While their frequent bluegrass jams leave plenty of room for musical imagination, Alison Krauss and Union Station are the portrait of technical precision live. Krauss is a virtuosic fiddle player who boasts a voice that flutters high above her band’s well-choreographed ballet of strings, with Jerry Douglas’ Dobro piercing through the pine.
Saturday night at tree-lined Marymoor Park in suburban Seattle, Krauss, dressed like a classical musician in a black dress shirt and slacks, relayed a remark that an anonymous observer made about Douglas’ connection to his lap guitar. “I always forget it’s an instrument,” said the onlooker. “I always think it’s his voice.”
As for Krauss’ voice, dry air had rendered it nearly inoperative in Utah a week ago. Fortunately for the Seattle crowd, which cooled itself with portable fans in the midst of 90-degree heat, her pipes had regained their strength by Saturday. Kicking off their set with the tender “Let Me Touch You for Awhile,” the band quickly showed its range by delving into “Who’s Your Uncle?”, a rip-roaring instrumental composition from Douglas that Krauss told the crowd she’d nicknamed “Ride the Donkey.”
“If you knew my uncle, you could call it that,” joked Douglas in reply.
Union Station doesn’t feature a drummer, with Krauss’ rhythmic violin-tapping the closest the band gets to percussion. On Saturday, they took a plodding ballad, “Ghost in This House,” and relaxed the tempo even more. After Krauss shared an anecdote about being starstruck while singing alongside Seattle native Ann Wilson during the taping of the Heart concert special Night at Sky Church, Dan Tyminski stepped in on lead vocals for the foot-stomping “Rain Please Go Away” and the tragicomic “Wild Bill Jones,” glowering at the crowd like a territorial bulldog, no matter how sweetly he sang.
Among the highlights of any Union Station show are Krauss’ quirky introductions of her longtime bandmates, most of whom she’s been playing with for upwards of 20 years. Introducing banjo player Ron Block, she revealed that he’s from Torrance, California, “where they like to make a lot of vegetarians, but not our Ronnie.” She later engaged in a hilariously nuanced conversation about fowl hunting with bassist Barry Bales, and remarked of Tyminski’s strange-bedfellow collaboration (“Hey Brother”) with the Swedish DJ Avicii, “We didn’t know who Avicii was. We though it was a mysterious skin growth or something.”
After Krauss and Union Station’s short encore that included a gorgeous, a cappella version of “Down to the River to Pray,” co-headliner Willie Nelson and his family band quickly got joints blazing and toes tapping on a more earthbound kind of grass. (Kenny Chesney was simultaneously playing at a football stadium a few miles away, but the amount of shoeless feet at Marymoor doubtless had No Shoes Nation licked.) A Lone Star flag was dramatically unfurled as Nelson and his disarmingly casual crew started their set with “Whiskey River.” In stark contrast to Krauss and her collaborators, fully half of Nelson’s band consists of percussionists, with a drumline fronted by Paul English, a real-life outlaw who doubles as the group’s enforcer. Whereas Krauss and Union Station present themselves as the best musicians that could possibly have been curated for inclusion in their band, Nelson’s sidemen, while perfectly competent, appear as though they’ve been enlisted simply because the braided legend likes having them around.
Most aging musicians who choose to stay on the road justifiably recruit younger players who compensate for whatever artistic shortcomings advanced maturation might wreak. Not Nelson. At 82, his guitar-playing remains nimble and adventurous, to the point where it could qualify as free jazz; he never plays the same solo twice, straying far from a tune’s rhythm before miraculously finding his way back to the beat.
While Nelson’s set featured most of his classic hits, including “Always on My Mind” and “On the Road Again,” he played nearly as many covers as originals, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica buoying Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.” Like most of his bandmates, Raphael, a tall, striking presence clad in black denim, meanders around the stage as though he’s oblivious to the thousands of faces staring back at him.
Toward the end of the set, after Nelson introduced “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” as a “new gospel song” he’d written, two of his offspring, Micah and Amy, stepped to a microphone near their dad, slung their arms around one another and sang call-and-response backing vocals while Amy recorded the proceedings on a smartphone. At that point, attendees must have felt as though they’d crashed a raucous family party, with the coolest granddad ever leading sing-alongs on a resin-stained guitar.