordial, unaccompanied segment devoted to Gill's '90s hits and an unexpected gift of performance gab, the concert formed an expansive yet intimate portrait of a veteran country music celebrity, celebrating his past (and his music's heritage) while remaining remarkably at home with his career today.
The 2½ -hour set opened with a pair of chestnuts — East Virginia Blues and Lonesome Wind Blues. Those standards 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 three-part harmonies from Gill, Duncan and White.
Sometimes the tradition that Gill and his band zeroed in on was specific, including 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 conclusion, was the other). But there were other instances when tradition was generously adopted and adapted.
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A three-song run of the Gill originals Sweet Augusta Darlin', High Lonesome Sound and Give Me the Highway smacked of Bill Monroe. None of the tunes was built for bluegrass speed, but each possessed effortless harmonies and gentle country-ish strides that remain less obvious trademarks of Monroe's best tunes.
The solo section, during which Gill switched from mandolin to guitar, was a real delight. Again, bluegrass tradition informed songs not necessarily bluegrass in design. For instance, Friday 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 sounded slightly huskier 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, described as "a lawyer by trade and a redneck by birth." An earlier reflection also was a hoot, centering on the realization that Gill is now eligible, at 55, for the senior menu discount at Denny's.
Just when you thought the chat might overtake the show, the bluegrass came roaring back with a ferocious flat picking 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 who was having the onstage time of his life.