Save for perhaps George Strait and Don Williams, no one in country music makes entertaining a packed house seem quite as effortless as Vince Gill. In fact, even when he was at his dazzling best at Wolf Trap on Friday night, playing tricky but remarkably fluid guitar solos on "Oklahoma Borderline" and other romps, Gill couldn't have appeared more relaxed or more naturally gifted.
Over the years he's come to emphasize his strengths in concert, singing mostly tender or poignant ballads in a clear and handsome tenor. Indeed, the deaths of his brother and father inspired two of his more affecting performances at Wolf Trap. Yet as the crowd's reaction to "If You Ever Have Forever in Mind," "I Still Believe in You" and other romantic ballads vigorously underscored, Gill's simple way with a love song is primarily what keeps people returning to his concerts.
Of course, if that were the extent of his interests, he wouldn't need to tour with a large band composed of several seasoned and superb instrumentalists. With the help of his nine-member band, Gill was able to immerse himself in older country music traditions, everything from bluegrass (a nod to "my old buddies at the Birchmere") to western swing tunes brightened by the sounds of fiddle and pedal steel guitar. While Gill gently chided young radio programmers around the nation who find some of his country music "too country," even more of these colorful, firmly rooted performances would have been welcome Friday night.
Singer Jo Dee Messina, who recently appeared in town, opened the concert with a familiar but brassy set, complete with full-tilt versions of "Heads Carolina, Tails California," "You're Not in Kansas Anymore" and "Bye, Bye." All her chatter, though, put a severe drag on the show's pacing.