June 26: Alison Krauss, Top Shelf Main Stage
It's almost impossible to believe that singer and fiddler Alison Krauss is now on the south side of her forties. Winning local contests in her hometown of Decatur, IL by age ten and making her first record at fourteen, Krauss is the obvious torch-carrier for two other country/bluegrass singers: Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris
. But with both Parton and Harris still alive, she's not so much a torch-carrier as a tradition-bearer, helping to keep music with deep roots in the American south alive and well, but in her own inimitable fashion.
Krauss' longtime band, Union Station, has become one of the true litmus tests for the relevance of traditional bluegrass and country music, in particular since the diminutive singer was invited to join the two year-old group for its 1989 debut, Two Highways
(Rounder Records). But with that group now truly a band of individual stars as well as a collective one, most members of the group all have their own projects, which has also allowed Krauss to build a small but significant discography under her own name.
Her appearance at the 2018 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival was in support of her recent solo record, Windy City
(Capitol, 2017), though the singerwho almost always had her fiddle in hand, even if she played it relatively infrequentlynot only traversed her long career with and without Union Station, but included a surprising amount of material from external sources. A mid-concert trio of songs came from the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' 2000 loose, deep south retelling of Homer's The Odyssey
; two songs were culled from her Grammy Award
-winning collaboration with Robert Plant
, Raising Sand
(Rounder); another she originally sang on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 50th Anniversary celebration album, Circlin' Back -Celebrating 50 Years
(NGDB, 2016); another couple of songs came from fellow bluegrass stars the Cox Family; while three were songs that she's not yet recorded but come from reputable sources but now beg recording by Krauss.
Perhaps the most significant definer of Krauss' (almost to the second, including three encores) 90-minute performance at Marion Dewar Park was how quiet
it was, barring just a couple of brighter tunes where her stellar septet had the chance to kick things up a bit. Even more remarkable was how Krauss, by opening the set with her near-whisper version of Buddy Cannon's soft ballad from Windy City
, "River in the Rain," managed to almost completely silence the large crowd and bring them into her world. There are few outdoor concerts where the old saying "you could hear a pin drop" apply, and if the largely grassy turf of the Plaza would have silenced a pin, had it been dropped onto it...well, you get the point.
Krauss put together a band that included two of her Union Station partners. Banjoist Ron Block largely played acoustic guitar here, but delivered some unexpectedly fine (because, in Union Station, Dan Tyminski plays guitar for the most part, with Block focusing on banjo) solos towards the end of Krauss' main set. Bassist Barry Bales may have received even less solo space, other than a brief spot during the set-closing medley of "Walk Over God's Heaven," which Krauss recorded with the Cox Family for 1994's I Know Who Holds Tomorrow
(Rounder), and an as-yet unrecorded "I Want My Crown," which brought the main set to a close nearly as quiet as its beginning. Still, Bales has always been and remains one of the true anchors of contemporary bluegrass music.
As Bales was paired with Jay Bellerose
, a tremendously versatile drummer/percussionist who's played with everyone from Billy Childs
, Jackson Browne
and Suzanne Vega
to Rhiannon Giddens
, Graham Nash and Bettye LaVette
, Krauss had an unshakable yet creative rhythm section that could turn up the heat when required (but still in a relatively quiet way), while contributing plenty to even the quietest songs.
Two members of the Cox Family, with whom Krauss has now not only guested but produced (2015's Gone Like the Cotton
), were important additions to both Krauss' group and performance, with guitarist/singer Sidney Cox especially impressive on dobro. Singer Suzanne Cox (introduced as a "new grandmother," by Krauss) not only bolstered the upper end of the four-part harmonies delivered throughout the set by Krauss, Block and the two Coxes; she was also featured on a couple of tune, including the absolutely riveting last of three encores, "It is Well," another positively sublime song crying out for Krauss to record. Matt Rollings
represented a significant instrumental foundation for the group. A pianist who has recorded and toured often (including many Ottawa dates) with Lyle Lovett
, Rollings also has amassed an even richer resume that includes, in addition to performing with artists like Mark Knopfler, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Larry Carlton
, producing (Willie Nelson
's Grammy Award
-winning Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin
The surprise of the group was, however, the lesser-known but on-the-rise James Mitchell. The long-bearded electric guitarist has performed with everyone from Hank Williams III, Colton James and Cole Swindell to Krauss (Windy City
) and Willie Nelson (2018's Last Man Standing
) and was, alongside Rollings, an essential member of the group, contributing everything from volume pedal chordal swells to some true, hardcore country picking on "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson," the set's first up-tempo tune (eight songs in) that Krauss recorded on Raising Sand
, from which she also drew the darker, banjo-drive ballad, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us."
If the group was terrific and attention-grabbing, the blonde-haired Krauss remained almost always its focal point, dressed in a comfortable-looking green dress. On record, her voice is often so quiet as to be challenged by a whisper; that she managed to deliver the same nuanced and profoundly subtle voice in an outdoor concert was as remarkable as the rest of the set's many achievements. But if she is, perhaps, best-known for soft balladry and even softer delivery, she also demonstrated greater power and range on songs like the Windy City
's country-rich "It's Goodbye and So Long to You," which also featured another stellar solo from Mitchell and an equally impressive feature for Krauss on fiddle.
Her fiddle was almost always in hand but played far less often than might be expected/hoped for, as Krauss occasionally added some rhythmic pizzicato chords and the occasional fill here and there but, even more occasionally, actual solos. Still, it was impossible to miss her very specific tone: so warm, so rich that it often sounded more like a viola than a violin.
If Krauss began her show in calm quietude and ended the main set in the same fashion, her three-song encore featuring only the four vocalists, with accompaniment from guitarists Block and Cox. The original version of "When You Say Nothing at All" became slightly more (but only slightly) animated on Now That I've Found You
, but "Living Prayer" was just as gentle as on Union Station's Lonely Runs Both Ways
. And the show-closing "It is Well" was the perfect way to send an audience home, with comforting harmonies and a message all the more relevant for the times in which we live.
Without pushing it on her audience in any way, Krauss' show was deep in its innate spirituality. Krauss may not have spoken to the audience more than a couple of times, but she was precisely what true spirituality engenders (and which is missing, all too often, in these times): clear gratitude for her career, for an audience interested in her, and, on this night as in many others, for a group of players, singers and, just as important, friends
with whom she could present such achingly beautiful music. As confident as she is as a performer, there was also a clear humility that rendered the entire show all the more enthralling. It was a perfect way to close out this year's coverage of the 2018 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.
As always, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival staff and its literally hundreds of volunteers were not just friendly and accommodating; they ensured that everyone's needs were met, more often than not without being asked. With no small challenges this year in having to relocate or find new venues while Confederation Park and the National Arts Centre are undergoing their renovations, the festival's ability to meet such difficulties head-on and deal with them in ways that made them largely invisible speaks to the core festival team: Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady and Programming Manager Petr Cancura, who also put together another thoroughly memorable lineup with enough music from across the entire jazz spectrum and beyond, to provide more than just some thing
for everyone; with Director of Marketing & Partnerships, Suzan Zilahi, making the festival as easy as possible for members of the media, even when some artists presented significant for the increasingly difficult subject of photography, with so many artists now imposing rigid restrictions thanks to the proliferation of cell phones and other recording devices.
It's a festival that has continued to grow and expand its purview as it approaches its 40th anniversary, despite the undeniable challenges that everything from logistics to the fact that most musicians' contracts look for payment in American dollars, as the Canadian dollar holds relatively steady at 75 cents to the American buck, following a few years of near-parity respite. From a one weekend-only series of concerts in 1980 to an eleven-day event with 100 concerts, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival continues to not only be a major event for the city, but an event that has found a better balance in its program than many, with more than enough jazz, each and every day, to satisfy discerning fans of any age, but also plenty of big ticket oomph to ensure that it remains fiscally fluid, year-after-year.
Here's looking to 2019!
Photo Credit: John R. Fowler