Last night (7/21), I was fortunate to catch Alison Krauss & Union Station in concert at the Roanoke Civic Center. She is extremely popular here, as she is in many parts of the world, and the audience was primed and ready for the show to begin.
I was surprised to find Jeremy Lister opened the show, performing on guitar and vocals, with his brother Richie on piano. Having seen AKUS many times, this was only the second occasion where there was a supporting act. The only other time was when Michael Johnson toured with them in the mid-1990s, like Lister, a songwriter and vocalist that Krauss greatly admires. Jeremy wrote Sinking Stone, included on the new AKUS CD, Paper Airplane, and had been a featured performer along with his brother on The Sing Off, an a capella singing competition program, on NBC last year.
Watching their set, I was struck by the fairly bizarre backdrop. Alison’s shows have always struck me as impeccably professional, including set dressing, lighting and staging overall. Last night, there was hung just in front of the back drape, what looked for the world like a half dozen large, neutral gray bed sheets, attached with clothes hangers on a drooping line. It turned out that they were meant to serve as a screen onto which images were projected during the first bit of the AKUS set, very effectively I might add. But in the bright wash of light to which opening acts are relegated, it was a bit disconcerting.
Ah… but once the featured act took the stage, it was pure bliss. I have often remarked after seeing them perform, “They really are that good.” And so they are.
The show opened with the title track of the new album, followed by a wicked Jerry Douglas instrumental, and Listers’ Sinking Stone. The band moved swiftly through their set, with noticeably less banter between Alison and the audience, and between her and her band members, as had been the norm in the past. It made for a ton of music in a two hour show, but I really missed not hearing more of Krauss’ daffy comments.
As always, at least in this part of the country, the bluegrass numbers got the biggest response from the crowd. They were mixed in among Alison’s softer numbers with the show building in intensity towards a crescendo with Oh Atlanta, which closed the set. Of course, they returned for an encore doing her now trademark “unplugged” mini-set around a single microphone stage right.
An unexpected highlight was Alison’s version of Any Old Time, which she and the band recorded almost 15 years ago for a Jimmie Rodgers tribute album. For my money, Krauss is at her best when raring back and belting it out, and boy did she let it loose on this one! The song was given an effective lead-in by guest keyboard man John Deaderick, who opened it with a rip-roaring, Gospel-style introduction.
Union Station is as integral a part of the AKUS presentation as the singing star herself, something that Krauss has always proclaimed in both media interviews and in the show itself. Every member is given their chance to shine, most obviously guitarist/mandolinist Dan Tyminski who sang as many as a third of the songs. Dan may be the most talented “second vocalist” in any touring show, and has had a huge impact on Alison’s sound since he left Lonesome River Band to work with her back in the mid-’90s.
Ron Block serves as the utility infielder for the band, switching off throughout the show between guitar and banjo – and even sold body electric guitar – and providing the bulk of the 3rd vocal parts. He has few peers in the banjo world, playing with a style that is both distinctive and unique, and his relaxed and thoughtful guitar style provides a nice counterpoint to Tyminski’s more muscular approach.
Jerry Douglas has even fewer peers on resophonic guitar, and his prodigious skills were on display all evening. Another enduring feature of AKUS shows is their habit of giving Jerry a 5-10 minute solo slot, which always begins with a a brief monologue, and concludes with a blistering Dobro tour de force.
Barry Bales also owns a reputation as the go-to guy for upright bass anywhere near the bluegrass world. His playing is always impeccable, with no attempt to call attention to himself, dutifully serving the groove of the band. Though not the type to seek a spot to impress instrumentally, Alison always includes a conversation with Barry in the show, and last night was no exception.
In addition to Deaderick on keys on a handful of songs, percussionist Josh Hunt joined the group on selected pieces.
In reality, there were too many highlights to try and list individually. There isn’t a dud in their set, with strong material selected from almost all of Krauss’ 11 solo or AKUS albums. She is at that point in a successful career where there is no hope of hearing all your favorite songs, even in a 2 hour show.
Suffice it to say, anyone who thought things would be different after her flirtations with mainstream pop in recent years are on flimsy ground. Alison was in exceptional voice, and put on an engaging and riveting performance.
Milo Farineau was on hand to shoot, but was unfortunately relegated to the back of the hall. He still managed to capture a number of fine images from the show.
Thanks Milo, and thanks to Alison Krauss & Union Station for a brilliant evening’s entertainment.
Backstage, after the show, I got to witness a beautiful bluegrass moment. During the concert, Alison had paid special tribute to The Lost and Found, a popular touring bluegrass group based not far from Roanoke. In turns out that she had sought out and invited their original (and very influential) banjo picker, Gene Parker, to the show, and had brought him backstage to met her. It was a heartwarming scene seeing her gush over Gene like he was a superstar himself, as he truly is among those who cherish bluegrass music.
Gene accepted her praise with a slightly embarrassed smile, watching this most prominent performer with all her awards and platinum albums treat him like a celebrity.
Don’t think that Nashville has changed this girl from a bluegrass soul. She loves and lives it like the rest of us.