Show Review: Alison Krauss + Union Station, M Ward at The Greek Theater – UC Berkeley, 6/25/11

by Dakin Hardwick on June 29, 2011

In 2007, Alison Krauss recorded a record with classic rock crooner Robert Plant. That record led to several years of touring, appearing on every critics’ best of list, and eventually helped solidify Krauss’ reputation as the queen of the Grammy’s. It also led to a 4 year hiatus from her regular band, Union Station. Everyone dabbled in solo stuff here & there, but rumors of a follow up to Raising Sand (the hit record that Krauss & Plantr recorded together) led some fans to worry that Alison Krauss + Union Station was a distant memory. This year, they quietly released a follow up to 2004’s excellent Lonely Runs Both Ways, the subdued  Paper Airplanes. This led to their first stretch of shows since 2005, and SpinningPlatters caught them in the middle of their summer tour.

Indie-rock guitar hero M Ward opened the show with a brief 30 minute set. He began with a stunning array of finger picking, evoking the styles of Leo Kottke and John Fahey. He then proceeded to play some of his own material, simply on guitar and vocals. His voice is pleasant, and his guitar playing is amazing, but I’ve never really felt that he has quite found himself as a songwriter. Aside from the improv at the beginning of the set, the only other moment where I really enjoyed what he was doing was during a cover on a Daniel Johnston song that he did on the piano. The crowd was quiet during his set, and applauded politely between songs. I honestly thought that they were being merely respectful, but later would I realize that this is how an Alison Krauss crowd responds to a musician.

The band took the stage at 8:45 on the dot. This being Berkeley, CA in late June, the band come out with appropriate gear, with sweaters, jackets, scarves, and so forth, ready to battle the weather. They proceeded to jump straight into the title track off of their recently released record Paper Airplane. The song is pretty, and spotlight’s Krauss’ beautiful voice nicely, but was definitely a slow starter… The weather was cooling quickly, and opening with a ballad is always a risky venture, especially an unfamiliar ballad. Second song of the set, and guitar player Dan Tyminski is already on lead vocals, for another Paper Airplane piece, “Dust Bow Children.” This song, another solemn number, but it’s darkness is so intense that it actually picked up the energy. I was actually getting worried that our set was going to be all ballads. Then, the band switched gears entirely to a fun and fierce bluegrass instrumental. The serious tone of the first two songs wore off, and it brought us to the kind of show that I expect from the biggest band in bluegrass.

It was nice seeing the band let loose… After the instrumental piece, Krauss addressed the crowd in her pleasant, folky way. She joked about the height of the stage at The Greek (Which is rather tall… I’d estimate it at about 8 feet), and how she always remembers it as being the type of fall that would kill, and was happy to realize that it would merely maim you. It was funny, and she kept this kind of shtick going between songs throughout the show.

The band, in generally, seemed really happy to be playing, since tt’s been an awfully long time since they’ve last toured. All of them are some of the most proficient musicians in any form of music, and they gel together like few other bands. They all poked gentle fun at each other, and it all felt sincere. Guitarist/Banjo Player Ron Block was accused of being a fairweather vegeterian, and on the same note mocked bassist’s Barry Bales enjoyment of hunting. (She also made the only play on Berkeley’s reputation for liberalism, by asking Bales how he felt about being the the city where “the 60’s happened,” to get the rather quick response of “Didn’t the 60’s happen everywhere?”)

The only disappointing thing about the show was the crowd. No matter what the band played, the only response generated by the crowd was polite clapping between songs, especially up front. During some of the bigger “hits,” such as “Let Me Touch You For A While,” “Now That I’ve Found You,” and so forth, only in the very back did we here actual cheers. Even during the better known rave ups like “Sawing On The Strings” and “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” only the lawn was audibly clapping along. I guess that, since only persons in the cheap seats seemed to be enjoying themselves, it proves that bluegrass really is populist music.

The set list itself was interesting… They played heavily from the aforementioned Paper Airplane, played a lot of crowd favorites, but managed to skip two major tracks: the bands biggest mainstream hit “When You Say Nothing At All,” and a song that was played nearly every night for years by Krauss, including the tour with Robert Plant, “Down To The River To Pray.” The crowd didn’t really seem to care, though. The only major hit that people seemed to be there solely for was “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” made famous by the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, which Tyminski played George Clooney’s singing voice. It looked like around 10 people up & left after that song. I don’t know if they were waiting specifically for that piece, or the fact that it was getting colder and well after 10:30 by the time they got to it.

The set, in whole, was 2 hours and 15 minutes, but to me felt like it was much shorter… They ended the main set with a fun, honky tonk version of “Oh Atlanta,” punctuated by some groovy piano playing and Douglas doing his best Chuck Berry and Pete Townsend moves. The crowd did bring the band back around for an encore, in which the group sang a song around a single omni directional mic in the corner of the stage. The was the only time where people stood up, only to walk from their seats to the part of the stage where the encore was happening.


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