DANVILLE — On Saturday night at Danville's Norton Center for the Arts, Alison Krauss exhibited the conversational ease of a folk stylist, the rustic fervor of a true bluegrasser and the harmony-savvy phrasing of pop professional.
But in the end — literally the end, during a sterling five-song encore — it was her vocal delicacy, a sound Krauss could probably patent if she chose, that astounded most people.
So absorbing and focused was the closing medley — which had Krauss, sans fiddle, camped around a single microphone with various members of her long-running Union Station band — that the dead quiet offered from the sold-out audience almost became part of the music. At the very least, it enhanced the encore segment's beautifully plaintive feel: the whispery emotive cast of When You Say Nothing at All, the stark country heartbreak of Whiskey Lullaby, the stoic spiritualism of Down to the River to Pray, the folkish contemplation of Your Long Journey and the pastoral resolve of There is a Reason. It was less of a collective performance coda than it was a performance unto itself.
But then such regal, effortless delicacy is what we have come to expect from Krauss. What happened in the 90 minutes preceding the encore, although not an earth-shattering surprise, certainly toyed with such expectation.
The ensemble dynamics of Union Station were established right out of the gate, with two songs from Krauss's 2011 album with Union Station, Paper Airplane. The title song opened the evening by introducing Krauss's lusciously hushed tone. Guitarist and co-vocalist Dan Tyminski, ever the traditionalist, followed with a suitably rootsy reading of the Peter Rowan folk classic Dust Bowl Children. As if to further showcase stylistic credentials, Krauss then struck up the fiddle and led the entire ensemble through the bluegrass turns of Who's Your Uncle, the evening's lone instrumental.
But there has been some noticeable growth since Union Station last played the region. Krauss's recording and touring with Robert Plant a few years back seems to have strengthened the bottom end of her vocal range. She has always been capable of belting out a verse amid atmospheric ambience, but last night's medley of Daylight and Sinking Stone revealed deeper colors and shadings in her singing. All of them were displayed in moderation, though. The crispness of Krauss's music remained, regardless of the vocal maturity, a study in taste and tone.
The Union Station crew got its licks in, too. Jerry Douglas' solo dobro medley of Paul Simon's American Tune and Chick Corea's Spain was an intuitive, soulful and technically dazzling tour de force, and Tyminski's keen vocal command during a solo rendition of Woody Guthrie's Pastures of Plenty re-established the program's roots-driven foundation.
Still, Krauss remained the belle of the Union Station ball. When she drew the feathery but potently emotive ambience of Richard Thompson's Dimming of the Day to a close late into the concert, several audible gasps and sighs could be heard from the audience.
Sure, they seemed to enjoy the evening's pop and bluegrass just fine. But singing sweetly with heart openly on sleeve was the Alison style this bunch clearly dug the most.