Album + Live
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The recent resurgence in popularity of bluegrass music has been due to many things: not least Dolly Parton's return to Kentucky roots on her last three albums (especially The Grass Is Blue) or Nickel Creek's precocious and playful dexterity. More important however was last year's overwhelming victory at the CMA awards of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Central to the album were the vocal performances by Alison Krauss and, naturally, the song "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" by the Soggy Bottom Boys (in fact Dan Tyminski with Krauss' band Union Station). Hot on the heels of their major breakthrough album New Favorite, Krauss and co. now return with their first live album recorded over two nights in Louisville. It confirms that they now surpass bluegrass' mandatory virtuosity and have become not just American favourites, but world-beaters.
Everyone who bought, or even heard, New Favorite will undoubtedly buy this album, and indeed it contains a large amount of that albums sublime songcraft. "Lucky One", "Let Me Touch You For Awhile", "Take Me For Longing" and many others are delivered with the level of almost carbon-copy perfection we now take for granted from musicians at the top of their game. What stops this being a mere retread of studio highlights is that indefinable quality one can only refer to as feeling.
While always true to their roots they offer far more than just another version of Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen". Where someone like Ricky Skaggs would use country's old weapons of choice -sentimentality and religion - to sweeten the often labyrinthine complexities of Appalachian music, Union Station know how to utilise folk and jazz timing ("We Hide And Seek"), pop sensibility ("When You Say Nothing At All") and adult subject matter ("Let Me Touch You...").
Krauss' delivery of the Foundation's "Baby Now That I've Found You" takes the song into a realm so far removed from the original that by mid-way you've forgotten there ever was another version. The same goes for "Maybe" - possibly the stand-out track in an album of superlatives.
Certainly Union Station as a band go way beyond the average on instrumental numbers such as "Choctaw Hayride" and "Cluck Old Hen", yet this album works on so many levels. It's the blend of the band (combined with their own crystal clear production) that allows you to bathe in the warm harmonics or focus on individual performances. Krauss is not just a wonderfully emotive singer but a stunning fiddler; and Jerry Douglas' glistening Dobro runs (spotlighted on "Tribute to Peador O'Donnell/ Monkey Let The Hogs Out") go beyond words - as usual.
It's tempting to say that this is Union Station's best yet. After a week's repeated (ok, constant) listening it still keeps on revealing fresh delights. Maybe it's just that as a double CD, it never succumbs to the law of diminishing returns: more is definitely NOT less. It just makes you long for their next album. Don't leave it too long, guys.