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Pop Music : Gill Hits a Spiritual Level

September 20, 1993|RICHARD CROMELIN

Vince Gill is the consensus nicest guy in country music--a cherubic-looking, angelic-sounding performer whose beaming presence makes George Strait seem like a Hell's Angel. How many artists in any field of pop would threaten their own upcoming thunder by strolling out to sing backup with the second-billed act, as Gill did for Patty Loveless on Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre?

Of course, nice guys often finish bland--consider Strait, Clint Black, Alan Jackson et al. But Gill easily transcended that danger in his headlining set, as his piping tenor gently floated his ballads of devotion into a rarefied realm where love songs become something spiritual.

In that, Gill has more in common with Smokey Robinson than with any of his country colleagues, and when he sang the aching "Nothing Like a Woman," you sensed that he could make a great album of soul-music ballads if he put his mind to it.

Gill's sunniness does occasionally weaken his art. When addressing mortality and grief, as he did in a new, hymn-like song inspired by the deaths of country singer Keith Whitley and, more recently, his brother, Gill doesn't depict the protagonist's struggle but celebrates the repose that follows. It was a touching valediction, but its emotional contours would be deepened by an encounter with the demons involved.

If Gill's concert soared on its ballads, it skipped along briskly with Texas-swing-style tunes that gave him a chance to air out his lead-guitarist role--he's something of a country Clapton, and his solos charged the atmosphere, even as the chugging, up-tempo material became increasingly repetitive.

Preceding Gill, Loveless looked like a performer on the brink of a breakthrough--intelligent, assured, unpretentious and vocally powerful, with plenty of strong material that's faithful to country's roots without being enslaved by it.

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