Country music fans lucky enough to get tickets were treated to a double bill of top-flight talent as two of Nashville's most revered recording artists, Vince Gill and Mary Chapin Carpenter, pTC performed for a sellout crowd of 4,100 at the Naval Academy's Alumni Hall in Annapolis Friday night.
Gill, a 36-year-old veteran who has broken into the record charts in a big way in the past few years with hits like "When I Call Your Name" and "Cinderella," is one of country's most gifted and distinctive vocalists. An exquisite guitarist to boot, Gill is also the closest thing country music will ever have to Eric Clapton. He was the Country Music Association's 1991 "Male Vocalist of the Year."
Also an avid sports fan, the lanky 6-foot, 3-inch Oklahoman quickly won the crowd over with his warmth and easygoing humor. "I was just in Vegas and put all my money on Navy," he announced to the cheering crowd. "And I'm gonna win a pocket full of gold (the title to one of his recent hits) when y'all beat those Army guys."
Then Gill quickly awed the audience to silence with his exquisite, pitch-perfect high-range vocal performances on achingly tender ballads like "When I Call Your Name" and "Look at Us." He also ambled out to the edge of the stage and unleashed long, exquisite lead guitar runs on up-tempo hits like "Lil Liza Jane," "Oklahoma Swing" and his current single, "Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away."
But undeniably, the emotional high point of his finely paced hour-and-a-half show was also the most hushed. There was nary a dry eye in the house as the lights dimmed and he reprised "I Never Knew Lonely," "Look at Us" and other ballads of emotional torture that have earned Gill his status as the king of heart-piercing country ballads.
Mary Chapin Carpenter turned in a similarly energetic hour-long opening set. She kicked things off with "You Win Again," "Going Out Tonight" and a couple of other semi-melancholy, relationship-weary numbers which she wryly referred to as "songs from my most recent ex-boyfriend trilogy."
Those in the audience who never saw Carpenter in her shrinking violet mid-1980s incarnation as a shy, trembling, self-conscious folk singer may not fully appreciate the remarkable metamorphosis she's undergone as a performer. Backed by her versatile, at times hard-rocking, four-piece, all-Washington band, Carpenter (a longtime Washington area resident) no longer just sings; she regales her audience with sardonic anecdotes about her personal life, plays some rowdy lead guitar riffs on her Stratocaster and even dances a little Cajun-style two-step as she and the band belt out hits like "Down at the Twist and Shout," her Grammy-winning tribute to that now-defunct Bethesda club.
Drawing material from the most recent three of her four Columbia LPs ("State of the Heart," "Shooting Straight in the Dark" and her latest, "Come On Come On"), Carpenter ranged from the torchy intensity of "Passionate Kisses" and the melancholy soul-searching of "Rhythm of the Blues," to the strutting, hard-rocking enticement of "Right Now," "Read My Lips" and her recent hit, "I Feel Lucky," with its playful references to an imaginary tryst with Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett.
John Jennings, Carpenter's longtime co-producer and lead guitarist (they completed most of "Hometown Girl," her debut LP, in his basement studio in Northern Virginia back in the mid-'80s), looked like a rumpled, out-of-work English professor. But he plays guitar like a wizard. His bold, inventive riffs infused Carpenter's set with a tightly controlled intensity that, toward the finale, had a fair number of Academy plebes dancing in the aisles with their dates.