ASPEN - Am I miffed - nay, pissed - no, make that effin' spitting blood - over not seeing Widespread Panic (in their final pre-hiatus shows, in unprecedented acoustic mode, at an ultra-rare small-venue appearance at a club that is a two-minute bike ride from my front door) at Belly Up back in February?Answer: Freakin' obvious, isn't it?The good news is that the Roaring Fork Valley affords a listener a lot of opportunities to get over musical tragedies. Especially these days, with Belly Up operating at a stratospheric level, PAC3 exceeding my wildest expectations, Jazz Aspen Snowmass continuing to present excellent festivals despite an organizational downsizing, the Wheeler having an outstanding year in bookings, and the Aspen Skiing Co. chipping in with commendable picks for its Hi-Fi series (and let's not forget the Food & Wine Classic staging an odd but welcome concert), we live in a land of musical riches. (No, I haven't forgotten the abundance of musical treasures contributed by the Aspen Music Festival, but that's classical, and I have decided to limit consideration here to popular and jazz performances, for reasons that are not clear even to me. And I limited myself here to shows from the Roaring Fork Valley, lest this list be overrun with performances from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.)Here were the shows from 2012 that did the most to ease my pain.
I didn't know my affection for the New Jersey 'grass-rock band could grow any deeper, but this night did it. Railroad Earth gave a two-fer - a free outdoors show, then they scooted downstairs for a Belly Up gig. They didn't shortchange either audience: both shows went the full distance; there were no tunes repeated; the energy never flagged. Frontman Todd Sheafer's songs of the environment and its inhabitants ring as meaningful and true as ever, and the rest of the band brings them to full life.
I made it back from Paris, France with two hours to spare - so there was no question I would be shaking off travel fatigue to see Bla Fleck & the Flecktones and their magical fusion of jazz and bluegrass. It was their first Aspen appearance since original Flecktone, pianist/harmonica player Howard Levy, rejoined the quartet, and the show proved a point that Fleck made to me: that the Flecktones had been formed with Levy in mind.
Great songs, great vocal harmonies, great stage presence. But possibly the most significant thing that Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have created is a following, an audience that cares passionately about this music, finds real meaning in the songs. It makes for a particularly enjoyable concert experience.
The shortcomings of the sound - the Music Tent just isn't built for rock 'n' roll - was easily overcome by the experience of a couple hundred people crowding at the front of the stage to hear Costello and his band rip through "Alison," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." The mid-show country segment, with covers of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, was wonderful.
At 66, how much of that magnificent voice has Al Green lost? Far as I could tell from his Belly Up debut, the answer might be zero. At one point, Green even showed off how long he could hold a high note, age and altitude be damned. Yes, the show was short, but Green and his tight band didn't waste any time, going from one monumental soul song to the next. My bigger complaint: Green stuck only to the familiar hits, apparently not trusting that the audience would embrace newer stuff - like the excellent 2008 album "Lay It Down."
There was an old-school feel to this whole experience. Staged in an unusual venue, and as part of the AREDay environmental forum, people seemed to be underinformed that Taj Mahal would be playing a free show in downtown Aspen. But once Taj started shouting the blues, fans gathered and the party took off, all the better for the spontaneous feel. Taj was in good form; his performance of "She Caught the Katy" was a highlight of the year.
Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews overflows with charisma and energy, his band romps through jazz, funk, soul, rock and hip-hop, they have that distinct New Orleans stink to them. It's a crowd-pleasing combination, to say the least.
A regional band on a side stage - nothing to get too excited about. Till Brent Cowles, the main focus of Ft. Collins-based You, Me & Apollo, opens his pipes and sings in a strong voice full of endearing quirks. It was one of those experiences, the crowd looking at one another, asking, Who is this guy? And how long till he gets a mainstage slot?
Utter brilliance, bringing jazz music right up to the minute. Metheny brings forth a blizzard of notes from his guitar, and every one of them counts. His bandmate, saxophonist Chris Potter, was nearly a match for Metheny's mastery. As a surprise bonus, the quartet brought in its orchestrion set-up, which allowed Metheny to play vintage musical devices through his guitar - a unique, visually cool and musically worthwhile element in the show. As Maurice commented afterward, "Well, that was the show of the year. And I have no idea what would be second." Yep. Widespread who?
My favorite new band. Lead singer, 25-year-old Arlie Kincheloe, brings a new energy to soul music, while the band gives a similar forward push to old sounds and styles.
Steve Kimock seems to have matured considerably in the seven or so years since he last performed in the valley. The exceptional guitar skills remain, and added to that was bonding with his band, a notable quartet of keyboardist Bernie Worrell, drummer Wally Ingram, and bassist Andy Hess, who went long stretches of the night staring at Kimock's fingers as they moved along the guitar neck.
The mighty Punch Brothers continue to radically expand the parameters of the folk string quintet.
Early picks for 2013 best shows: Father John Misty (Jan. 4, Belly Up); Trampled by Turtles (Jan. 12, Belly Up); Joe Lovano US Five (Feb. 1, Wheeler); Easy Star Allstars, playing their Pink Floyd tribute "Dub Side of the Moon" (Feb. 16, Snowmass Base Village, free show); Mickey Hart Band with the African Showboyz (March 2, Belly Up); YES (March 12, Belly Up); Sam Bush & Del McCoury (March 21, Wheeler); Brett Dennen (March 22, another free show at Base Village); Pedrito Martinez (March 29-30, JAS Cafe Downstairs@the Nell); and Robert Earl Keen (March 30, PAC3).firstname.lastname@example.org