Friday, September 7, 2012

About town: Alison Krauss/Union Station at the Billings Blues Festival

Better late than never, but it is really an impossibility that my heroes could come to town and not have me pay homage.

While I've been listening to Alison Krauss/Union Station for many years (and was irrevocably hooked from the first note), I've never had the privilege of hearing them perform in person. Their last visits to Billings were before I moved here 11 years ago, and by that time, they had hit the big time, and their only stops in Montana were at high-capacity venues in university towns like Bozeman, and I was never able to make the trip.

Krauss and the band played to a packed South Park crowd to close out the Billings Blues festival a couple of weeks ago and did not disappoint in the least. Having suffered through my share of outdoor concerts that had abysmal sound quality, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about having my first (and perhaps only, who knows?) experience of AK/US be at an outdoor venue rather than in an intimate concert hall with great acoustics.

I needn't have worried -- the sound was perfect in every way -- vocals and instrumentals perfectly balanced, instruments perfectly in tune for every perfectly played note, vocals perfect. Just perfect.

That perfection -- artistic sensitivity and surefootedness combined with technical mastery -- has been part of what has made me an AK/US afficianado over the years -- never a sloppy note, never any muddy engineering on the recordings, never a miscue when it comes to choosing material (Krauss writes very little herself, but unsurprisingly has the pick of the finest material available in what can only be described as the "country/bluegrass/crossover" world.)

It is a world that Krauss and her band have themselves largely created and defined, drawn deeply from bluegrass and "roots" music but integrated with insights from an eclectic range of influences. It is music with the polish to fit in with the slickness of most modern country programming, but it is rarely played on those venues. Rather, it exists in a world that could perhaps be described as "underground," if only it weren't so huge. Perhaps the best indicator of what I am talking about is that their latest album "Paper Airplane" was the number one album on the country charts for two weeks, while no single from the album even made the charts at all as a "top 100" song. Huh?

It is a testament to the formulaic nature of country music today that Alison Krauss, with the most Grammys of any female artist and tied for the second most Grammys period (coming in only behind the legendary conductor of the Chicago Symphony, Sir George Solti, who racked up decades of uninterrupted clasical Grammys; and tied with Quincy Jones, the legendary Jazz/R&B producer) -- that someone like that can't get playing time on country music radio. OK, my rant's over now.

Krauss played a nice mix of new material from Paper Airplane and old material going well back into her catalogue, ending with a gentle encore medley/montage of snippets of her most well-known songs -- really quite brilliant, since playing all of those favorites in their entirety would have crowded out gems like Jerry Douglas's dobro pyrotechnics paired with Dan Tyminski's equally compelling vocals on "The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn."

And the gazillionth full-length performance of "When You Say Nothing at All" or "Whiskey Lullaby" might have caused me to miss my own favorite of the night -- "Daylight," from the 2001 album "New Favorite." That song has been bringing tears to my eyes ever since I first shoved the CD into the player more than a decade ago. It was the first fall I was back up here in God's country after 20 years away, and I was driving through eastern Montana along the Yellowstone, with the leaves turning to gold and the prairie burnishing to dun as autumn came on. I had finally completed what had seemed like a lifetime of exile, off in the (mostly) big cities completing the necessary business of education, surgical training, and military service. It had been an experience simultaneously irreplaceable and yet often somewhat akin to being buried alive. I was back again in the region I loved and where my heart had never left, and it somehow seemed like Alison Krauss gave voice to the full range of emotions I was experiencing.

Tears it brought again that Sunday night in South Park. I could spend several paragraphs analyzing the sonic landscape of just that one song -- with its effective mix of hurtling but gentle instrumentals and intense yet languid vocals -- but I don't want to. What I do know is that only Alison Krauss and Union Station could create that particular work of art -- one that never stops piercing me with its painful beauty. Like so many Alison Krauss songs heard for the first time, it was hard to decide what would be more painful -- to have to experience its sweet melancholy again... or never to be able to hear it again. Almost always, of course, we AKUS devotees choose the latter, and keep coming back for more, and yet more again.

Peerless professionals that they are, everyone got their money's worth from Alison and the boys, who finished up with Ron Block's iconic composition (and the band's traditional closing number), "There is a Reason." It is one of those rare songs that fully and sensitively acknowledges how difficult it is to hold on to religious belief in this life... this world -- and yet gently but firmly expresses that faith anyway. And really, would an authentic evening of "roots" music not have at least one moment like that? Not for me, and probably not for Alison Krauss, as best as I can tell.

It was a night to remember in Billings, and unsurprisingly, the crowd was mellow and at peace with the world, with each other -- and who knows, for some, maybe even with God -- as we walked away together under the fading light of a Montana summer sky.

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