Spring Flurries: Highs and lows of winter 2016-17 on the Aspen arts scene
April 27, 2017
It was the best of times and, sure, it was the worst of times. It was the winter of the return of World Cup ski championships to Aspen, a week when this ski town was at its wild-hearted best and when Aspen's old guard and its unceasing nostalgia for the 1970s melded with the generation of us who showed up after the millennium (and we all sang along with Michael Franti together).
It also was a winter of rage and fear, beginning under the pall of Donald Trump's staggering election and including the largest protest in recent memory as the local Women's March went down Aspen Mountain and through town the day after the inauguration. After Election Day, as our nearly snowless slopes opened in late November, we saw Aspen come together through music with the righteous Afrobeat protest songs of Seun Kuti and the immigrant anthems of Gogol Bordello at Belly Up. There were times Aspen seemed as frivolous and out-of-touch as its detractors might claim (the high-flying antics and big-name concerts at X Games have never seemed more irrelevant than when they played out against the backdrop of the international upheaval of the travel ban) and moments when Aspen felt like the center of the storm (Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan declaring the company's progressive social mission in December, the county commissioners taking on the Trump children during their March visit, local arts leaders bracing for Trump's National Education Association and National Endowment for the Humanities cuts).
But, like most every winter, the snow came soon enough and came in abundance. And while the geo-political tumult beyond the roundabout cast its shadow on Aspen, and this birthplace of Freak Power flexed some activist muscle, the show went on: on local stages, screens and gallery walls, artists provided us escape and solidarity and challenged us and did their most important work of building empathy. It was fun, too, of course.
As mud season begins and Aspen turns into its off-season ghost town, here's a (very subjective, kind of random) look back on the winter that was on the local arts scene.
* It's still hard to believe that the Aspen Art Museum had 13 of Julian Schnabel's iconic "Plate Paintings" filling two basement galleries this winter. Still more amazingly, it was the first museum exhibition focused on Schnabel's massive groundbreaking pieces from the legendary New York arts scene of the early '80s. I went back several times and discovered new details and new ideas with each visit. And I finally conceded that there's good reason the art world still can't stop talking about Schnabel and Basquiat and their downtown '80s cohort more than three decades later.
* Will Maria and Lo Semple please launch a talk show or podcast or hit the road on the comedy circuit together? Let's hope, at least, they get on stage together again soon. At a Thanksgiving weekend talk and book-signing at Explore Booksellers, the writer siblings bantered (and bickered a bit) through a hilarious and insightful conversation about Maria's new novel "Today Will Be Different" and their childhoods in Aspen.
* Oscar voters may now all have movie screeners they can watch on big screens in their home theaters, but if they skipped Aspen Film's Academy Screenings opening night presentation of "La La Land" they missed a surprise on-stage appearance by the film's choreographer Mandy Moore. The daughter of Colorado theater stalwarts Bob and Wendy Moore, and the toast of 2016 in Hollywood, she hopped on stage to talk about her inventive work on the movie and her roots here.
* Of all days to rip out and replace their seats, the Isis Theater chose the release date of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." As the renovations led to delays and cancelations of sold-out opening night screenings of the biggest release of 2016, my fellow "Star Wars" nerds and I packed tightly into the lobby. But the crowd didn't give in to the Dark Side and the atmosphere stayed pretty light-hearted even as tensions rose. And, I've got to admit, I like those comfy new lounge seats.
* Speaking of "Star Wars," listening to Kevin Smith at the Wheeler detail the time he spent on the "Force Awakens" set and going inside the Millennium Falcon sounded like a fever dream for every child who has ever played with "Star Wars" action figures.
* Beginning with early winter shows from beloved returning acts like the Wood Brothers and splashy local debuts from rock greats like Steve Vai, Belly Up put together a memorable winter lineup. We got surprises like Adam Sandler and David Spade and a Valentine's Day set from Skrillex and a double-bill of Z-Trip and T.I. And, in what we're all hoping will become an annual tradition, they brought Chromeo back for a two-night New Year's run.
* "The Republic of Imagination" author Azar Nafisi's inspired talk opening the Winter Words season — part call to action, part celebration of the necessity of reading for a democracy, part love letter to the Aspen Idea — was just what this town and its passionate readers needed to hear in the week before President Trump's inauguration.
* John McEuen prides himself on not looking back much. But thank the music gods that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founding member did for a night at the Wheeler Opera House, reminiscing about the band's early days in Aspen and reuniting with Jimmy Ibbotson and Aspen music greats like Bobby Mason and Jan Garrett.
* Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals put on my favorite show of the winter at X Games — a virtuosic sprint of a performance that moved smoothly between hip-hop, funk, jazz and rock. Unfortunately, that triumph was followed a few hours later by the unholy flaming turd of The Chainsmokers set and the chart-topping duo's lazy, careless grab-bag of pre-packaged sounds. Please come back, Anderson .Paak.
* I witnessed a line of young locals snaked down Cooper Avenue waiting to get into (no kidding) an art opening, as Skye Weinglass's Bird's Nest and the BLK MKT took over the Boogie's Diner space for an all-too brief pop-up run this winter. A lively scene grew up around the art gallery and shop, hosting some of winter's best parties and innovative exhibitions like Jason Siegel's "Shoot Portraits Not People" and events like figure drawing classes. The audience is clearly here for this kind of programming, if only bright young people like Weinglass and the BLK MKT guys could find or afford a permanent space in downtown Aspen.
* The next time I get to thinking that guitar rock is finally dead, I'll remind myself of the sold-out Belly Up crowd singing along to Dawes' anthem "When My Time Comes" and how magnificent the band's self-assured, no-frills rock set was that night.
* In one of the great moments in recent memory for local musicians, dozens of players and bands took over the Wheeler for the Concert for Stewy — honoring the late Stewart Oksenhorn with an epic two-set evening of Bob Dylan and Grateful Dead songs that reminded us how talented Aspen's musicians are and how gifted Oksenhorn was at telling their stories.
* Choreographer Cherice Barton's debut ballet for Aspen Santa Fe, "Eudaemonia" marked the birth of a new crowd-pleaser in the company's repertoire, a star turn for company dancer Pete Leo Walker and the emergence of a new voice in contemporary dance in Barton. This funny, melancholy and surprising meditation on happiness looks like it'll have a long life in Aspen and beyond (if you missed the premiere, it's coming back to the District Theatre for an encore this summer).
* It's hard to imagine Theatre Aspen without Paige Price, the dynamo artistic director who is leaving Aspen for the Philadelphia Theater Company and who, over the past decade, built the local company into a nationally recognized regional theater and summertime magnet for Broadway performers.
* After seven years, the Aspen Laff Fest fixed the typo and became the Aspen Laugh Fest, while also reconfiguring its lineup to include just one headliner and opener per night over an expanded five-night run. The new configuration was a genuine hit at the Wheeler, with full houses and stand-out sets from Whitney Cummings and Margaret Cho.
* The charmed week of the World Cup championship races couldn't have gotten a greater crescendo than Michael Franti singing "Imagine" to an international and local crowd of ski fanatics in Wagner Park as fireworks exploded over Aspen Mountain on a warm, clear winter night. We're spoiled and maybe jaded when it comes to fireworks around here, but that had anybody with a heart choking up.
* About those World Cup concerts: they exceeded expectations. When the SkiCo announced headliners Franti, Gogol Bordello and Vintage Trouble, some of us shrugged that the acts were too familiar, they'd played here too often to excite. But the performances, all three by consummate showmen who sort of get Aspen, were sort of perfect for that week — they were festive and inclusive and they got everybody dancing in the slush at Wagner Park.
* If the jerks at the FIS aren't going to bring back World Cup races to Aspen, can we at least do an annual screening of Paul Ryan's classic ski movies? The former Aspenites mind-blowing ski flicks from the '60s and '70s — unearthed for a World Cup week show — need to find a regular home on the big screen here.
* A lot of musicians struggle to get a crowd up and dancing in the cozy and intimate setting of the JAS Cafe shows around town. Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles and his crew had no such trouble during a late night JAS Cafe calypso extravaganza at the Aspen Cooking School over World Cup weekend, at which just a few wallflowers could stay off the dance floor during a rowdy, party-starting set.
* New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman name-checked Aspen legend Mead Metcalf's Crystal Palace and his song "The Peanut Butter Affair" in a takedown of the bumbling Trump administration. Days later, Nelly headlined the nightclub in the former Crystal Palace space where Metcalf reigned for 50 years – the rapper did not cover "The Peanut Butter Affair."
* Walter Isaacson leaving the Aspen Institute for Tulane University, after 14 years at the helm here, is a huge loss. On the bright side, let's hope his move back home to New Orleans means he'll finally finish the Louis Armstrong biography that he put off years ago so he could write about some computer guy named Steve.
* In a winter where battles raged nationwide about the direction of the country, Kim and Valerie Nuzzo's brilliant new play about Walt Whitman, "Multitudes," served as a reminder that these fights are not new — as Whitman bore witness, we waged civil war over them — but that idealism and hope spring eternal in America.
* Sleigh Bells destroyed at Belly Up with a dazzling, hard-charging set that clocked in at less than an hour but somehow didn't disappoint a bit.
* John Oates' new memoir "Change of Seasons" should be required reading for Aspenites and Woody Creatures. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer writes movingly about and lovingly about this community and these mountains, where he reinvented himself and, as he puts it, was "reborn."
* Every year, Aspen Shortsfest introduces us to some of the best and brightest emerging filmmakers and leading auteurs of tomorrow. Out of this year's impressive crop, my money is on "All Exchanges Final" writer-director Annabel Oakes to be the next to break out in feature films.
* Really good books are coming out of Aspen Words programs at a steady clip. So while the Winter Words talk by Summer Words alums and acclaimed first-time authors Stephanie Danler, Anna Noyes and Molly Prentiss was the first event of its kind for the literary nonprofit, it likely won't be the last.