I love all kinds of music, live and otherwise, but my high-water mark for straight-up, jaw-dropping professionalism has always been a Wynton Marsalis show I saw at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido years ago. The Grammy-winning trumpet virtuoso (and his incredible band) delivered an exciting and heartfelt performance that was also so technically proficient, it was almost hard to fathom.
Bluegrass, in many ways, is a long way from jazz, but Alison Krauss & Union Station’s set at Humphreys on Sunday night hit the same exact high-water mark. And, maybe, even exceeded it.
Starting as the sun set over Shelter Island, the 27-time (!) Grammy winner walked out with the rest of her quintet -- singer/guitarist Dan Tyminski, bassist Barry Bales, banjo player Ron Block and the separately billed dobro player Jerry Douglas -- to rousing applause from the sold-out crowd. The five-piece opened with the country ballad “Paper Airplane,” from its 2011 release of the same name. They followed it with another cut from that record, the Tyminski-sung “Dust Bowl Children,” and when they followed that with the everyone-solos instrumental “Who’s Your Uncle,” you knew the gracious bandleader was more than happy to share the spotlight.
It’s a smart move, as each of Union Station’s players are true professionals who hold their own and then some. Krauss’ lovely voice and impeccable fiddling are exceptional, but she also shines as bandleader and host. Wearing a dark winter coat and black sparkly scarf, Krauss was witty, charming and incredibly funny as she gave long introductions to each band member throughout the night and joked with the crowd in between songs.
She offhandedly quipped about the dangers of “belching” when taking drinks of water during breaks. “It’s always a bad idea,” she said, laughing, “because it can end up being very strange.” She introduced Block as “their resident sexy librarian” and told a hilarious story covering Bales’ penchant for hunting and his fear of both the word smorgasbord and a deviled ham commercial. And before introducing Tyminski, she explained the band’s love of sad songs, especially the rendition of “Wild Bill Jones” from their 1989 debut, Two Highways:
“A lot of times, people will come up to us, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, you people, what’s your problem singing those sad songs all day?’ Well, we finally figured it out. We didn’t really want to feel very good about anything, and we didn’t want anyone who was listening to feel good about anything, either. And because of that, we really like that last song, because in it, anything bad that could ever happen to somebody, does. It’s just wonderful. I feel better just talking about it. We figure it’s the Thanksgiving of negativity."
As surprisingly funny as Krauss was, it was, of course, the music that made the night. From a gorgeous version of “Ghost in This House,” from Krauss’ 1999 solo effort Forget About It, to the precisely executed, Tyminski-led “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” from 2001’s New Favorite, all five performers found the perfect balance between entertainment and execution. They were flawless, but they were flawless with regular-joe personalities and a seemingly unscripted "aw, shucks" attitude. Everyone in the band has been playing together for 20 years, except for Douglas, and he’s played with the band for 15. His solo of a bluegrass take on Paul Simon’s “American Tune” mixed with Chick Corea rhythms showcased why Krauss said she was “blessed” to play with him.
However, the most impressive part of the evening came during the encore. All five musicians gathered around a single mic, sharing the space and ripping through impressive versions of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down to the River to Pray” and “Your Long Journey.” Krauss’ voice never sounded sweeter as it floated through the foggy air, and by the time they wrapped things up at nearly 9:30 p.m. with “There Is a Reason,” from 1997’s So Long So Wrong, there wasn’t much left to do or say.
But perhaps Douglas summed it all up when he said, “We have great jobs. It’s a charmed life we lead.”