Creating a great concert performance requires a lot of work, but Alison Krauss & Union Station made it look effortless Saturday night (Aug. 25) at Nashville’s Sommet Center. Featuring Dobro master Jerry Douglas, the group spent almost two hours demonstrating that genuine musical power can be built on restraint and good taste.
Those qualities have served Krauss well during a recording career that now spans more than two decades. Other female singers may scream or shout, and others may demonstrate their vocal calisthenics on a regular basis, but her vocal style involves nothing more bombastic than a pure, expressive tone and a pitch-perfect delivery. And, no, that isn’t as easy as it seems, judging from the sounds of a lot of other singers recording and performing these days.
There’s a lot to be said, too, about top-notch musicians who have worked together over the course of many years. Bassist Barry Bales has been a member of Union Station for 17 years. Ron Block, who primarily plays banjo, joined the band 15 years ago. Guitarist Dan Tyminski joined full time 13 years ago. And while Douglas doesn’t have the same lengthy tenure, he first recorded with Krauss in the late ’80s. The longevity equates to a musical ESP that’s unquestionable.
Although Saturday’s show took place at the Sommet Center, the arena home of the Nashville Predators’ hockey team, the room was configured to a theater setting with a little more than 5,100 seats — almost all of them filled. It was the last date of the band’s summer tour. No video monitors or pyrotechnics were used or otherwise required.
Opening with “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” Krauss sprinkled the set list with “You’re Just a Country Boy” and “Simple Love” from her recent compilation album, A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, along with staples from past concert tours, including “Let Me Touch You for a While,” “Ghost in This House” and Little Feat’s “Oh, Atlanta.”
Krauss and her bandmates can play traditional music with the best of them, but two of the concert highlights were bluegrass-tinged covers of two pop songs, including “Lose Again,” a Karla Bonoff song popularized by Linda Ronstadt during the ’70s. And if you want to state a case for the connection between bluegrass and rhythm and blues, their arrangement of “I’m Walkin'” makes it clear that there’s not that much distance lyrically between Fats Domino and Flatt & Scruggs.
Block was spotlighted on “Along the Way,” one of the original songs featured on his new solo CD, Door Way. Tyminski reprised his vocal on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” the hit single he recorded as part of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ contribution to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? film soundtrack.
Granted, Douglas’ solo performance wasn’t necessarily one of restraint, but it did get him a standing ovation. The Dobro has never been deemed one of the most versatile instruments, although Douglas’ groundbreaking work has done much to change that perception. Using digital sound loops at the concert, he created basic rhythm tracks on the spot and then embellished them with melodies and rhythmic syncopations for a medley that found the Allman Brothers Band’s “Little Martha” sandwiched between two original songs, “Lil’ RoRo” and “Monkey Let the Hogs Out.” When he finished, someone in the audience yelled out that Douglas is the “Eddie Van Halen of the Dobro,” and that’s not an inaccurate comparison.
During several songs, the musicians were joined by keyboardist Steve Cox and drummer Jim White, whose unobtrusive contributions provided an added dimension to the night’s music.
Krauss is best known for her singing and fiddle playing, but it’s only onstage that her twisted sense of humor comes through. After performing the emotional “Jacob’s Dream,” a song about two children who get lost and die in the mountains, she dryly described it as “a quick pick-me-up!”
With no tour dates scheduled with Union Station for the remainder of the year, Krauss will likely be spending the coming months promoting Raising Sand, her long-awaited duet album with one of her musical heroes, former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant. The album won’t make anyone forget the music he made with Jimmy Page, but it’s doubtful that Plant has ever worked with a more worthy collaborator.