Alison Krauss + Union Station - Publicity Photo

Bluegrass Goes Pop

Alison Krauss + Union Station

Chicago Theatre

March 24, 2000

First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2000, Volume 7, #5

Written by John Metzger


It's not often that a musician could be an industry veteran at the tender age of 29. Yet, that's exactly what Alison Krauss is by the time she was 14 she had already signed her first recording contract with Rounder Records. While it's not unusual for someone to break into the music business at such a young age (witness the recurring crops of teen groups unleashed on the public every few years), they typically fade into obscurity by the time they reach their twenties. Not so for Krauss she already has managed to amass ten Grammy Awards and four Country Music Association Awards. In addition, she has been bestowed membership in the Grand Ole Opry (the institution's youngest member) and has been heralded by critics as a virtuoso for her fiddle playing. All the while, she's built quite a loyal following around her crack bluegrass band Union Station. While this might be enough for most, Krauss seems determined to take things further, bridging the gap and blurring the boundaries between bluegrass and pop, thereby widening her audience.

On March 24, Krauss and Union Station did just that, turning in a remarkable performance at the Chicago Theatre. Their two-hour set was peppered with bluegrass-based material, from the fiddle tunes of Don Rich to those penned by Union Station members Dan Tymenski and Ron Block. The group frequently broke into vocal trios with Krauss and Tymenski forming the foundation as Block and bassist Barry Bales alternated in adding harmonies. No matter what the configuration, the three voices came together with exquisite results in the classic bluegrass style of perfect unity.

So, too, did the musicianship. Block added a made-to-order combination of guitar and banjo, Tymenski complemented him with his own delectable dish of guitar and mandolin, and Krauss delivered a tasty serving of her elegantly masterful fiddle playing. Each added their own fluid leads and rhythm, often with an understated presence. In typical bluegrass fashion, the group engaged each other in a round robin of solos, riding the ebb and flow of the music over the steady thump-thump-thump of bass. Consequently, the musicians allowed the full range of their talent to bubble to the surface only briefly before settling back into the fray, generously relinquishing the spotlight to another member of the band.

Of course, next to Krauss, the person most often taking center stage was dobro king Jerry Douglas, and at times he threatened to steal the spotlight completely. Not that anyone would mind in fact, his bandmates more often than not simply handed it to him. Each round robin inevitably fell into his lap, giving him every opportunity to showcase his talent. Even Krauss' vocals would drift off into a trail of dobro heaven as Douglas added ethereal wisps to Ghost in This House and intertwined his instrument with her voice in delicately textured interplay on Steel Rails. In addition, he administered his steely slide with flamboyant glee on the self-penned instrumental Hide and Seek, pushing the group with increasing fervor through each passing moment.

Yet, a significant portion of the evening was spent tackling cover material that included selections from Todd Rundgren (It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference), Michael McDonald (It Don't Matter Now), and R.L. Castleman (Forget About It). Collecting songs to perform is indeed a hobby of Krauss, and those she chooses often deal with affairs of the heart. Her renditions stray far from the realm of bluegrass, crossing the line from country into pop and, as such, can sometimes be a bit on the sappy side of the equation. Nevertheless, Krauss' powerful soprano conveys a wealth of emotion, and her voice is so awe-inspiringly beautiful, it's difficult not to be swept up in the moment. It seems that Krauss has chosen to expand her career by filling the world with what some would call "silly love songs," but as Paul McCartney said, "What's wrong with that?" a statement that rings especially true after one hears Krauss sing as she did this evening.

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Copyright 2000 The Music Box