J. Freedom du Lac Reviews Gill, Grant & Friends at Challenge America Concert

Gill, with wife Amy Grant, sang a soul-stirring "Go Rest High on That Mountain" for the Challenge America concert.
Gill, with wife Amy Grant, sang a soul-stirring "Go Rest High on That Mountain" for the Challenge America concert. (By Kyle Gustafson For The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Can't they just give Vince Gill his Kennedy Center Honors medal already?

If there's any justice in the arts world, then at some point, the Kennedy Center's Board of Trustees should receive a short list with Gill's name on it. And the trustees should be compelled to decide that yes, of course Gill should be honored for his contributions to American culture, for he is one of contemporary music's most prodigious talents -- a quadruple-threat singer, songwriter, guitar-slinger and storyteller whose mastery of his craft is astonishing.

The 52-year-old Nashville star made a fairly unimpeachable case for himself at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday -- never mind that the night was supposed to be about others.

It was the launch event for Challenge America, an initiative to help injured veterans get on with their lives after coming home, and Gill and his wife, the singer Amy Grant, hosted the kickoff-cum-concert with more than a little help from their musician friends.

The format was a songwriters' circle, a staple of the Nashville scene but a rarity on a big stage, particularly one inside the Beltway, and it was a fairly freewheeling affair, with no set list and no rehearsals. Just Gill and Grant onstage with bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss and her sidekick Dan Tyminski, Hootie singer-turned-country star Darius Rucker, blue-eyed soul belter Michael McDonald and songwriter-singer-Parrothead Mac McAnally.

Each musician was seated on a stool, save for McDonald who was on a bench behind his Yamaha keyboard, and they took turns telling stories and jokes, saluting the wounded warriors in the concert hall and beyond and, of course, performing a little bit of music.

There were more than a few high points -- none higher than Krauss's jaw-dropping vocal on "I Know Who Holds Tomorrow," during which her crystalline soprano soared to breathtaking effect -- and not a single dud in the surprise-filled set, which ran roughly two hours including Challenge America videos and speeches.

But Gill was both the glue and the star of the show, whether he was adding stinging Stratocaster licks during McDonald's powerhouse performance of the old Doobie Brothers hit "It Keeps You Runnin' " and Tyminski's version of the bluegrass standard "Man of Constant Sorrow" or singing harmony vocals ("the high part," he noted) on Grant's 1994 spiritual, "House of Love," or telling side-splitting stories about his music and personal life.

Not for nothing was Gill twice named entertainer of the year at the Country Music Association Awards. He's also been voted into both the Country Music and Nashville Songwriters halls of fame, and with good reason: Monday, his superlative songs showed remarkable stylistic range, even if he played just three.

"Whenever You Come Around" was a gauzy ballad about Grant, on which Gill crooned convincingly in a sweet, plaintive voice. He played the part of a punch line-delivering honky-tonker on a saucy song whose critical couplet was "it's hard to kiss the lips at night/that chew your [hindquarters] out all day long." And he sang a gorgeous gospel stunner about his late brother, "Go Rest High on That Mountain," delivering a soul-stirring vocal that sent a chill through the stately room.

Gill is far more likely to be found at the Grand Ole Opry (or the Birchmere, for that matter) than the Kennedy Center, but perhaps he'll be back soon enough to do the Honors and have one of those rainbow ribbon-and-gold bar medals draped around his neck. He'd wear it well.

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