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THE WEEKEND MUSIC TOUR | POP MUSIC

Gill, With a Lot to Give

Pop review: The country star put all of his talent on display in an entertaining evening at the Pond of Anaheim.

June 09, 1997|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vince Gill sure leaves himself open to easy criticism.

Granted, the veteran country star's smooth, high-flying and tireless voice brimmed with feeling and tonal distinctiveness as he sang Friday night at the Pond of Anaheim. But it's a voice too creamy and lithe to match the almost operatic power of, say, Jackie Wilson or Roy Orbison.

As a songwriter, the Oklahoma native is pretty mundane compared to Merle Haggard or Steve Earle. But, if you grade him against his peer group in the world of hit-oriented contemporary mainstream country, Gill's straightforward, simple and to-the-point sketches of love sought, love found, love lost and love struggling to survive get high marks.

Stylistic range? Gill and his sharp, 10-member band excelled as they touched on bluegrass, grooved on shuffling blues, bounced down to New Orleans in the footsteps of Little Feat, soared with a country-rock anthem or two, twanged fast with zooming train rhythms or twanged slow on traditional-sounding honky-tonk waltzes and strolls.

Gill played shiny hit ballads in today's standard Eagles-throwback mode, but he also got down with a soul-tinged R&B nugget and rose up with an elegiac gospel ode. What--no cowboy campfire songs? No Appalachian murder ballads? Stretch, Vince, stretch.

*

As for Gill's guitar playing--well, actually, there isn't anything to criticize in his guitar playing. Listening to him at the Pond, you could see why Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits once said, "Someone like Vince puts you in your place if you think you're hot stuff."

To put things more simply and directly, Gill's performance during a generous, two-hour-plus show was far above anything else available from a '90s mainstream country star. Vote for Garth if you like sweaty acrobatics and enough slobbering sincerity for a kennel full of Saint Bernards. If musical talent and quality songs are the measures, Gill is the ticket.

The recent news that his wife, Janis (who sings in Sweethearts of the Rodeo), has filed for divorce after a long marriage didn't change the impact of his many songs about love's struggles. Gill didn't allude to the divorce, but he did summon his 15-year-old daughter, Jenny, on stage to momentarily steal the show with a striking, confident reading of the sad first-love ballad "Strawberry Wine."

It's safe to say that most of the near-capacity house probably will be back for more when he tours again. After all, with so much room for improvement, they'll want to see if he has applied himself.

Opener Bryan White, Gill's fellow Oklahoman, offered the peach-fuzz cuteness of a teen idol and an earnest and tuneful, if slender, voice. Listening to his set of routine, post-Eagles hatchlings wasn't an unpleasant way to spend 40 minutes if you had no place better to be.

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