LOS ANGELES -- When you think of Vince Gill celebrating a homecoming, you're likely to think of Oklahoma or Tennessee -- just about anywhere but L.A. as your first guess. But there he was at West Hollywood's storied Troubadour on Wednesday night (Nov. 16), doing a rare club show to commemorate the 35th anniversary of a West Coast arrival that really kicked his career and creative life into gear.
Photo Credit: Lester Cohen/Getty Images
The Troubadour is sometimes best remembered as the place where the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and others got together and forged the SoCal country-rock scene of the early '70s. But a few short years later, the 500-person-capacity club was temporarily home to a transplanted generation of once-and-future Southerners who'd go on to become legends. And when Gill got into town, some fateful meetings took place that would take on historic reverberations, even if it would take everyone getting back to Nashville to see the results flower.
"Sorry it's taken so long to come back," Gill told the crowd early on in Wednesday's show. "It's only been 35 years since I played here. I was a 19-year-old kid who'd just moved to town, and I met some of my heroes the first night I was here -- Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark. One thing I already knew I wanted to do when I got here was sing like Emmylou and write like Rodney."
Most of Gill's epic 160-minute, 27-song Troubadour set consisted of the material he's shuffling out on the road, accompanied by lots and lots of storytelling. But he did pull out one fresh -- or, really, not-so-fresh -- cover to cap the encores: Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again." It wasn't just random homage.
After the show, Gill told CMT.com, "I called Rodney today and said, 'I'm gonna finish with your song.' He said, 'As you should!'" This marked the 35th anniversary of Crowell saying brash things to Gill on Troubadour-related matters.
In 1976, Gill explained, "The band I was in had cut that song, and I was singing in the band. It was Byron Berline's band, and it was called Sundance. They had an album out on MCA. I had never met Rodney, of course. We were opening for Guy Clark that night. Rodney came flying into the dressing room and said, 'Who in the hell are you?'"
It was the good kind of "who in the hell are you," fortunately.
"Rodney said, 'What are you doing singing my song better than I can?'" Gill said. "Those were his words. And he gave me a big hug and said, 'You and me are gonna be friends forever.'"
That proved to be prophetic enough and although Gill and Crowell haven't worked together as much as we might have wished for, Gill did perform their most notorious co-write, and one of the most popular numbers in his touring set -- "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)."
That shoulda-been country classic came complete with a midtune monologue about what the woman Gill kept referring to as "contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant" thought when she first forced her husband to play her the song. (The short explanation was that Gill was allowed to sleep somewhere other than the couch after explaining that the title had been suggested to him by his late father.) No words about what Mrs. Crowell thought of the greatest Vince 'n' Rodney collaboration.
Back in '76, Gill had come to California with a banjo on his knee because "you play banjo, where in hell else would you move? It worked for Steve Martin," he told the audience, with tongue-in-cheek hindsight. "I loved bluegrass music, so I came out here to play a little bit of it, and I got immersed with the greatest musicians in the world. It was really invaluable, coming out here for my life and my career." Introducing "High Lonesome Sound," he added, "I don't have a banjo anymore. I had the good taste to stop playing it. I never was very good."
The banjo's loss was the electric guitar's gain as Gill proved repeatedly through the night. Early in the set, early classics like "Never Alone" and "Tryin' to Get Over You" were models of economy that were over almost as soon as they got started. But at the mid and end points of the set, Gill lived up to the promise of his current album's title, Guitar Slinger, by ending a slew of barnstorming numbers with tastefully ferocious extended solos.
"I need to rest for a minute," he said after whipping off solos that would make Clapton green on "Next Big Thing," "Cowboy Up" and "Sweet Thing" in sequence. "Amy said I couldn't do more than three fast songs in a row. I didn't have such a good doctor's report. Too much cheese." Later, going back into guitar hero mode, he joked that he'd just gotten a text from the missus.
They may do most of the same stuff on less historic occasions, but you could tell by the frequently delighted look on the expressive face of veteran steel player Paul Franklin that these guys never remotely phone in their fiery virtuosity. And there's strength in numbers as well as in chops, too. The Troubadour stage has certainly never been more crowded with gear, since Gill brought along his usual eight-piece backup band, which includes nine full-time players, including him.
It was just a little too close for comfort on the Troub stage, Gill admitted after the show. As a drummer, Billy Thomas -- who Gill introduced as "the guy who's been looking at my ass for 25 years" -- rarely lets up, even on the midtempo stuff, and he was closer to Gill's behind than usual.
"At times tonight," said Gill, "we were playing so hard, the cymbals were beyond painfully loud. At times, things would get so loud, I'd get a little bit woozy up there."
But it was his choice to play for two hours and 40 minutes without an intermission, right? That was even about 20 minutes longer than one of his usual sets, which are already longer than anybody else in country music. One thing about being in the Vince Gill band: You have to be at the very top of your field, musically, and be in the uppermost percentile of strong bladders, too.
One sign that you've been at it for a long time, even if you are the youngest and most fresh-faced member of the Hall of Fame: midset remarks about progressive lenses.
"It's a drag playing the guitar and wearing your glasses," Gill told the crowd, wiping his face at one point. "The bifocals are what's weird because the part down there at the bottom is for reading, and I look down and I can't see the neck of my guitar, so I look under 'em, and I'm always a fret off."
If those were the wrong notes he was whipping off till the stroke of midnight, we'd don't want him to be right.
"One More Last Chance"
"Tryin' to Get Over You"
"Take Your Memory With You"
"Real Mean Bottle"
"Pocket Full of Gold"
"High Lonesome Sound"
"Some Things Never Get Old"
"Look at Us"
"This Old Guitar and Me"
"The Old Lucky Diamond Motel"
"Bread and Water"
"Next Big Thing"
"Don't Let Our Love Start Slipping Away"
"I Still Believe in You"
"Pretty Little Adrianna"
"It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)"
"Threaten Me With Heaven"
"Go Rest High on That Mountain"
"Whenever You Come Around"
"Till I Gain Control Again"