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December 6, 2012
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Aspen songwriting festival will skip next year

ASPEN - The Wheeler Opera House's 7908 Songwriters Festival, which has been marked equally by noteworthy performances and unsteady scheduling, has hit another bump in the road. The three-year-old festival, co-produced by John Oates, a Woody Creek resident and half of the pop duo Hall & Oates, is being suspended for 2013, with an aim to refocus the event and bring it back in 2014.The 2013 festival, which had been scheduled for late March, was particularly slow to come together. "Basically, we ran out of time and resources for this year. Acts were slow to respond and certain individual costs either skyrocketed or were unable to be covered by sponsorships and other funding," Gram Slaton, executive director of the city-owned Wheeler, said in a written statement.In an interview Wednesday, Slaton said that he would rather suspend the festival for a year than present a so-so event that halted the momentum that had built over three years. "We saw the red light up ahead and were able to stop the car before it went through the intersection," he said.The 7908 festival, which focused on the craft of songwriting with an emphasis on up-and-coming talent, had an odd early history. The inaugural festival took place in September 2010, and then, determined to move to a busier time of year in Aspen, the second 7908 returned just six months later, in March 2011. Slaton said that due in part to those beginnings, there always has been a rush to book acts and produce the festival with little time for careful planning.Even the planned 2013 festival was slightly shaky; the Wheeler had announced previously that the festival would take place sometime in late March, with no exact dates pinned down."We never had a chance to sit down, plot our course and aims," he said. "We were maybe a little over-optimistic in what we could achieve." Suspending the festival for a year "gives us a chance to go back and aim for what City Council was really interested in."The behind-the-scenes challenges didn't prevent some memorable on-stage moments. Musicians who appeared in 7908 included bluesman Keb' Mo' singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, Psychedelic Furs frontman Richard Butler, New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint and Matt Nathanson, who quickly became a festival favorite. Sam Bush, the mandolinist who has been synonymous with the progressive acoustic style known as newgrass, played all three festivals, as did Oates, who made frequent guest appearances with other artists. Among the highlights of the festival was a 2010 concert by the trio of Bush, Oates and guitarist David Bromberg.For Slaton, the high point came in the second edition of 7908, when Oates, Bush and Nathanson joined singer-songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter onstage for the closing concert."That was so spontaneous," Slaton said. "That was a show no one could see anywhere else."The festival also was designed to showcase new acts. "The things that made John and me both the happiest was we were able to find new talents to introduce to an audience," Slaton said. "Great songwriters no one would have heard of otherwise: Angel Snow, Sarah Buxton, Elizabeth Cook."The planning for the 2013 festival, however, has not been a complete waste. Among the acts that had been planned were the duo of Bush and bluegrass singer-guitarist Del McCoury; they will be presented as a stand-alone show at the Wheeler on March 21. At least one other act that had been in negotiations to play the festival is still expected to perform at the Wheeler in March.The Wheeler is looking at ways to refine the festival before bringing it back. Last year's festival included a segment that focused on musicians from the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston; Slaton said a possibility is bringing Berklee as a closer partner. An online songwriter competition that had been in the works yielded promising results, causing Slaton to consider sharpening the emphasis on younger talent."It's a disappointment to both John and me to have to relinquish the festival for 2013, but on the other hand it gives us the opportunity to stop and rethink what we've been doing and possibly come back in 2014 with a new 7908 that really gets back to what excited us about a songwriters' festival in the first place," Slaton said in the written statement.The suspension of 7908 will hardly leave the Wheeler a quiet place this ski season. Among the shows scheduled for the Wheeler are the string quintet Punch Brothers on Saturday as well as jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano, New Orleans ensemble the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, singer-songwriters Jerry Jeff Walker and Colvin and Motown legends the Temptations.stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 6, 2012 07:14AM Published Dec 6, 2012 12:52AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.