ASPEN - What a great year for live music in the valley. Josh Behrman and Amy Kimberly opened PAC3, giving the great music community of Carbondale the venue it deserved - and then went and continually filled it with worthy acts. Belly Up Aspen didn't slip at all from the absurdly high standards it has set for itself; arguably, the club had its finest year ever. Jazz music had a superb 2011 in the Aspen area - and on an entirely separate note, Jazz Aspen Snowmass had a day for the ages at its Labor Day Festival. The Wheeler Opera House played host to some wonderful nights, and its 7908 Songwriters Festival is feeling like a keeper.And what a well-rounded year it was. Jazz might have led the way, but there were outstanding shows by classic rockers, hip-hoppers and string wizards. Highlights were to be found up and down the valley, at venues expected and unexpected. Newcomers blew people's minds; returning favorites didn't disappoint.And picking the 10 best concerts of 2011 just might prove impossible. So let's just go until I run out of great memories.(And a final note: While the list is limited to shows in the Roaring Fork Valley, I would be negligent if I didn't at least mention the mighty Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a four-day event which boasts probably five of my favorite moments of the year.)
Once a young folk-rock phenom, Greene is even better in his now mature stage - his songs as interesting, his stage presence even stronger, his range broader as he stands out on keyboard as well as guitar. (Greene returns to Belly Up on Jan. 15.)
A staggeringly talented, ambitious, accessible, entertaining band, interested in almost every kind of music there is. And then the string quintet, led by mandolin genius Chris Thile, caps off their performance with a cover of the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" that puts all of that into one three-minute song.
A very different show than Public Enemy's Aspen debut, in 2009. This time, they had a band behind them, a more easy-going presence, more laughs and goofs. But the rapping tandem of Chuck D and Flava Flav was just as impressive.
In 2010, singer-banjoist Abigail Washburn appeared at the Wheeler leading her Sparrow Quartet, whose membership includes Bla Fleck (her husband). In her return, Washburn was without Fleck - and proved to be excellent on her own, a fabulous singer whose vocal abilities cover a huge range of styles and emotions.
If Railroad Earth, a bluegrass/folk band from New Jersey, had kept up the pace of the first half of this show, I might have to seriously consider it among my favorite concerts ever. The song selection and energy petered out a tad early in the second set, leaving this as merely a magnificent show by one of the great bands of its time. (And leaving me tempted to drive to Denver, where they play tonight and tomorrow.)
The avant-groove keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood had played the Aspen area several times before, but always in less than ideal circumstances (in open-air venues, as an opening act in front of a meager audience). But stick them in the cozy confines of Belly Up, with a crowd of loyal fans and the sound vibrating perfectly off the walls, and keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood had the perfect setting to work their magic. Never have I seen musicians put such intensity into every note they played, and rarely have I seen an audience so completely connected to the music.
Of course this was exciting stuff: the opening of a major new venue, in a town that so obviously deserved one. And if the space was not yet perfect, well, the collective enthusiasm for PAC3 would drown out any echoing noises and logistical glitches. But the sound was perfect, and the Canadian singer-guitarist Cockburn was in excellent form. As a bonus, violinist Jenny Scheinman, a member of Cockburn's trio, gave an excellent solo performance as the opening act.
Married couple Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks came to Snowmass Village for the local debut of their new band, an 11-piece soul ensemble. Trucks, a true visionary on guitar, was as great as ever; Tedeschi, on vocals and guitar, was at her best, really stepping into the role of leading a big group of top-notch players.
I adore Wynton Marsalis. Yet I have this faint but lingering prejudice that his style, especially when appearing with the J@LC Orchestra, is old-fashioned, too straitlaced. I now vow to give up this sort of thinking forever. Marsalis and his gang make music so alive, so deep, so hip, that you think for a moment that it's time for a revival of the big-band era. Then you realize, no one else could possibly do what Marsalis does.
Music so deep, so joyous, it takes on spiritual tones, even if not the least bit religious in nature. Guitarist Bill Frisell had a combo that was unique even for him - cello, viola, violin and drums - and they cast their spell with original instrumental compositions that touched on string quartet, folk and jazz styles. And then they broke into the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," and I'm not sure if I've ever heard a melody take on such beauty. The encore of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields" was nearly as sublime. Afterward, audience members - myself definitely among them - wandered around in a blissful daze, having been elevated to some other place.
Like many bands of the classic rock era, Steely Dan is aged, with their hit-making days behind them. But Steely Dan - the enduring duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker - is just too strange and unique to be lumped in with the likes of the Doobie Brothers and Foreigner as oldies acts. In addition, in their Aspen area debut, they were just too good to be seen as a nostalgia band. Though I do wish they hadn't stuck quite so much to their greatest hits material.
I expected to like Rodrigo y Gabriela. I expected to like them a lot. What I didn't expect was that seemingly everybody else in the Labor Day Festival crowd would feel the same way as I did about a Mexican duo that doesn't sing, just plays a pair of nylon-string guitars, and is influenced by Metallica and Paco de Lucia, in roughly equal measure.
Who knew what Mickey Hart, a former member of the Grateful Dead who has a penchant for playing esoteric percussion music, would be up to with his new Mickey Hart Band? The answer is that Hart's show ran the gamut, from loose space explorations to a gospel-y take on the Dead's "Brokedown Palace" to good old rock 'n' roll. And I doubt few in the crowd would have predicted that Hart's performance would be this coherent, wide-ranging and downright pleasing.
Also: Umphrey's McGee (Feb. 10, Belly Up); Martin Sexton (Feb. 12, Belly Up); Elephant Revival (Feb. 27, Belly Up); Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke (March 13, Wheeler Opera House); Stephen Marley (April 24, Belly Up); Monty Alexander (June 24, June Festival); Hot Club of Detroit (July 1, JAS Caf Downstairs@the Nell); Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club (Aug. 21, Aspen District Theatre); Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses (Sept. 3, Labor Day Festival); Anders Osborne (Oct. 27, PAC3); Stephen Stills (Nov. 12, Belly Up); Trombone Shorty (Dec. 27, Wheeler).firstname.lastname@example.org