january 2009

Rounder DVD
Released: 2008
Executive Producers: Denise Stiff, Brad Paul
Producer: Martin Fischer
Producer/Director: Michael McNamara
Running Time: 55 minutes plus extras

Originally aired as a GAC television special, Live From the Tracking Room chronicles a session with Alison Krauss leading her Union Station mates (Jerry Douglas, Ron Block, Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales), guest instrumentalists such as the versatile veteran bassist Abraham Laboriel Sr., gospel stalwart Gordon Mote, John Hobbs, Greg Morrow, and dueting with James Taylor, John Waite, Brad Paisley and her hero, Tony Rice (twice). Interspersed between songs are interview segments with many of the principals, mostly expounding on Krauss's many and special gifts, but Laboriel Sr., Rice and James Taylor (with a sharp explanation of why Krauss's approach is ideally suited to enhance the beauty and undercurrent of sentimentality and heartbreak of "How's The World Treating You," his duet number with Krauss) all make telling points in comments evincing a sense of history along with an understanding of the emotional forces Krauss summons to make her performances so mesmerizing. "How's the World Treating You" turns out to be one of the program's highlights, with Ron Block's solemn acoustic guitar and Gordon Mote's subdued piano supporting the beautiful, heart-rending vocal blend Krauss and Taylor concoct in their deliberate exploration of a classic heartbreaker. Tenderness is defined in the duet with Brad Paisley on "Whiskey Lullabye," a Bill Anderson-Jon Randall co-write concerning lovers who drink themselves to death in the aftermath of a failed romance, which Paisley and Krauss make work by keeping it free of cloying dramatics, recognizing the story's horror as needing no further embellishment. Their emotional distance—and they are joined in haunting harmonies by Dan Tyminski—is all the chill the song needs. "They were flying without a net, and took us to a beautiful place musically," Laboriel observes after the song ends. Although ballads predominate—and why not, when you can get as deep into them as Krauss does?—a high-spirited moment erupts when Krauss is joined by former Bluegrass Alliance bandmates Bush and Rice, along with Block, Duncan, Bales and Douglas, and everyone takes a turn "Sawing On the Strings" in an all-instrumental, ensemble display of pure virtuosity. Rice stays on to accompany her on guitar on a lovely Gordon Lightfoot song, "Shadows," in an arrangement from one of Krauss's favorite albums, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. As beautiful as the duets are, though, Krauss on her own is spellbinding—on the winsome Fred Hellerman-penned ode of unrequited love, "You're a Just a Country Boy" (which helped launch Harry Belafonte's career in 1954; it was also a #1 country single for Don Williams in 1977, and has been oft covered, by the Band, Sam Cooke and Bobby Vinton, among others); on the heart-rending retelling of the tragedy of the Lost Children of the Alleghenies in the poignant "Jacob's Dream" by Julie Lee and John Pennell, on which Stuart Duncan, one of the great fiddlers of our time, takes the lead on acoustic guitar, strumming foreboding chords behind Krauss's chilling vocal; and, at the end, a gentle but propulsive ode to unconditional love, "Simple Love," with Douglas adding eerie keening howls on lap steel and pianist Gordon Mote injecting a recurring rhythmic figure that pushes the song forward and gives the tune the pull of a hymn of invitation. In case the point hasn't been made clear, Krauss is some kind of songcatcher, finding new material that suits her vocally and also speaks to her personal values, and shines a light on some fine songwriters that might otherwise labor in obscurity. Extras include a menu to access the songs out of sequence and singly, as well as the unabridged interviews with all concerned. This may seem a slight package at only nine performances, but the enriching quality of this music more than makes up for the parsimonious quantity herein. A little really does go a long way, even if it leaves you hungering for more. And it always does when it's Alison Krauss's music. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024