Alison Krauss and Union Station
Red Rocks Amphitheater
September 2, 2011
Alison Krauss and Union Station often get lumped into the "country" music category, but occasionally, they end up in the more accurate "bluegrass" classification. Modern country music seems to be little more than run-of-the-mill pop music with an occasional steel guitar, a big hat, a hint of Texas twang and subject matter that centers on lyin,' cheatin' and stealin.' Bluegrass, on the other hand, puts much more emphasis on the musicianship, both instrumental and vocal, rather than hat size. AKUS lay down some traditional bluegrass on occasion, but more frequently they use a more or less traditional bluegrass instrumentation and put their own twist on the style. This, of course, drives bluegrass purists crazy, but there's little fun that's more delicious than driving purists crazy.
By her own admission, Krauss and her band deal with death and dying and hard times in general. Musically, that translates into songs mostly in a minor key. It's not just a high lonesome sound, it's haunting music that consistently sends shivers down the spine. Occasionally, a love song seeps through, but even those usually have a touch of sadness or regret. The band draws its material from a wide variety of song writers, sometimes from the band, sometimes traditional, sometimes contemporary. A good example of the latter is the band's cover of Peter Rowan's "Dust Bowl Children." Although penned only a few years ago, it sounds like something right out of the 1930s, Woody Guthrie style. Another highlight Friday night was Richard Thompson's delicate "Dimming of the Day," a tune he wrote in the early '70s. Unmitigated bluegrass broke out about a third of the way through the set with "Rain Please Go Away," the traditional "Sawing on the Strings" and "Wild Bill Jones."
One thing that sets AKUS apart from most bluegrass bands is, of course, Alison Krauss herself. As they say out in the country, she sings just like a little ol' angel. Just barely 40, she's been playing professionally for over 25 years. Besides singing, she's also an award winning violin player, or fiddler as they say. She recently gained some crossover exposure through her dalliance, er, collaboration with Robert Plant in 2007's Raising Sand
(Rounder, 2007) which picked up six Grammy
awards. Now that her hanging-with-a-rock-star phase is over, she's back to her roots and her longtime band.
Krauss introduced band-mate and dobro player Jerry Douglas
as "one of the best musicians of any genre." Douglas could stay home in Nashville and make an extremely comfortable living as a session player and not have to deal with the hassles of touring, but he chooses to go on the road with Krauss and the band, which is a coup for Krauss, the rest of the band and the audience. When monitor problems plagued the beginning of the show, the band quickly gave up in order to allow some time to work on the monitorsbut Douglas remained on stage and worked out an impromptu solo, at one point meandering his way into the "Star Spangled Banner" while the orderly and generally patriotic crowd got the hint and stood up. Douglas also had another solo slot about half way through the set and used it to play a medley that included Chick Corea's
Dan Tyminski is another indispensable member of Union Station, whose singing George Clooney lip-synched on "Man of Constant Sorrow" in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Tyminski sang lead vocals on about a third of the tunes and was Krauss' chief harmonizer. He and Ron Block continually switched stringed instruments from guitars to banjos to mandolins. The instrumentation was strictly acousticDouglas plugged in his dobro, but all the other instruments were played next to microphones for a pure acoustic sound, unfettered by even the attachment of a pickup.
Barry Bales on acoustic bass and backing vocals rounded out the core of Union Station. For Saturday night's show, the band expanded with the addition of Josh Hunt
on drums and John Dedrick on piano and accordion. Here again, the band was straying from strict bluegrass tradition. However, those two members were only on stage for about a quarter of the show and Hunt almost always used brushes, mallets or his hands on the drums for an understated approach to percussion.
For the encore, the band gathered around a single multi-directional microphone and even Douglas unplugged. Many bands bring their sets to a boisterous climax in the encore. AKUS, on the other hand, brought the dynamics down, but raised the emotional intensity with the subject matter of the songs. "Whiskey Lullaby" was the story self-destruction brought on by infidelity, which Krauss had recorded with country star Brad Paisley. "Your Long Journey" appeared on Raising Sand
and was about saying goodbye to a spouse on his deathbed. "Down to the River to Pray" was another tune from O, Brother Where Art Thou?
Krauss sang that one a cappella, except for the several thousand audience members in accompaniment. Given the gospel nature of the tune, it was like an Easter sunrise service, with another gospel-inflected tune, "There is a Reason," as the closer.