Alison Krauss

CMA Writers Series at Joe’s Pub

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Last night was our 12th CMA Songwriters Series show at Joe’s Pub. We look forward to all of them (and buy our tickets the minute the shows are announced).

We were even more excited about last night’s show when our friend in Nashville told us that Jessi Alexander was very special. Since this is the same friend who recommended we see Jeffrey Steele live, we knew not to take her opinion lightly. 🙂

I’m going to bury the headline down below, just because I don’t want to take away from the wonderful talented people who sang their hearts out and kept us entertained all evening with their stories. So, if you want the big news, you’ll have to keep reading, or skim/skip a ways down…

Sitting left to right on the stage:

BobJesseJonMark

Bob DiPiero was left-most this time (first time that he wasn’t in the middle in all 12 of our shows!). He’s always entertaining (musically, as MC and as comedian), but he was even more on last night. I think it was a combination of a few reasons, all of them positive, but one of them would ruin my headline surprise, so I’ll leave it at that.

BobDiPiero

Jessi Alexander sang and played acoustic guitar. Jessi sings beautifully and writes superb songs. She is a co-writer on Miley Cyrus’ huge hit The Climb.

Jesse2

I confess to knowing very few of Miley’s songs. I’ve never watched Hannah Montana, etc. However, we do watch a few hours of GAC (Great American Country) TV most weekends, and catch a number of the top videos of the week. The very first time I saw Miley’s The Climb video, I fell in love with the song. When Lois came back into the room I told her how shocked I was that I reacted so strongly to it.

Ironically, Miley’s movements in the video are distracting, so there’s nothing about the video that made me like the song. In fact, overcoming her overacting to fall in love with the song is what made me realize what an excellent song it was. So, it was a very nice treat to see/hear Jessi do it last night. I still love Miley’s version sonically. 🙂

Jon Randall sang and played acoustic guitar (all forms, rhythm, flat picking, finger picking, etc.). Let’s get the bottom line out of the way first: he’s amazing!

Jon2

Jon has a great voice (absolutely star performer quality). He writes great songs (you’ve probably seen/heard Whiskey Lullaby, cut by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss). He is one of the best guitar players that we’ve seen at a CMA show.

Jon happens to be married to Jessi Alexander. That may be one of the reasons that Bob sat on an end last night instead of the middle, so that Jessi and Jon could sit near each other. Jon accompanied Jessi on every one of her songs, and they sang harmony together on both of their numbers, beautifully.

JesseJon2

Mark Sanders sang and played acoustic guitar. I couldn’t find a link to a web site or MySpace page devoted to him, so I linked his name to an old article (1997) that might give you a good background on Mark.

Mark1

He’s an incredible songwriter. Don’t take it from me, he was recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of fame (Bob DiPiero is an inductee as well). He has written quite a number of smash hits, including one of our all-time favorites, I Hope You Dance (cut by Lee Ann Womack).

Mark is not much of a singer, and he pointed that fact out all night (in extremely funny fashion). He praised Jon over and over, and boy, is he right about that.

None of that matters. He writes extraordinary songs, plays the guitar well enough, and delivers the emotion associated with the person who actually conceived of and wrote the song, which is precisely what we love to hear!

In fact, all of the above would be enough for us to have been thrilled to see Mark last night. But wait, there’s more! If you order now… 😉

Mark is one of the funniest, natural, spontaneous people we’ve seen (not just at a CMA show, but in general). He kept us in stitches all night. Mark has also written a lot with Bob (including some smash hits), so they know each other well.

Mark2

We believe that one of the of factors that made Bob a bit different (and better!) last night was their shared history, love of having a good time together, and knowing that Mark would make fun of anything Bob said that might sound serious. 😉

We got to hear the story behind Daddy’s Money (a song we’ve heard Bob sing more than 10 times) and it was awesome! The inspiration behind the songs is fascinating to us.

Their banter was so funny that Jessi commented that she and Jon had to sit between them to keep them separated. 🙂

BobJesseJonMark2

OK, finally, the buried headline.

About 1/2 way through the show, Bob announced that we had a superstar in the audience, and with some encouragement, he was likely to agree to come on stage. No extra prodding was necessary.

A minute later, rising from the second level was none other than Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry. He walked through the crowd and climbed on to the stage. He performed two songs (singing and playing acoustic guitar), both written by Bob DiPiero. The first was Montgomery Gentry’s first #1 hit, If You Ever Stop Loving Me. He followed that with the crowd favorite Gone (which the crowd begs Bob to sing at every show!).

Troy1

He was awesome. He commented that he hasn’t played an acoustic set in a very long time, and he was nervous, because he’s usually surrounded by the giant sound of a large electric band. Troy, no need to worry, we’ll be thrilled to welcome you back onto the small stage any time. You owned it! 🙂

Troy2Troy3

Troy6

Another great CMA night at Joe’s Pub. The next one is expected to be in March 2010, no specific date set yet. Barring an unmovable scheduling conflict (and there might indeed be one if the CMA is near March 12th), we’ll be there!

City Slickers Bluegrass Festival

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This past Saturday, May 9th, 2009, seven of us attended the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival in Richmond, VA. How and why we came to attend will be the subject of my next post, this one will just cover the event itself.

There were three headliners and one opening act. The opening act, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon came on at 3pm. We weren’t able to get there until 3:30pm, so we caught the last 30 minutes of their set. Nothing worth mentioning (sorry), so I won’t waste space on them.

At 4:25pm, the first of the three headliners (and the one I was most curious to see live) came on, Sierra Hull. I was familiar with Sierra Hull because a very good friend of mine (an American who lives in the UK) bought me her CD (download on iTunes) a while ago. I loved it from the first listen (thanks again Chris!).

What I didn’t pay attention to until long after I loved the album was that Sierra was only 17-years-old (still is!) and that she plays the mandolin in addition to singing lead. I feel silly saying plays the mandolin, it sounds so mundane. I really love the mandolin, and I try to pay attention to the difference in style and abilities of the various top players.

Up until now, I would have rated my top three favorite mandolin players as follows:

  1. Chris Thile
  2. Adam Steffey
  3. Ricky Skaggs

Choosing between #2 and #3 above is a little arbitrary, they’re both so good. #1 however is a no-brainer for me. That’s still probably true, but I have to tell you, that after seeing Sierra Hull play for nearly 120 minutes (in two sets) on Saturday, I might slip her in between Chris and Adam. And, she’s only going to get better, I’m sure!

Lest you think I’m dissing Adam Steffey, here’s a quote on Sierra Hull’s site (front page) by Adam Steffey himself!

Sierra Hull is without doubt my favorite mandolin player!

See! 🙂 Sierra also played guitar (beautifully!) on roughly four numbers, but she was born to play the mandolin!

Backing up Sierra is a group called Highway 111.

Clay Hess plays the guitar and sings a ton with Sierra (lead and harmony). Clay is an awesome flatpicker, and he sings really well too.

Corey Walker played the banjo and sang as well. He’s really good. It was hysterical to hear Sierra (all of 17-years-old) saying “Can you believe how good Cory is, and he’s only 19?”. 🙂

Jacob Eller rounds out the band on the upright bass. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

The four of them blend beautifully together. Sierra is also as personable and commanding a stage presence as you could imagine, a seeming enigma for someone so young. The show would have been worth it just for Sierra’s two sets, but wait, there’s more! 🙂

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Lois got her picture taken with Sierra right before Sierra’s second set. According to Lois, she’s as sweet and personable one-on-one as she is in front of the entire crowd!

Lois and Sierra Hull

Lois and Sierra Hull

At 5:45pm Seldom Scene came on the stage. As much as I love Bluegrass music (and trust me, I’m totally in love with the genre), I’m not a real aficionado of enough of the leaders in the category. I know a lot of groups which I love, but there are so many more that I’ve either never heard of, or have heard of but don’t really know their music.

Seldom Scene has been at the top of the Bluegrass world for over 30 years, but they fell into the category of heard of but not known by me. One of my friends (Richmond-based, but unfortunately out of town this past weekend) is a major fan, so I was really looking to finally getting to know them.

Wow! Even though these are no youngsters, they jam as well anyone blessed with youth. Their voices are amazing, individually and when singing harmony together. They are superb musicians, though none of them stood out to me like Sierra (folks, that’s not a complaint or a put-down of Seldom Scene band members). The songs were fantastic, and their 80 minute set was outstanding from the first note until the mandatory encore!

Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene

The second (literally) that the encore was over, the heavens opened up. They had predicted possible thunderstorms throughout the show, so it was nice that it held off until after 7pm, and waited until a natural intermission too. Severe lightning caused them to power down the sound board and stage. Better safe than sorry.

Sierra Hull was scheduled to come back on the stage at 7:30pm. Amazingly, shortly after that time, the rain stopped, and we were blessed with a cool evening. The show was only delayed 10 minutes, as Sierra was back on at 7:40! As I already noted above, she blew us all away again.

The final headliner to take the stage was The Grascals. Lois and I own three of their CDs, so we’re familiar with their music, and love it. I’m going to gush about them in a minute (including covering them individually), but take the time to read their bio to see how many awards they’ve won in their impressive but reasonably short career!

OK, you don’t win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainers of the Year award (in consecutive years no less!) without being something extremely special. They are indeed very special. This was our first time seeing them live, and I was really looking forward to it!

They are all superb musicians, but the focus is really on the fiddle, banjo and mandolin. The bassist is superb, but not really highlighted, and the two guitarists support the sounds wonderfully, but they are never highlighted (even less than the bass!).

Standing left-to-right on the stage:

Danny Roberts on the mandolin. He’s really good. Very fast, very clean, very interesting licks. Highlighted a lot in most of their numbers.

Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. Holy Cow! This guy is amazing. If I had to make the call, I’d say that The Grascals highlight him slightly more than the rest, but who could blame them. He’s outstanding in every respect. Fast as greased lightning, but always interesting.

Jamie Johnson on vocals and guitar. (No particularly good link to him personally, sorry.) Jamie is the main MC (Master of Ceremonies) for the group. He also sings a slight majority of the leads. He’s very funny, has a good voice, and keeps the action rolling throughout the show.

Terry Smith on vocals and bass. (Also no good direct link.) Terry anchors the group nicely on the bass. On one number, he played slap-style, and was awesome. Terry sings on all of the songs, lead on a few. More on that in a minute.

Terry Eldredge on vocals and guitar. (Again, no good personal links. This isn’t as big as surprise to me, as I mentioned above that neither of the guitarists is a solo star in their own right.) Terry shares the MC duties (he’s quite funny), and sings lead just a tad less than Jamie, otherwise singing on every number.

Kristin Scott Benson on the banjo. Another Holy Cow! Kristin is the current IBMA Banjo Player of the Year! A month after winning that honor, she joined The Grascals. (They need to change the picture on their site to include her!) 😉 Folks, she’s amazing! I think they highlight Jeremy on the fiddle a drop more than they do her, but not by much. On a few numbers, she plays a mind-boggling riff, and Jeremy follows it on the fiddle in his own mind-boggling way, and then Kristin goes again, in a dueling fashion. Incredible!

OK, since I did my three favorite Mandolin players above, I’ll do my three favorite Banjo players here:

  1. Bela Fleck
  2. Ron Stewart
  3. Jim Mills

As with the mandolin, I’m being somewhat arbitrary in ranking #2 and #3 above, as I could listen to both for hours on end. Also like the mandolin, I think Bela is simply the best, no questions asked. Ron Stewart currently plays banjo with the Dan Tyminski Band, and Jim Mills plays with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Anyway, while I might not alter the above list (as I think I would for Sierra Hull), it would be a close enough call to consider Kristin for the #2 or #3 spot, and I’ll confidently declare her in my top four! 😉

Terry Smith is probably the strongest vocalist of the three as a soloist, but he rarely solos for them. The other two (Jamie and the other Terry) are both good individually, but really nothing special in my opinion. But, when the three of them sing together (which is on nearly every song), they produce magic. The three of them are so tight, and their voices blend beautifully.

The Grascals are fantastic, and I look forward to seeing them live again.

Sorry about the quality of this next photo. It was already dark, and the lighting wasn’t good enough for our compact camera:

The Grascals

The Grascals

This was our first festival, so we were nervous whether we’d be able to sit outdoors, on folding chairs, for seven hours. It was a piece of cake, with fabulous music, good food (BBQ) and a well-run show.

Here we are, enjoying ourselves completely!

Lois and Hadar

Lois and Hadar

Thank you Rotary Club of Richmond, VA for putting on a helluva show. We’re already planning on returning next year!

Here’s a shot from behind the stage, to give you a sense of the beautiful and relaxed atmosphere of this event:

Behind the Stage

Behind the Stage

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, Bravo! I know I rambled on about how awesome Sierra Hull is, and perhaps you don’t want to hear any more about her. But, if you have more patience, here is a long, but fantastic article profiling her five years ago, when she was all of 12-years-old! Read it all the way to the end, it’s priceless!

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at WaMu

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Longtime readers know that both Lois and I are Alison Krauss fanatics (just look at the title of my post when we saw her at the Beacon Theater). I’m also a long-time big fan of Led Zeppelin, and therefore, by extension, a big fan of Robert Plant. When we heard that they were pairing to produce the Raising Sand album (and now tour), we were excited.

I already wrote a long post about the album and how I finally came to purchase tickets to the show. In that post, I mentioned that the seats were in the seventh row. It turns out that the row was labeled G, but it was the fourth row, since the left side didn’t start at A. 🙂

The seats were awesome. As usual, I’ll give more color to the venue and the crowd in general, after discussing the show itself, including covering the opening act.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss came out at 8:55pm. There was instant electricity in the crowd, and many people gave them a standing ovation as they walked out. They launched into a couple of numbers from the album, and again, I was amazingly underwhelmed. It was certainly interesting (OK, even enjoyable) to see them live, but my heart wasn’t skipping any beats (and in fact, my feet weren’t unconsciously tapping along either).

To be clear, there are no flaws in their performance. They are both fantastic singers, with fantastic stage presence, backed by a pretty amazing band (I’ll cover them individually in a bit). The problem is the material. It’s nice, nothing more. I consider it to be background music. It does nothing to grab or hold my attention, but it sounds pleasant while your mind freely wanders to other thoughts…

Here they all are on stage, just to give you a sense of setting, though they shifted around a bunch throughout the show:

Raising Sand

Then, on either the third or fourth song, one of the band members (Stuart Duncan) started playing solo banjo (yes, banjo), and within a few notes, the crowd recognized it to be the lead (and repeating theme!) from Black Dog, a very famous Led Zeppelin number. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of an iconic rock song being played on the banjo!

Robert then sang the song, in a slow, relaxed style, and it was really cool. Toward the end, it got a little much for me (sorry folks), as the original is so great, and this was more of an interesting play on it, that dragged on a bit for my taste. Here’s Robert singing (not necessarily during Black Dog):

Robert Plant Singing

Robert also had awesome stage presence throughout the show, often acting as a cheerleader for the rest of the band. One of the hallmarks of the Raising Sand sound is both Alison and Robert clapping to the rhythm when they aren’t singing. Here’s a shot of that:

Robert Plant Clapping

Throughout a long show, they did the majority of the new album. They also did a mini-set of Alison singing without Robert, and Alison singing with Robert (and the others) singing background (including Robert standing toward the back of the stage). Here’s a shot of Alison singing:

Alison Krauss Singing

They did a couple of other Led Zeppelin numbers, including a cool (and slowed down) version of Rock and Roll, on which Robert had a great rapport with the crowd.

Both Alison and Robert left the stage for a bit, giving T-Bone Burnett (the producer of the album and the tour) an opportunity to sing lead on two songs with the rest of the band. Those songs were good too (he has a good voice, and a great on-stage persona).

One of the better numbers (again, just my opinion!) was entirely a cappella. Alison started out alone (as she always does on this number), not only singing alone, but the only one on stage. She sang Down to the River to Pray. After a verse (or two), Robert Plant, Stuart Duncan and Buddy Miller slowly walked on stage (reverently), and all shared one microphone to sing backup vocals. This version was way closer to the version on Alison Krauss and Union Station, Live, than it is to the version on O Brother Where Art Thou (where Alison sings with a choir, including many female voices, in a much more up-temp version).

They performed the song flawlessly last night, and the three men all sing great, individually and collectively, and blended with Alison to perfection. Here’s a strange shot of them (due to the lighting), but it’s also kind of cool, because it shows Alison in an ethereal (or ephemeral?) light, with the others singing in the background:

Alison Krauss Down to the River

One of the problems (to me) is that they don’t really know what sound they want. Bluegrass? Check! Rock? Check! Blues? Check! Soul? Check! Cajun? Check! All of the above, simultaneously? Check! Oops, therein lies at least part of the problem.

They finished up the show with Gone Gone Gone. I enjoyed it live, but it’s more fun on the video. Let me cover the band first, then circle back to the encore. Before doing that, here is a shot of the three headliners (Alison, Robert and T-Bone), clearly beaming righting after they finished Gone Gone Gone, rightfully so. The crowd was in a frenzy!

Robert Plant Alison Krauss T-Bone Burnett Beaming

Left-to-right on the stage (not including Alison and Robert) were:

Buddy Miller playing electric guitars, peddle steel guitar, electric mandolins and autoharp. He also has a MySpace page. His fingers literally fly on the guitar. He is a truly great lead guitarist. He has an excellent voice as well. For the first 1/2 of the show, he may have had a problem with his amp, as he wasn’t all that easy to hear, but his fingers were astounding to watch, even then. Then they replaced his amp, and his sound came alive, and he was awesome.

Here’s a shot of Buddy (with Stuart Duncan in the background), followed by a shot of Buddy’s amplifier, being worked on during the show:

Buddy Miller Stuart DuncanBuddy Miller Amp Work

Stuart Duncan played fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, all brilliantly. He sings really well too. Alison Krauss called him “my favorite musician in the whole world”. Wow, quite a compliment. If you read the awards he’s won (linked to his name above), clearly, she wasn’t being sarcastic. Still, even though he is incredible (truly!), that’s quite a statement, especially given who she plays with regularly, Jerry Douglas, Dan Tymninski, Ron Block and Barry Bales.

If Alison Krauss is going to call you her favorite musician, she may as well sing a duet with you:

Stuart Duncan Alison Krauss

Here’s Stuart on the mandolin:

Stuart Duncan Mandolin

Dennis Crouch played the upright bass. He was solid the entire night, but never highlighted. Amazingly, he could be heard (but never too overpowering!) even during the louder Rock numbers. I thoroughly enjoyed his play. Here’s a shot of Dennis:

Dennis Crouch

Jay Bellerose played the drums. I’m quite sure that most of the people in the audience considered Jay’s performance to be awesome. It was certainly impossible to ignore. Jay drums in a reasonably frenetic style. To me, there was nothing wrong with his drumming (meaning, he keeps a good beat, etc.), but he was a little over the top, in particular, in trying to carry the Rock parts. Nothing wrong, just not up to par with some of the drummers we’ve seen recently. Here’s Jay:

Jay Bellerose

T-Bone Burnett played rhythm guitar (and took a rare lead too). He’s certainly fine on the guitar, but I didn’t notice anything special. He sings well, and as mentioned before, has a very nice stage presence. Definitely seems to be enjoying himself on stage, in an infectious way. Robert goes out of his way to credit T-Bone with making this entire project happen. Kudos to him for that! Here he is during his two-song set:

T-Bone Burnett

Back to the encore…

When they left the stage, the entire audience was standing and making a giant ruckus. They were off stage for longer than most bands nowadays, but there was never a doubt that they were coming back! The house lights never came on, and the energy level in the crowd was awesome.

When they came out, it was without Alison. Robert said some beautiful words praising Bo Diddley in noting his passing, and they played a wonderful rendition of Who Do You Love. Alison then joined them and they did at least two more numbers (possibly three), making it a very long and excellent encore.

The show was nearly two hours, including the encore.

My bottom line is that I am very glad we went and I loved the experience. The show itself was choppy for my taste, but at least the worst parts were pleasant. The great parts were excellent, though even those weren’t quite like some of the shows I’ve written about in the past year.

Opening for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was Sharon Little. She was backed by a five-piece band, including Scot Sax on guitar, who co-writes the songs with Sharon.

Sharon has a very good and powerful voice and the band members are quality musicians. That said, the material didn’t do it for me. Also not unpleasant, even for a second. The sound was repetitious and Sharon over-emoted (to my tastes) quite a number of times, trying to force a feeling down my throat. Whenever she did that (or attempted to switch singing styles into something more bluesy or soulful), her voice was not as clean or nice as it was when she just sang straight up.

They were on stage for exactly 30 minutes, followed by a 23 minute break before Robert and Alison came out.

If you read my previous post (linked above) about the difficulty I had in getting good tickets, then you might be as surprised as I was that the section we were sitting in (which were awesome seats), was relatively empty. The three rows in front of us only had six people (out of 24-28 possible seats) for the opening act, and even during the main show, there were at least 15 empty eats. Only four people were in the front row.

No one sat in front of us during Sharon’s set. But, just as the main event began, a couple sat in front of us. The man was a giant, with a bushy beard and wild curly hair (very much a Mountain Man type). The woman was short. She sat in front of me, and he sat in front of Lois. It was a like a giant eclipse of the sun for Lois…

I begged her to switch seats with me, and she refused. After two songs, I insisted, and forced her to switch. It made all of the difference in the world, as Lois got to see and enjoy the show. That said, the couple were annoying and distracting as hell, but then that’s often par for the course at these type of events.

In other crowd news, a number of people (including two of the people in the front row of our section) gave a standing ovation after every single song. It’s nice to be fans, and I’m sure they truly feel it, but come on, it’s a tad much.

Most of the crowd stood for the entire long encore. Since my view wasn’t blocked, I sat down when they returned to the stage. Lois stood, or she wouldn’t have been able to see. A number of people (including the annoying super fans who sat in front of us) left before seeing even a minute of the encore. It was definitely a long show, so I can understand wanting to beat the crowd (or get home to relieve a baby sitter), but they missed a very nice encore indeed.

WaMu is a very nice theater. The maximum capacity is 5600 people (I would have guessed 2500 seats, so I was way off!). The last (and only) time that Lois and I were there was 23 years ago, when we took our godson (then three years old) to see a Muppets On Tour show. He just graduated medical school. My how time flies… 😉

Finally, we drove in to the city yesterday morning (and back to the house this morning). In between, I had lunch with one of my all-time best friends (we met on our first jobs after graduating college) and worked together at our third job as well, for many years. I haven’t gotten to spend much time with him over the past few years, but my feelings for him have never lessened, he’s just an awesome person in every respect.

So, we had a terrific sushi lunch (my first in a while, which was also a good thing to rectify), and we have promised each other that we won’t let this kind of time elapse between future get together’s. Our third job was at First Boston, but he is not one of the people who attends our semi-regular Boys Night Out dinners. We’re going to rectify that too, and ensure that he joins us on the next one. 🙂

Random Madness

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I’ve written a number of times regarding my frustration at the apparent randomness of many computer programs/processes. In some cases, it’s simply not explainable (from the user’s perspective). In some cases, it almost feels rigged, but then something else happens, which even casts doubt on that theory…

Regular readers already know that we love Bluegrass and Country music. They also know that Alison Krauss is one of my favorites (along with Union Station). When her new album with Robert Plant came out (Raising Sand), I immediately bought a copy (downloaded from Amazon MP3). I listened to it once, thought it was pleasant, but I liked her stuff with Union Station more.

We recently started watching a drop of CMT and GAC (country music television stations) and have seen the video of Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On) a number of times. It’s fun. I then listened to the album again, and I’m still not nuts about it, but it’s not bad either.

We then saw that they were going to be appearing together at the WAMU Theater at Madison Square Garden (MSG). We’re on a number of early access lists. For most (perhaps all) MSG/Beacon Theater/Radio City Music Hall events, we get early access through American Express. Typically tickets are available as much as a week before they are available to the general public.

In the case of Alison Krauss, Lois is also subscribed to her newsletter, and we get a password for early access directly related to the Alison Krauss fan club. So, two separate shots to get good tickets.

I was on the site within a minute of tickets officially being available. There simply weren’t any great seats left. We could have sat in the second to last row. It certainly didn’t feel special. 🙁

We decided to pass. We know that we would definitely enjoy seeing them, but it simply isn’t that big of a deal, and we decided to ignore it.

A few days ago, Lois gets another email from the Alison Krauss site, informing her that because tickets sold out in a matter of minutes (no, really?), they were adding a second night. Those too would be available using the password, starting at 10am yesterday.

I was on the site at 10:01 (yes, I’m slow, I know!). No tickets anywhere near the stage. Yuck. I tried a few more times, and nothing good was available. I decided to simply put this concert out of my mind.

Then yesterday afternoon (long after my failed attempt) I received a separate notice from the MSG/Amex side of the equation, announcing the second date, and the early access for Amex holders would start today at 10am. I have to admit that I chuckled to myself. After all, the super connected Alison Krauss fan club had access to these tickets a full day in advance, and nothing good was left.

Still, this morning, at roughly 10:03 (I was in a meeting, and I missed the exact 10am deadline), I logged on to Ticketmaster using the special Amex link, and searched for tickets. While I was able to get two seats that were better than the day before (which was quite surprising), they still weren’t good. I hit the “search again” link, though I can’t really explain why I bothered…

Hola! This second search produced wildly better seats. Seven rows from the stage, on the left, but not too far left. I grabbed them, so we’re going to the June 11th show.

That’s cool, no doubt, but, it also annoyed the daylights out of me. In all cases I clicked on best available. In this case, I can likely guess the scenario, so it’s not really accurate to call it computer randomness (meaning, the program is not to blame, but life’s randomness is).

I think that when I searched the first time, someone else started a search before me. They were assigned the good tickets, but were given 2:15 to complete their transaction. For whatever reason, they didn’t complete the transaction in time. I then got lucky in that I searched again, at exactly the right moment in time, and was able to get those tickets.

I’m happy at the end result, but why weren’t those tickets available the day before? On that day, I tried at least five separate times, in some cases waiting 30 minutes between searches. At some point, I would have thought that these tickets would have been available, unless, they were reserved for Amex only, all along.

Oh well, another all’s well that ends well story… 🙂

On a separate but related topic, perhaps someone out there can explain the following head-scratcher to me. Ticketmaster is one of the few outfits out there that charges zero to snail mail real tickets to me, but charges for me to print the tickets myself. I simply don’t get it. How could they not want to incent me to print it on my printer, and avoid the printing, handling and postage costs?

Whenever there is enough time to have them safely mailed (June 11th certainly qualifies), I always have them mailed to me, because I hate incenting bad behavior on the part of any vendor. I always print my own tickets when that is the cheapest (usually free, but not always!) choice.

Folks, please explain to me what I am missing in this equation, even if your theory is kooky! 😉

Dan Tyminski Band at the Birchmere Theater

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I’ve known about the Birchmere Theater for at least six months now, perhaps a little more. For the past seven years that we’ve been coming down regularly to Fredericksburg, VA, we weren’t paying attention to the live music scene here, spending all of our music time in NY. That all changed when we saw The Wailin’ Jennys at Gravity Lounge in Charlotesville, VA on November 17th, 2007.

Ever since that event, I have at least paid a little attention to what’s going on in VA when we’re down here. Over time, I noticed that lots of artists that we truly love play the Birchmere. In reading about it, it sounded like a great place to see a show, and many famous artists claim their start at the Birchmere.

We nearly went there a few months ago, I think to see Ricky Skaggs (one of our favorites). One of our hesitations was that it was a general admission type of place. That can always be a risk. Many of our favorite places in NYC are general admission as well. While it can be annoying (and at times even painful), at least we know the drill at those places, and we play whatever game we need to in order to get good seats (most of the time). In the end, we decided not to risk it for Ricky, with other factors tipping the scale as well.

A while ago, I noticed that the Dan Tyminski Band was scheduled at the Birchmere on March 1, 2008 (last night). We love Dan Tyminski. He’s the primary guitar player in Union Station of Alison Krauss and Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas fame. He’s also the voice of George Clooney (well, the singing voice) 😉 in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

We saw Alison Krauss and Union Station at the Beacon Theater. Dan Tyminski was awesome that night, as were all of the members of Union Station. That included the bass player, Barry Bales, who is now the bass player for the Dan Tyminski Band as well. Not only is he an incredible bass player, he sings harmony on many numbers and his voice is fabulous!

We decided to take the plunge and get tickets. The night before we saw the Jennys at Gravity Lounge, we had dinner with two of the single employees at Zope Corporation. We asked them if they wanted to join us for the Jennys, but both had plans. They both indicated interest in being invited to a future event.

So, when we decided to see the Dan Tyminski Band, Lois send out a blind invitation to a number of the single people in the company that had expressed an interest in live music in the past. Two of them were available and interested, so we bought four tickets.

Because I didn’t know anything about the Birchmere, I made some assumptions, which (of course) turned out to be wrong. I gathered a list of 10 restaurants that were all very close to the theater, and sent links to three of them to the two guys. They both picked Lilians (which was likely my first choice as well). Here is how the one review (linked above) begins:

This place is rad. Imagine a squad of fine latin women dressed in short black skirts and revealing tops serving drinks and awesome Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine.

When I mentioned this to another friend of mine, he said “Sounds like a Spanish Hooters!” Indeed, I wonder why two single guys, roughly half my age, would have any interest in eating at Lilian’s? 😉

Yesterday morning, I did something that I should have done before I asked them where they wanted to eat. I went to the Birchmere website, and read their FAQ. I immediately found out that this place is like most of the general admission places in NYC, meaning they serve dinner at the place. That’s one of the few positives about general admission. You have to show up very early, but at least you can relax, eat, drink and enjoy yourself without then rushing to make it to the show.

Unfortunately, we never got to experience the Spanish Hooters directly, but perhaps, some day. I love Mexican food, enjoyed the one Salvadoran meal I’ve ever had, and now feel the overwhelming need to report back to my loyal readers whether the rest of the review is accurate as well. 😉

So, we picked up the two guys and headed north, early. My plan was to get there by 5pm when the ticket doors open, then perhaps wander around the neighborhood a bit, returning at 6pm when the theater doors open. The best laid plans…

I have a GPS (I’ve written about it before, when mentioning that it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given). I set the address and off we went. When I was coming up on the exit, I was telling a story. I heard the GPS telling me that I needed to make a left, but she’s often a little late with the voice prompts, and I was certainly late in following the directions. I missed the exit. No biggie, because the GPS always tells you what to do.

The only problem was that we ended up crossing the Potomac River into Washington, D.C, before she guided us back (yes, since the voice in the GPS is female, Lois and I believe that the GPS itself is a woman) so the detour was much longer than expected. We didn’t get to the theater until roughly 5:15pm. We received ticket number I11, and had no idea whether that was good or bad.

Different than all of the other general admission places that we’ve been to in NYC, there is a very large indoor space at the Birchmere, where you can comfortably wait until the 6pm doors open. There is a bar, but no pressure to buy any kind of drink. Lots of seats (tables and benches). What an incredibly nicer way to treat your early arrivers than in NYC, where we stand like idiots in a line on the sidewalks outside of our favorite clubs…

We relaxed and chatted. The 45 minutes passed quickly. At 5:57pm, they announced how the numbers (our I11) worked. They called out every single number, in order, so there was no reason to rush the door. Wow, exactly as the FAQ explained it, and on time like clockwork. Regular readers will know that my appreciation for this type of behavior is over the moon.

The Birchmere understands the two most critical rules of customer service:

  1. Communicate clearly with your customers and prospects (set expectations!)
  2. Deliver the exact experience that you communicated

Could it be any simpler than that? No, but it’s the rarest of companies that delivers even #1 (the easy one!), and you can count on one hand the number of companies that then deliver #2…

They started last night with H49. That meant that we would have a bit of a wait to be called, but it shouldn’t be too brutal. That was correct. H49-H99, then I00-I11. Roughly 15 minutes, I think. But, we were indoors, seated, and knew exactly when we would be called. More than acceptable.

When we got into the theater, we immediately liked what we saw. The layout was similar (with some very significant differences) to BB King in NYC. Lots of tables, most seating 12 people (some smaller tables as well). Nothing was left near the stage, but there was an empty table for 12 2/3’s of the way back on the left side of the stage, with what appeared to be a fantastic view of the stage. We grabbed the first two seats on either side of the table and settled in.

We ordered drinks and food (mostly comfort food, burgers, BBQ, chili, salads, etc.). Food was wonderful (I had the pulled pork BBQ sandwich with homemade chips and spicy coleslaw). Everyone liked their meal. Service was excellent.

I am pretty sure that the concert was sold out, but there was a seat or two empty, likely from people who ended up simply not showing up after buying their tickets. I tried to guess the number of people, and my guess was 600 tops, but definitely between 500-600. BB King seats 400, and this place seemed to seat more (not that it was larger, but BB King has the bar inside, where the space at the Birchmere was filled with tables).

The show started at exactly 7:30pm, as advertised. The band came out to wild applause, and began playing fairly quickly. They were instantly awesome. Five people on stage. I’ve covered two of them already (Dan and Barry Bales). From left-to-right, here were the remaining three players: Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey and Justin Moses.

Ron Stewart primarily played the banjo (amazingly), but also played a mean fiddle on a couple of tunes. Ron reminded me of poker superstar Daniel Negreanu, and I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of a poker-playing banjo player. Ron talked a bit, but never sang a single note. Ron is one of the best banjo players I have ever seen/heard. Bela Fleck is perhaps considered the best, and we’ve seen him, and perhaps he’s better, but Ron is close. We’ve also seen Ricky Skagg’s banjo player, and he won banjo player of the year six times.

Adam Steffey played the mandolin, brilliantly. He was also incredibly funny, reminding both Lois and me of Bill Engvall. He only sang on one song (lead!). He was great, with a very deep voice, but perfectly pitched. It was surprising to me (after hearing him) that he didn’t participate more in the vocals. Adam is one of the greatest mandolin players I’ve ever heard/seen. He is so clean it’s amazing. He’s fast too.

Unlike the Ron Stewart vs Bela Fleck comparison above though, I think that Chris Thile is even more incredible than Adam. That’s not to take anything away from Adam. It’s like comparing Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson. Phil’s no slouch, and neither is Adam. 🙂

Justin Moses played the fiddle (mostly), but also played the banjo and the dobro. He was masterful on all three, but in particular, was amazing on the fiddle. He sang harmony all night with Dan and Barry, and hit a lot of high notes perfectly.

Steffey, Bales and TyminskiRon Stewart and Justin Moses

The five of them are all amazing talents individually, who blend together to form a perfect bluegrass band. I should mention that Dan sang his heart out all night. He is also an extraordinary guitarist, but last night, he gave 99% of the solos to the rest of the band, and only played lead guitar in two or three numbers, and those were short licks. He anchored the music with great rhythm guitar all night, along with Barry’s amazing bass playing.

As amazing as Union Station are (and they are truly amazing), many of Alison Krauss’ songs are very slow, and sometimes quiet. Talented musicians can shine on those numbers as well, but more up-tempo numbers give them more opportunity to show their wares.

Last night, there wasn’t a slow song in the bunch. Every single song had a driving beat (with no drum in sight!), with energy that had every person tapping their feet or swaying their heads, that had them sweating their little hearts out on stage. It was simply fabulous.

The crowd erupted into a standing ovation at the end of the show, and they played one song for an encore without leaving the stage in between.

I went up to one of the staff after the show and asked what the seating capacity was. 500, so I was correct on my estimation of the range. 🙂

After the show, Lois bought two DVDs (one by Ron Stewart and the other by Adam Steffey), and three CDs. None of these merch items are cheap, but it’s one of the most direct ways to support the artists, so we try to do it! Lois then stood in line (she was roughly 15th in a line that ended up getting very long!) and got all five of our goodies signed by the respective artist. Of course, since she’s so unselfish, she had each of them sign it To Hadar. Awwwwww, she’s so sweet. 🙂

Signature Party at Birchmere Theater

We had a fantastic time. We would go see the Dan Tyminski band or any of the individual members again in a heartbeat. We will definitely go again to the Birchmere. It won’t be hard to find a reason to go there, since they have top act after top act. For example, one week ago, David Bromberg and the Angel Band played there. Al Jarreau was there on Feb 12th (two days before we saw him in NYC). Acoustic Alchemy was there in early February (one of my all-time favorite groups) but we were in NY and couldn’t make that show.

The Wailin’ Jennys at Gravity Lounge

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We’re in the middle our usual Zope Trip, which involves a weekend in Virginia. We typically spend the weekend with our friends. They were on a 10-day trip cruising from Italy to Greece, and were scheduled to return late last night (they did).

On Friday afternoon, during a lull in the workday, I decided to check the websites of some of our favorite artists to see where they were touring. The second one that I checked was The Wailin’ Jennys. I’ve written about them before, once when we saw them live, and once when I got their CDs.

I was surprised, and excited, when I saw that they were playing the next night (last night, Saturday) in Charlottesville, VA, at the Gravity Lounge. I could describe Gravity Lounge, perhaps even adequately, but they have a YouTube video tour which I watched, making me want to see the show even more. If you bothered to watch the video, you can see that the setting is up-close and personal. Just like we like it (specifically, at Joe’s Pub in NYC).

We rarely see shows outside of NY, so I wasn’t sure how Lois would react to the idea. We’ve been in Charlottesville a number of times, and think it’s a gorgeous town, but it’s 90-120 minutes from Fredericksburg, depending on the traffic, and while it’s a gorgeous ride, it’s mainly on two lane roads (one in each direction), so it’s easy to get stuck behind someone…

She wasn’t wild about the idea, but she knows how crazy I am about the Jennys, so she agreed reasonably quickly. I snagged two tickets online. If you watched the video, you know that they can seat at most about 150 people, so I was very pleased that there were at least two tickets left. Since it’s a first-come first-served venue, it didn’t matter if I bought the first two or last two tickets!

So, we headed out at 4pm from the hotel, and arrived at Gravity Lounge at 5:45pm, not bad. There were roughly 15 people on line in front of us. They didn’t let us in (even though the front door was open) because the Jennys were doing a sound check, and no one was allowed in until that was done.

When they let us in, we grabbed two seats in the third row, dead center. Once our coats were on the seats, we headed back to the cafe area and ordered wraps for dinner. Very fresh, very cheap, very tasty! We ate in our seats, though there were tables in the cafe area that we could have used, if we hadn’t ordered finger food.

The show was scheduled to begin at 7pm. At 6:30pm, the place seemed relatively empty. We would have been surprised if there were 50 people there by then. At 7pm, when the show was clearly not going to start on time, the place was full, clearly sold out. They started at around 7:15pm.

In addition to the serendipity of me finding out about this late Friday afternoon, having two tickets left, and us being available, it turns out that this was the last show on the Jennys year-long tour. Their next date is February 7, 2008, in British Columbia! So, this was extra-special, for them as well, as they could collapse after putting on this show!

We were roughly 12 feet from the performers. The intimacy was amazing. I’ve written in the past at the vast difference in feel of Wicked (on Broadway) when we have sat in the first few rows versus sitting further back. This was like that too. When we saw the Jennys in Tarrytown, we were in the 13th row, dead center. In addition to being considerably further back, the theater there is so much larger, and well, theater-like (tall ceiling, etc.) that everything is wildly different about the experience.

The Wailin’ Jennys at Gravity Lounge

Click on the image above to see it full size.

As with Wicked, to Lois, being this close up made a world of difference, and she connected with the Jennys much more than she did in Tarrytown. I too felt the connection (as did the entire crowd), and noticed things I didn’t in Tarrytown (like the one boy Jenny, Jeremy Penner, who I thought was 20 years older at Tarrytown).

In my last post, I pointed you to their web site for their musical backgrounds. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I feel the need to give them a little more direct play. The leader of the group is Ruth Moody. She sings like an angel. She reminds me a little of Alison Krauss in that both sing in a register so high that most humans have trouble hearing it, let alone attempting to hit those notes. That said, Alison Krauss hits those notes with the clarity of a bell, and Ruth hits them with a breathy sultriness (still nailing each individual note every time) that is sufficiently different than Alison.

In addition to an angelic voice, Ruth plays the guitar, banjo, concertina (small accordian), percussion, all brilliantly. Nicky Mehta sings one register lower (though she can hit high notes flawlessly), and she plays the guitar, drums and harmonica, brilliantly as well. Heather Masse (the newest Jenny, third in the role she is in) sings bass amazingly (complementing and rounding out the vocal range of the three) and plays the bass as well (yes, to overuse the word, brilliantly).

Jeremy Penner doesn’t sing, but plays the fiddle and mandolin brilliantly. You could weep at some of his solos, and they are reasonably generous in highlighting his skills.

Jeremy Penner at Gravity Lounge

Click on the image above to see it full size.

Their songs are gorgeous, and flowing, and the words are generally very powerful as well. That said, the magic happens when they harmonize together. It’s stunning.

So, how did this show compare to the one in Tarrytown? For Lois, this was much better. Seeing everything up close, and hearing the power of their voices in such an intimate setting, made her appreciate them more than she did in Tarrytown. For me, I loved last night’s show, but Tarrytown was better acoustically. Last night was a little more raw, in that we were close to the speakers, and in between them. In Tarrytown, as I reported before, the acoustics were nearly perfect, and the entire feeling was significantly more lush. No complaints about last night, the raw-ness was a great experience, just different, and not as beautiful to me personally.

As I mentioned for Tarrytown as well, the Jennys connect with the audience wonderfully. They are so natural on the stage. That said, the stories were mostly identical to the ones at Tarrytown, delivered with the same apparent impromptu-ness. Don’t get me wrong, they were delivered flawlessly, and the audience loved it (as did we), but, Girlyman mixed in new stories the second time we saw them, which was a nicer touch. 😉

Ah, so we snuck in a mention of Girlyman, finally! So, Lois was shocked (pre-concert) when I told her that I liked the Jennys 80-90% as much as Girlyman (she thought that was blasphemous!). I think she may not feel quite the same as I do about the Jennys, but she inched up a lot closer after last night. For me, as amazing as the Jennys are (I listen to their CDs a lot), Girlyman still beats them out, on a number of levels.

Alison Krauss is Awesome

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Last night Lois and I went to see Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas at the Beacon Theater in NYC. We went with our friends who took us to see Harry Connick Jr. at Radio City Music Hall.

We were all looking forward to a wonderful dinner at Ruby Foos first. Of the four of us, I was the only one who had eaten there before, the night of The Allman Brothers Band concert.

Since Lois and I buy our tickets well in advance for most shows, we have a drawer that we keep them in, stacked in the order that the shows will be held. On the day of the show, Lois typically bugs me 10+ times (no, this is not an exaggeration) to make sure I take out the correct set of tickets. I always get annoyed, but we always end up with the correct tickets when we leave the apartment.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, Lois didn’t ask even once if I had taken out the tickets. We got in a cab at 6pm heading to Ruby Foos. At 6:25pm, we were still in the cab, 1/2 a block away from the restaurant, when our friends called my cell. They were running 10 minutes late, and wanted us to order for them. While they were still on the phone, Lois casually asked me whether I had the tickets on me. Of course, I realized instantly that I did not.

Oops. Role reversal. Now I told our friends that we would be the late ones, and that I would call once we were headed back to the restaurant, to see if there was still time for them to order for us. We stayed in the same cab and headed right back to the apartment. When we got there, we asked the driver if he wanted to take us back to the restaurant after waiting 3 minutes for me to go upstairs, and he declined. So, we had a $31.00 cab ride from our apartment, to our apartment…

I grabbed the tickets and we caught a cab to start the entire journey again. At 6:57pm, I called our friends and told them what to order for us. We walked into the restaurant at 7:20pm (the show was called for 8pm). The food was late in coming to the table, around 7:36pm! We asked for the check as the food showed up, and walked out of the restaurant at 7:58pm. The food was amazing (as is the atmosphere there), and Lois and our friends all wanted to return there for a more leisurely dining experience sometime in the future.

Finally, on to the concert. We were seated in plenty of time, and even got to continue schmoozing with our friends for a reasonable time before it started, at roughly 8:20pm.

Alison Krauss has a voice that is nearly as good as Martina McBride (previously reported on by me), but not quite there. One of the few complaints (and yes, I feel silly using that word to describe her stupendous voice) is that she elevates her volume dramatically when she shifts to high notes. She hits them flawlessly, and her voice is crystal clear (at all octaves), but it’s occasionally a tad disconcerting that the volume shift is so pronounced.

While the style of music is eclectic, with a reasonable range, the heart and soul of Alison Krauss’ music is Bluegrass. For 30+ years, I have always liked Bluegrass (and Dixieland as well), but until recently, I never really knew any specific artists. For example, in the past, I used to buy Bluegrass “Collections”, with 20 “hit songs”, for $3 in a bargain bin somewhere. I have a number of those.

As reported previously, after seeing Ricky Skaggs with Bruce Hornsby, and then discovering the Bluegrass channel on XM Radio, I have now come to appreciate specific Bluegrass bands (as well as purchasing a number of their CDs). Ironically, I believe that the real first step in this new discovery was falling in love with Nickel Creek (led by Chris Thile, also previously reported in this blog). I say ironic, because Alison Krauss produced at least one of Nickel Creek’s albums.

I recognized 80% of the songs they played last night from the CDs that I own. I am not crazy about her newest one (and she played 2 or 3 songs from that one last night as well), but I’ve only listened to it straight through once, so perhaps it will grow on me. I can heartily recommend Alison Krauss and Union Station Live (2 volume set) and Lonely Runs Both Ways. They played a bunch of stuff from those CDs, and they were great on all of those numbers.

The crowd was nuts about her and the band, and gave rousing ovations after each and every song (even the ones I could have done without). 😉

Talk about loyalty, most of the band members have been together 16+ years! They also were the award winning music behind the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

They performed two songs during the encore. After the first, they quickly (and impressively) rearranged all of the microphones on the stage, and the entire band (sans piano player) got together in the center in a tight grouping, and played an acoustic number called A Living Prayer from the Lonely Runs Both Ways album (the last song on the CD). If you were in the audience, and didn’t get chills when she sang this song, get thee to a doctor (you can pick which kind) right away! 🙂

Anyway, another smashing success in our nice run of fantastic concerts. We both look forward to catching Alison and Union Station again (and again). And, we can’t wait to relax with our good friends at Ruby Foos as soon as possible!