Alison Krauss & Union Station were welcomed back into the fold during their Paper Airplane tour stop at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Friday night (Aug. 26), the first of two nights at the historic venue.
The Grammy-winning ensemble have rarely performed as a unit in the last few years, mostly because of the band members' individual projects. Plus, their new album, Paper Airplane, is their first since 2004. Yet despite the long break, they remain a musical force -- and they still make it look easy.
It's hard to imagine a more laid-back concert than theirs. They led the set with "Paper Airplane," a melancholy, well-crafted ballad by Robert Lee Castleman, one of Krauss' most reliable resources for material. After that, when Dan Tyminski delivered a convincing version of Peter Rowan's "Dust Bowl Children," the audience started stomping in rhythm on the wooden floor. After that died out, everybody seemed to settle in for a quiet night. Only occasionally, somebody would start clapping along, only to realize most bluegrass fans don't do that.
Besides if you're focusing on clapping and stomping, you'll miss the intricacies that make AKUS so special. Krauss' commanding voice rings as true as ever, while her bandmates' understated melodies and harmonies always blend beautifully. Her ear for material is unerring, especially the pensive "Lie Awake" (co-written by her brother, Viktor, and opening act Angel Snow), as well as Jeremy Lister's despondent "Sinking Stone" and Richard Thompson's lovely "Dimming of the Day."
Four months into the tour, Krauss told the audience they were delighted to be home. Prior to this stop, she told the crowd, the highlight of the tour was buying a new electric toothbrush that hummed at an unwavering pitch. So, in other words, her Raising Sand experience with Robert Plant didn't exactly turn her into a rock star.
Instead, the set list flowed with subtlety through new songs first, then mostly into familiar tunes like the exquisite "Let Me Touch You for a While" and the chill-inducing "Ghost in This House." The opening notes of "Baby, Now That I Found You" drew a large response, indicating the bulk of the house has been following her career for well over a decade. (The song served as the title of her first career retrospective in 1995. That same year she surprised everyone, even herself, by winning four CMA Awards.)
Other highlights included "Sawing on the Strings," a lively tune about the joys of fiddling, as well as the perfectly-played "Every Time You Say Goodbye," anchored by the reliable Barry Bales on upright bass. Bales also co-wrote one of the new songs, "Miles to Go," with Chris Stapleton.
In addition, Jerry Douglas, Ron Block and Tyminski all took a deserved moment in the spotlight throughout the night, with Krauss sometimes playing along, and at other times simply looking upon them with admiration.
While introducing the band, Krauss spoke kindly about the two newest members of her touring group -- Josh Hunt on drums and John Deaderick on piano. Their contributions might frustrate the bluegrass purists (drums and piano?!) although open-minded music fans will immediately appreciate the ambiance they provide.
The elegant encore offered casual fans the songs they came to hear with only the barest of accompaniment and those incredible voices directed toward a single microphone. Indeed, the tour's only special effect was a slow-moving slideshow of rural imagery projected on a screen behind them. Nothing exploded at the end of the show and certainly didn't need to.
Near the middle of her set, Krauss told the audience that people often wander up to the band and ask, "Hey, why do you play so many sad songs?" Her reply is simple: "We just figured out we were sad people."
It drew a laugh, only because it couldn't possibly be true. With so many smiles going back and forth among the players, you could clearly see that they were happy to be home.