I used to sell meat. My favorite part of the day was sampling out bacon. Our bacon was real, thick-cut, how-it-should-be bacon, which many members of the public had never experienced. Their reaction always began at the eyes, then traveled up to the brow before sinking into the rest of the face and, sometimes, weakening the knees. It was something they were familiar with, but just didn’t know what it was really like, or how good it could be.
After seeing Alison Krauss with Union Station, featuring Jerry Douglas, last night at the Green Music Center, I now know that feeling from the other side of the counter.
It was maybe halfway through the concert that everything came together in a rush of emotion, and Krauss’ emotional songs might have played a factor, but I was holding back tears when the realization hit me. Nothing will ever sound better than inside this hall. This is quite possibly the best-sounding band, the most professional engineers, in the most gorgeous acoustic space I will ever experience. This is the French Laundry of concert spaces.
This was the first non-classical concert in Weill Hall, the five-carat diamond amongst the surrounding gems of the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. In addition to Krauss and Union Station wrapping up the festivities, this opening weekend included a gala opening concert with pianist Lang Lang, a sunrise choral concert with original music composed for and dedicated to those involved with the creation of the center, and an afternoon performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony, which has the privilege of calling the hall its home.
In comparison to the previous evening, which was full of tuxedos, Versace gowns, politicians and formal stuffiness, this was a decidedly blue-jeans event. There were even people dancing on the lawn, the mood was so jovial. The weather was perfect, absolutely perfect, and I can’t help but see exactly what drove SSU President Ruben Armiñana to create this indoor-outdoor concert space. In fact, though my seat was inside the hall, I strode outside in the second half to see what it was like, and honestly I preferred sitting on the lawn. Of course, weather permitting and musical style taken into account, it wasn’t inconceivable that the best seats in the house were, in fact, not in the house at all.
The two large LED screens flanking the opening to the concert hall were a little too bright, but what they showed was beautiful. Close-ups of the band, their expressive faces, their lightning-fast picking all dissolved with slow fades. Combined with the excellent, natural sound coming from both the hall itself and reinforced with high-hanging speakers and downfiring subwoofers (18 of them), this was the best outdoor sound I have ever heard. I had a tough time hearing some of the stories and witty banter between songs, but I suspect that had more to do with the storytellers turning away from the microphone for a moment. Can’t amplify sound that’s not there!
The band played together for about an hour before Jerry Douglas gave a solo performance on Dobro guitar, which blew me away from my 10th-row seat. Even with a stack of speakers in front of me, the sound was natural, even, pleasing and rich. Not once did this sound engineer turn to look back in the direction of the mixing board to suggest something unpleasant was happening. In fact, I would like to give a written high-five to the engineer for the evening. You did the hall justice. You got on that balance between acoustic and amplified and walked the tightrope all night long. And when the band came back for an encore set, using only one microphone, they were right there, too, blending themselves using distance and dynamics between voices and instruments.
Douglas announced this was the last stop of their two-year (!) tour. They were so musically tight and having so much fun, it seemed like they felt at home. At one point, Krauss turned to the balcony crowd behind her and waved, turning back to the microphone to say, as understated as her music, “This like no other place I’ve ever seen.”
More photos below.
Elvis Costello opened his show at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa Friday night with an absolutely rollicking version of “Mystery Train,” complete with a showbiz ending that had the short, bespectacled leader kicking his heels, pumping his arms and conducting his diesel-engine band to a chugging, smoke-spewing halt.
It was one of the evening’s highlights in a lopsided concert that included as many yawn-inducing patches as it did occasional resurrections of the idea that Elvis Costello is one of the universe’s most impressive performers.
Even with an all-acoustic band, featuring Jim Lauderdale, Mike Compton and Jerry Douglas, Costello acted the consummate rock star by strutting across the stage, thrusting the neck of his guitar into the air and posturing wildly at the end of his songs. He cracked wise with the crowd, told stories and brushed off requests between songs. He finished his four-song encore with “Alison,” left the stage, and indulged the crowd even into the second hour of the show with more songs.
The only problem—and this is kind of a big deal when they take up so much time—was the songs. Elvis Costello has something like 863 songs, and a sustainable percentage of them are so good it hurts. Friday night, he played barely any of them, pulling instead mostly from his dull new album and a bunch of cover material. This was expected, yes—although when Costello’s magic lies in providing the unexpected, the evening felt lazy and predictable (especially when contrasted against his powerhouse setlist the first time he appeared at the venue, with Steve Nieve, in 1999).
The night had its moments. Along with “Mystery Train,” a downright psychedelic “The Delivery Man” was one of the few treasures that actually showcased the spine-tingling dynamics of the band, complete with distorted fiddle and atmospheric stillness. The accordion pulled slowly, Costello’s 4-string guitar buzzed, and the tune wound down like a late-night AM station slowly fading out of range.
“Mystery Dance” and “Blame it on Cain” both rambled with accented minor-blues-thirds the original recordings always hinted at, and a honky-tonk reworking of “Everyday I Write the Book” made more sense that it should. And though a 3/4-time cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and an encore of the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” had people literally dancing in the aisles, Elvis Costello ambling through “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” for the zillionth time had them nearly asleep.
That’s the problem with this tour (one of them, at least). Elvis Costello has never been great at singing country music. He’s just as unconvincing singing “Americana,” and just because he calls together an amazing group of players and whips up some crowd-pleasing stuff like “Friend of the Devil” doesn’t mean that he’s on his game. He’s on someone else’s game, and for someone as singularly intelligent and talented as he, it doesn’t fit. Sure, he can be proud of writing a terrible song for Johnny Cash, or for hiring the finest dobro player in the universe and not giving him any space to stretch out and be showcased, and that’s fine, but why not listen to John Prine or Gillian Welch do the same thing with far more heart and soul? As for his new material, it’s not a good sign when Costello’s explanations of the songs are infinitely more entertaining than the songs themselves.
And yet just like he knows how to end a tune, Elvis Costello knows how to end a show. He brought the house down with his last encore, recalling the fire and joy of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions tour, and closed the night with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Shouldn’t all shows end with that song? No matter how drab the interim, it forgives all.