Author: Corbett, Kevin
Date published: August 31, 2011
An overcast opening night at Chevrolet Court brought a warm welcome for the first local performance in memory of country crooners Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. Following what Larry called the shortest introduction they've ever had, the trio really didn't need to pander to the Aug. 25 audience by opening with "America the Beautiful" but they did. It was a practice they employed all night, invoking their passionate support of the military and referring frequently to their Christian beliefs.
With big brother Larry, bearded and sporting a bandana around his neck, leading the way, they launched a string of old favorites. His still-vibrant tenor climbed into falsetto on "Night Time Magic" leading into the flashy "Houston (Means I'm One Day Closer to You)", showing off their trademark Vegas style. In their prime, 1975 to 1988, they were considered a slick departure from mainstream country. But today their sound is almost quaint compared to the hard-rocking or pop-flavored material that dominates the current industry mainstream.
After all those years, you would think that they would know enough to let their soaring harmonies carry the show, but they actually twice started and stopped the evening's fourth song, 1977's "I Don't Wanna Cry," first so Larry could admonish the audience to "act like you've heard this song before" and then to take way too long hamming it up at the edge of the stage, posing for photos. They must be spending too much time playing in Branson, where rhinestone cowboys rule the theaters. Speaking of Rhinestone cowboys, Larry's crystalline tenor often reminds of Glen Campbell.
Since brother Steve Gatlin plays bass to underscore Larry and Rudy Gatlin on guitar, the sibling trio, all wearing black blazers, had only two other musicians on stage, but what musicians they were. The formidable fills of longtime lead guitarist Steve Smith-called by Larry their "brother from another mother"-and the solid drumming of Robbie Skyler lent all the support needed for polished instrumental backing of a show that's all about the vocals.
Most of Larry's jokes sounded too canned, with obvious setups followed by predictable punch lines, although he invoked some laughs when, after making a subtle remark, he told audience members to "explain it to the folks from Buffalo." The patter was best when Larry, who sure wasn't shy about dropping the names of many famous friends, recounted the history of the family's five decades in music. He expressed both gratitude and respect for the legends who helped them climb the ladder, from Elvis Presley, who recorded two of his songs, enabling him to buy a big house for himself and wife Janice, to Roger Miller, with whom he co-wrote songs. He even sang a few bars of a Gatlin song cut by Johnny Mathis. He most highly praised one of country music's most legendary couples, recalling that he sang at June Carter's funeral and carried Johnny Cash's coffin.
Larry, a frequent guest on cable TV's Fox News, didn't mention his stint in the starring role of The Will Rogers Follies or his struggle with drug and alcohol abuse that led to his shocking revelation that he once used cocaine in the White House. Predictably, the chatter never approached the entertainment value of the brothers' rendering of inspired covers of their famous songs, shining on the staggered opening verse of "Broken Lady." That Grammy-winning gem concluded with Larry leading an audience sing-along that he praised, saying, "Y'all were the best ever." You had to wonder how any times he's said that.
The new Chevy Court sound system performed flawlessly, providing the sharpness and clarity that are crucial in a country show, when the lyrics count. As the boys reached back to their gospel roots to croon a few verses a cappella, their voices drifted out in rich, splendid waves.
The strongest new song, "Johnny Cash is Dead and His House Burned Down," was written by Larry on the back of a restaurant placemat after a conversation with his son about how country music goes through changes and there will never be another Cash. He confessed that it wasn't until a few days later that he realized that he had "accidentally borrowed," almost note for note, the tune of the Man In Black's iconic "Big River." Rather than rewrite, he secured the blessing of Cash's son John Carter Cash and plunged ahead, playing up the click-clack guitar licks and raw vocal energy that epitomized Cash. It's a riotous song in concert and another chance for Smith to solidify his standing as the fourth Gatlin Brother by sizzling on lead guitar.
After the show wrapped with a heavy-handed hymn recorded with Christian singer-songwriter Bill Gaither, it was remarkable to recall that after all the great old songs they played in over an hour on the Stan Colella Stage, there were still some Gatlin hits not covered. We could have done with fewer of the monologues and syrupy songs to make time for more of what everybody came to hear.