Alison Krauss and Union Station Saturday, July 29, at the Festival at Sandpoint
Alison Krauss and her band Union Station played bluegrass music so earthy it could have been on your back porch, so sublime it might have arrived there untouched by human hands.
To call Union Station a bluegrass band is to call the Beatles a rock band, Duke Ellington a jazz musician. Operating at this level, musicians transcend the genre and create new possibilities.
Union Station played hard-core instrumental “breakdowns,” achingly beautiful ballads and a couple of new bluegrass-cum-R&B pieces; best of all, the all-acoustic show banished fears that the group’s new-found country music success might cause them to abandon their old-timey roots.
To the contrary, explained mandolin player Adam Steffey, when he introduced the vehicle of their success, Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All.”
Whitley was once a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, a bluegrass band that had influenced all the young players, he said. Covering the song for a tribute album last year was their way of honoring a too-soon-dead hero.
“We hope he would be proud of the way it turned out,” he said, sounding almost apologetic that the song had turned out to be such a big hit.
It’s hard to imagine that Whitley wouldn’t approve: Krauss’ tangy hillcountry soprano soars into Dolly Parton territory but also has a throaty vulnerability that puts a powerful stamp on ballads like Whitley’s. And Union Station draws an orchestral richness from their simple acoustic instruments that gives a ballad a spare but lush beauty.
On the surface, bluegrass is simple music: Lilting melodies and high, close harmonies float over a tight acoustic weave. Soloing is kept to a minimum, though each musician might step into the limelight to pick a few bars during a song.
The real action is in the arrangements, where guitars, banjos, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass stutter and step in and around each other subtly, intricately. It’s music that rewards close attention, and nobody does it better than Union Station.
Hitting the breathtaking start/stop syncopations of a breakdown dead on, or rolling with the cool funk of Bad Company’s “Oh Atlanta” - and what a vocal workout Krauss gave that one - the members of Union Station are like jazz musicians who listen so hard to each other that every note finds its perfect home.
When they turned to the gentle R&B groove of their current hit, a makeover of the Foundation’s “Now That I’ve Found You,” they showed they know something about blue-eyed soul, too.
Krauss, with her chilling soprano and spectacular fiddle playing, is a transcendent musician - a talent big enough to yank bluegrass back into the spotlight - and Union Station is by some people’s reckoning the best bluegrass band of the past 20 years.
Saturday night, they played music that a crowd of people are going to remember for a long time to come.
Sandpoint’s Cafe Gas opened with a set that emphasized personality over musicianship, though there was nothing sorry about their playing. The music moved a parade of local admirers to fling their frilly underthings at the nonplussed players. Solo performer Doug Bond, who followed, couldn’t hope to compete with that display.
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