The other additive that the band takes full advantage of is their choice of tunes. The hits find a fit, specifically "Baby, Now That I've Found You" and "When You Say Nothing At All," two tracks that helped them navigate the cross over divide early on. And by drawing liberally from their recent album, Paper Airplane, they seized on its most poignant perspectives, from the resilient title track. which defined the physical challenges that went into the album's making, to its most heartbreaking ballads. Their take on Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" was especially affecting, and proved that if anyone could transcend the original, then indeed Krauss and her companions can clearly take the honors.
Inevitably, one would be hard pressed to guess where they're most effective. Their acoustic orientation provides a no frills execution, and while occasional keyboards and percussion were used to augment some songs, mostly it's down to Krauss, Douglas, singer/guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski, guitarist/banjo picker Ron Block and stand-up bass player/backing vocalist Barry Bales to maintain the momentum. Indeed, despite the inherent unplugged format, the energy and enthusiasm never waiver. Krauss and Tyminski maintain the pacing with a pluck of her bow and his rhythmic strumming, allowing Douglas and Block to soar above the fray. Tyminski also ups the ante on the vocal front, and when he takes the lead on more resolute material like "The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn" and "Rain Please Go Away," he adds an extra urgency and intensity to their back porch picking.
It's also clear that years of working the road have made them exceedingly comfortable on stage. They spiced their performance with casual patter, full of inside jokes about life on the tour bus and favorite cereals from days gone by. Block seems a favorite foil; when Krauss remarked that fans frequently ask, "What's up with you people and all those sad songs?" she replied, "It's because we're sad people." Naturally, that drew a laugh, but then she directed her comments towards Block, insisting that he favors songs where people "get killed, get dumped or become the victims of pharmaceutical mishaps." The hapless Block merely shrugged his shoulders and acknowledged his agreement.
Nevertheless, the band's camaraderie is never more apparent than on their close knit harmonies and the intimate embrace with which they close the show, first with Tyminski and Block positioned shoulder to shoulder with Krauss on acoustic guitars, and then with Douglas and Bales framing her as a hushed ensemble, singing softly with gospel-like reverence. It was a particularly moving way to end the show and all the more impressive for their emotional elocution.
If Krauss and Union Station weren't as exceptional, opening act Dawes might have stolen the show. Although they're only two albums on in their still budding career, the band's radiant Laurel Canyon-styled pastoral pop sound drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd, most of whom were likely previously unawares. Lacing their material with close-knit harmonies and sweet '70s sentiment, they brought to mind the Band, Jackson Browne and Crosby Stills and Nash in their retro references. "Million Dollar Bill" and "Moon in the Water," both from their excellent new album Nothing is Wrong, were especially enjoyable, and after Jerry Douglas joined them on their final two selections, it served to enforce the fact that sometimes, opening acts are all too abbreviated. When lead singer Taylor Goldsmith offered his hurrahs by thanking the crowd for coming early, there was mutual admiration in abundance.
Personal bias: Having seen Alison Krauss & Union Station previously at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival several years ago, I had more than a hint of their abilities. But this show managed to exceed my expectations.
Random detail: The band's backdrop added interest and ambiance. It started with what looked like a clothesline and then as the curtains parted, gave way to a series of nature stills and videos. It clearly enhanced both the mood and melodies.
By the way: Dawes deserves discovery. With a little luck, they could soon be stars.