Vince Gill sings and chats at Disney Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall just might be onto a great little niche concert series. A few more shows like the intimate and illuminating performance Vince Gill turned in on Saturday could develop into a regular spate of shows that might be called “Where Songs Come From.”
His 90-minute show, for which he brought a no-frills trio for accompaniment, was chock-full of crowd pleasers, no surprise since fans were only too happy to take him up on his offer to play their favorites by shouting out titles throughout the evening.
But it also had echoes of the sterling round-table session last year with Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, during which each singer-songwriter took turns talking about the genesis of the song he was about to sing, then passing the spotlight to the next in line.
On Saturday it was all Vince, all the time, and it was a delightfully homey affair. He’s long been a particularly amiable and engaging host — which explains why he landed the honors of emceeing the Country Music Assn. Awards show for 12 years straight.
“Nice place ya got here,” the erstwhile Oklahoma wunderkind and 19-time Grammy winner said after sauntering on stage. “I had to go and buy new clothes to play in a place this nice.”
Following his last tour with a 17-piece band, drafted to tap the multiplicity of textures and styles on his sprawling 2006 four-CD set “These Days,” he told the near-capacity crowd, “I came home almost deaf and ... near broke.... We’re lucky to be here. I thought we were going to have to suspend the tour and go to Washington D.C. to fix things.”
That was as close to a topical comment as he got all night. Mostly he let listeners in on the sources of inspiration of songs new and old. He said the idea came to him after he caught one of James Taylor’s “One Man Band” tour stops, during which Sweet Baby James stripped things down to the essentials.
But it’s very likely the overall tone might have been born even before that in Gill’s own kitchen in Nashville. A little over two years ago, he invited about a dozen music writers, this one included, into his home to explain what on the surface might have seemed to be a suicidal move to release four CDs containing 43 songs, all new.
It was such an intimate and revealing experience it’s no wonder he’s now taking it public. He told the Disney Hall crowd about coming to Los Angeles in the 1970s, a young naive musician with big dreams. “A hard-core bluegrasser moving to L.A. to make it,” Gill, 51, said with a laugh. “That’s what a genius I was.”
That characteristically self-deprecating remark segued into a touching anecdote about playing his first L.A. gig at the Troubadour and looking into the crowd to see several of his musical heroes looking on, among them Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Far from mere name-dropping, it was a vibrant example of music’s power to instigate succeeding generations of fans to pursue and realize their own dreams.
The musical connection was the song “Some Things Never Grow Old,” which references “Bluebird Wine,” a Crowell song that appeared on Harris’ solo career-launching 1975 album “Pieces of the Sky,” as well as a nod to another standard-bearer of contemporary folk-country songwriting, John Prine. In addition to the lyric references, the melody of “Some Things” contains a none-so-subtle nod to Prine’s song “Unwed Fathers,” making Gill’s salute to his idols in words and music.
His 1991 ballad “Look At Us,” a masterpiece of a love song with a happy ending set to one of the saddest melodies imaginable, was preceded by a truly funny story about the advice he got from veteran Nashville songwriter Max D. Barnes about how to be successful in country music. (The upshot: Keep the songs positive.)
He responded politely to fan requests, jumping between the three acoustic and three electric guitars flanking the chair he sat at center stage. But he also kept the night from becoming a trip down memory lane with a couple of deeply felt new ballads. “Bread and Water” was written for his brother who died 15 years ago, and “Heaven,” with which he closed the show, is a collaboration with wife Amy Grant and a couple of other writers following the recent deaths of two of their friends.
Keyboardist Pete Wasner stuck to his electronic Yamaha piano despite the presence in Disney Hall of a perfectly good concert grand, and Billy Thomas used brushes and his hands economically on a simple box drum and Billy Bub quietly rounded out the rhythm section on upright bass.
Sometimes simple meals are the tastiest, and for those who prefer honesty and real emotion in their music to high-tech sizzle and dazzling production numbers, Gill served up a rich and eminently satisfying feast.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times