Magician Adam Trent, from Boulder to Broadway and back
The magician Adam Trent performed his first shows — as a card-flipping, penny-vanishing kid — on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder.
Those days among the buskers and street performers in his hometown honed the stage charm and showmanship that have propelled him to become one of the best-known magicians of his generation, performing in the Broadway hit “The Illusionists,” on the TV series “The Road Trick” and making talk show stops at “The Today Show” and “Ellen.”
“I still really use everything I learned on the street,” said Trent, whose five-stop Colorado “Holiday Magic” tour comes to the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, in a recent phone interview.
He started doing magic on the mall in Boulder at age 9 or 10, he recalled, and spent years passing the hat and learning harsh lessons about an audience’s short attention span (“If there’s a slow moment, they’ll just walk away!”), while honing his crowd interaction skills and figuring out how to handle hecklers.
“Once you get good at entertaining a crowd that does not want to be entertained and that didn’t know they were coming to see you perform — if you can make them stop and watch you — then later when people are coming into a theater and sitting down and facing you, everything is easy,” he explained.
Trent performed in the original “The Illusionists” on Broadway and in three of the show’s seasonal runs between 2014 and 2018. The hit show, matching Trent with other young and innovative magicians, was the first time magic had been back on Broadway in 25 years, since David Copperfield’s reign.
There, he perfected and popularized many of the illusions he’s bringing to Aspen, including his tricks with LED screens. Along with the lessons of street performing, Trent said he’s crafted his act by stand-up comedians and musicians, from whom he has borrowed many tricks of the trade for his family-friendly show.
The idea for using those LED screens, which he teleports through, came from seeing a pop music concert. A bit where he sticks an audience member’s cellphone in a blender came from seeing a comedian accidentally break a crowd member’s phone.
He’s bringing the musician Evie Claire, of “America’s Got Talent” fame, with a band that will perform live during his act.
“We’ll combine music and magic in a way that hasn’t been done before,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but magic shows aren’t known for having live music.”
And while his days on the mall in Boulder shaped his skills, Trent’s stint on Broadway upped his game, he believes.
“I was seeing audiences that were coming from ‘Lion King’ and ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Wicked’ — they’d come to a magic show with the same level of expectation for quality and production,” he said. “So the bar got raised, for myself and for magic.”
Yonder Mountain String Band preps for New Year’s Eve concert in Aspen
Yonder Mountain String Band is saying goodbye to a somber 2019 and looking into the 2020s, as the beloved Colorado bluegrass band prepares to headline the Wheeler Opera House on New Year’s Eve.
The band’s co-founder Jeff Austin, who left Yonder Mountain in 2014, died suddenly in June at age 45. The band, its fans and the progressive bluegrass community paid tribute to Austin last month in a benefit concert at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield.
The show brought out seemingly everybody from the bluegrass scene that Yonder Mountain has flourished in since its founding in 1998. Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon were there, the Infamous Stringdusters and the Travelin’ McCourys, Bill Nershi and Noam Pikelny, Hot Rise and Sam Bush.
“It felt good to be welcomed onstage in the manner that we were,” Yonder Mountain banjo player Dave Johnston said in a recent phone interview from his home in Boulder. “It had a lasting, positive imprint on me. I think Yonder Mountain String Band might have been more important than any of the four of us could possibly have desired.”
Austin, he believes, would have been gratified by the night’s performances from his music community.
“It’s terrible circumstances, under which you come to those realizations,” Johnston said. “But I think Jeff would’ve been happy to know the impact he was a part of.”
When Austin left the band, Yonder Mountain chose to evolve — to try out some more traditional bluegrass configurations than its experimental early years, and some more structured songwriting, evidenced on its 2015 album “Black Sheep” and 2017’s “Love. Ain’t Love.”
Johnston said the band’s creative process has shifted to focus on songcraft to build on its improvisatory roots.
“One of the wonderful and awful things about the original band was that you never knew what was going to happen from measure to measure,” Johnston said with a laugh. “Everyone was freestyling everything. … What was lucky was that you could count on everyone, more or less, to help you have a good experience.”
They’ve hung onto the curiosity and the creative spark of those wild early years, while reining in some of the chaos. As they’ve matured and membership has evolved, they have tried to hang onto that freewheeling spirit while imposing some structure on the process.
“We’ve found a way for the seat-of-the-pants parts for the project to come out, and for us to refine it in the more structured part,” he explained.
For the New Year’s Eve show, of course, they’re planning a big and crowd-pleasing set that builds up to midnight.
“All bets are off,” Johnston said. “We have some things in the works that are not the usual. And a big part of having a successful New Year’s show is to have a set list that is going to connect with people and have an upward motion, an uplifting element.”
Though Yonder Mountain plays Aspen regularly, the holiday show marks the band’s first time back at the Wheeler since the old days of the 7908 Songwriter Festival, when they jammed with John Oates. They’ve made Belly Up their Aspen venue in the years since.
And while much has changed for Yonder Mountain, the band’s brilliant knack for playing far-flung cover songs remains the same. Recent shows have included five-part bluegrass arrangements of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.”
Finding covers is an alchemical process for the band. When they connect with a song — no matter the genre — they know they can make it work in a string-band arrangement.
“These songs, they have an emotional resonance with all of us, in one way or another, so they’re easy to pick,” he said. “There’s just some component that is mysterious and cool and magical. … We know a cover song is going to stick around when everybody feels that way about it.”
Looking ahead at the 2020s, Johnston said the band’s devoted fans should expect big things from Yonder Mountain.
“I feel like we are on the cusp of a creative breakthrough,” he said. “I’ve been writing constantly. There’s definitely a lot of new music that is starting to percolate, and I’d like to get cracking on some stuff to get it out there.”
Joyce Yang plays Gershwin as Aspen Music Festival opens American-themed 70th anniversary season
The opening salvo of the Aspen Music Festival’s American-themed 2019 season comes Sunday, with pianist Joyce Yang performing George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major with the Aspen Festival Orchestra.
The summer’s “Being American” theme, over the next nine weeks, will offer an array of definitions and interpretations of the American sound and character.
“I think it is the American sound in that it has that great optimism and a dose of freedom,” Yang said of the concerto. “Whatever the quote-unquote American sound is for me, it has a lot to do with that optimism and finding magic.”
The jazzy orchestral piece challenges the soloist to move from intimate passages fit for a nightclub to galloping cinematic sections and Gershwin’s signature grandiose and soaring symphonic flourishes. It may be lesser known than Gershwin’s major works for piano and orchestra, eclipsed in popular culture by “Rhapsody in Blue,” but it’s no less worthy of Aspen’s biggest stage.
“The piece has quite a bit of magic in it,” Yang said. “I always feel like I’m going to fly away and lift from Earth — you’re constantly soaring to these great heights.”
In her words, it’s “less stuffy” than much of the classical repertoire and calls for a completely different stylistic touch than, say, the Mozart and Rachmaninoff pieces that Yang will perform during her solo recital Wednesday at Harris Concert Hall.
“I actually use different muscles attacking the piano in some of the really jazzy sections,” she said. “It’s like if you go to the gym and you work on something totally different and you have that slight soreness in some strange area of your body.”
Yang’s recital on Wednesday at Harris Concert Hall will include four Rachmaninoff piano works, culminating in the composer’s “Symphonic Dances,” reconfigured for two pianos. Yang will team with another beloved Aspen alum, Conrad Tao, to tackle the piece.
The pair, who also both studied under Yoheved Kaplinsky in the pre-college program at the Juilliard School, has performed it together once before at the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival. That experience convinced them they needed to bring it to Aspen.
“There are a handful of things that he did — I had no idea I could phrase something that way or color it that way,” she recalled. “It was a revelation and I said, ‘We have to do this again.’”
Sunday’s concert is the centerpiece of an auspicious opening weekend for the 2019 festival, which began Thursday night with a recital by the Pacifica Quartet. This evening’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert in the Benedict includes the premiere of a new orchestral work by living legend of the bass Edgar Meyer, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with Andreas Haefliger and Gershwin’s Catfish Row Suite from “Porgy and Bess.” On Saturday night the tent will host a tribute to Nat King Cole by vocalist Gregory Porter with special guests, in the Music Festival’s annual collaboration with the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience.
Yang, a Grammy nominee, 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition silver medalist and Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, has been part of the Aspen Music Fest family since her youth as a student. She has performed here every summer as a featured performer since she was 19, when she became the youngest ever Van Cliburn finalist and instantly became a global star. Being the featured soloist at the opening Sunday, she admitted, adds some extra pressure to her annual pilgrimage to Aspen. But she welcomes it, she said.
“I’m touched that they trust me with such a big evening,” Yang said. “It means a lot to me.”
Sunday also marks her first time performing under festival music director Robert Spano, who will conduct Sunday’s performance.
The “Being American” theme will no doubt be a conversation-starter on the music school’s Castle Creek campus and on the lawn at the Benedict this summer. The conversation began Tuesday at the Aspen Music Festival’s convocation, when Spano took up the question in his opening remarks to students and faculty.
“I would like to keep the question open as to what ‘Being American’ in the music means,” Spano said. “It’s a beautiful question and a difficult one, because it goes back to the question of what it means, being American, in general.”
But he offered a few answers.
Like Yang, Spano strayed from music theory to define the American sound, focusing instead on four elements: dreaming, daring, doing and discipline. He pointed to rocket scientist Jack Parsons and the composer Aaron Copland as examples of those four D’s in action as they broke new ground of American invention.
Musing on the definition of the American sound, Spano also paraphrased the judge who, in the 1990 obscenity trial against artist Robert Mapplethorpe, famously defined pornography saying, “I know it when I see it.” The same, Spano argued, could be said of American music: “I know it when I hear it.”
The festival is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, as well as the 20th anniversary of the new Benedict Music Tent, occasions that led the festival’s leaders to the American theme.
“It felt like the right time — as one of America’s flagship arts institutions — to ask, through the lens of great music, what it means to be American,” President and CEO Alan Fletcher said upon the season announcement in February.
Joan Osborne on her years-long Bob Dylan covers project
Joan Osborne felt Bob Dylan’s presence before she ever saw him in person.
In 1998, Osborne — hot off of her mega-hit “One of Us” — was set to record a new duet of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” with Dylan himself, for the TV mini-series “The ’60s.”
She got to the New York City studio early, she recalled, and was hanging out with his band when he entered in silence.
“My back was to the door and when he arrived, even through I couldn’t hear him, I noticed how the weather in the room immediately changed,” she said in a recent phone interview from her country home in upstate New York. “No one really looked at him or talked to him, but all of a sudden everyone became hyper-aware of him, gauging his mood.”
She soon learned the response was from musicians who’d grown used to trying to keep up with him.
“People who work with him develop this low-key vigilance,” she explained, “because he changes his mind very quickly. He has this restless intelligence, where he tries out an idea and by the time he has tried one version of the idea he’s already moved on to something else.”
A lifelong Dylan devotee, Osborne’s singer-songwriter career always had been infused with his music and his influence. Her global sensation of a debut album, in 1995, included her take on the hidden Dylan gem “Man in the Long Black Coat” and she’d frequently included Dylan covers in her live sets.
But she’s gone all in for the past three years, with a full album of Dylan covers and a tour that comes to The Temporary at Willits today. (It’s been several years since she’s been back in the Aspen area, though Osborne has been playing here since a 1997 headlining slot at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival.)
The current project started with a 2016 residency at the Café Carlyle, the legendary cabaret room that’s been running in Upper East Side Manhattan’s Carlyle hotel since 1955. Given two weeks of shows and no creative restraints, Osborne decided to use the residency to immerse in Dylan’s songs.
“We were uncertain if people were going to like it, but from the very first night it’s been really fun and it’s been a joy for us to do this deep dive into this material,” Osborne said.
The Dylan catalog is deeper than the ocean, of course, spanning six decades and 38 albums and the ever-expanding trove of his “Bootleg Series.”
“It was definitely a difficult thing to choose from the hundreds and hundreds of great songs that Bob Dylan has,” Osborne said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s so much to choose from. On the other hand, how do you decide?”
After the residency, she got to work on what would become her “Songs of Bob Dylan” album, released in 2017.
Throughout her long career, Osborne said, she’s kept in the back of her mind the late 1950s run of records by jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald that each tackled the catalog of an iconic American songwriter.
“I always thought this was a great idea and something that I would like to do with writers who I feel uniquely drawn to, who are from my era,” she said.
Osborne’s Dylan record offers new spins on the classics and shines a light on some overlooked Dylan compositions.
Her “Highway 61 Revisited” is a dark and ominous country song, her “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is a slow and soulful blues. In “Masters of War,” Osborne puts her formidable voice up front, with a steady acoustic guitar in the background and a gradual build of piano.
The enduring relevance and resonance of Dylan’s early work continues to strike Osborne.
“These things that might have been written about something that was happening in his youth are very relevant to what is going on in the world right now,” Osborne said. “It’s particularly genius in the way that he wrote them that they could be timeless in that way.”
But along with those iconic early Dylan classics, the album spans five decades of the Dylan catalog and unearths some deep cuts like “Dark Eyes” (off Dylan’s largely forgotten 1985 album “Empire Burlesque”) and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (off the definitive late-career Dylan album “Time Out of Mind” from 1997) and “High Water” (from 2001’s “Love and Theft”).
“I wanted to put things on the record that people would know, but also to dig a little deeper to allow people to discover something they didn’t already know,” she said. “We really wanted people — even who are fans of Dylan — to find out something they didn’t already know about him.”
Osborne admitted that even she didn’t know “Dark Eyes” until Patti Smith — who recorded a live duet version of it with Dylan — told her about it. Osborne also has widely expanded her Dylan repertoire as she’s toured with the material over the past two years.
“As you’re on the road and doing the shows night after night, you want to keep it fresh for yourself and for the audience,” she explained. “So we put in some live-only bonus tracks and we are never really sure what those are going to be from night to night.”
Dylan is a towering culture figure and Nobel laureate who also is, somehow, an unknown and seemingly unknowable cipher of a human being. He has worn so many masks, taken on so many personas, revealed so little about his personal life, written and recorded so many hundreds of songs that he is beyond comprehension.
Though she’s spent time with the man and has now spent years studying and performing his work, Osborne remains in the dark like the rest of us.
When Osborne sang with the living members of the Grateful Dead for a stretch, beginning in 2003, they co-headlined a big summer tour with Dylan. They saw each other every day and sang together often onstage, but Dylan — true to form — managed to not quite be there.
“I wouldn’t say he and I were hanging out a lot and that I got to know him as a person,” she said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting down and rapping about our childhood experiences or something. He was funny and nice and charming and all of that, but it was a work situation.”
When Osborne released her album of his songs, she didn’t hear from Dylan directly but he did post a compliment on his Facebook page.
“I was surprised even to get that,” Osborne said with a laugh. “He’s got an awful lot on his plate and talking about someone else covering his work is not something that he has to do. So it was very generous.”
Osborne this spring has been finishing up a new album of original material. After her yearslong deep dive into Dylan’s world, he naturally seeped into her songwriting.
“He’s very funny in this wry, droll kind of way,” she observed. “I’ve tried to bring that out in this new record. … When you immerse yourself in this, it lets you be free in that way — and be humorous and real and bizarre.”
String Cheese Incident returns to ski town roots for The Aprés in Aspen
Long before they became jam-band royalty, The String Cheese Incident’s earliest gigs were apres-ski shows slopeside in Crested Butte.
So there’s a resonant full-circle feeling for the band as it headlines The Après — Aspen Skiing Co.’s big new spring music festival on Buttermilk Ski Area — and celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“Playing outside on the mountain when everyone has been skiing all day out on the mountain, it just feels really familiar,” String Cheese bass player Keith Moseley said in a recent phone interview from home in Longmont.
The band will headline a sold-out Belly Up on Friday night and The Après on Saturday and Sunday night. String Cheese is planning two full sets for each night on the hill at Buttermilk as the centerpiece of a six-band, three-day festival that coincides with Buttermilk’s closing day and (fingers crossed) warm spring-skiing conditions.
“It’s going to be great to get up there for a season finale kind of thing,” Moseley said.
During those modest proto-Cheese shows, the band was a trio of Moseley, Bill Nershi and Michael Kang, who were scraping by while ski-bumming in the mid-1990s.
“When the band started, we were kind of just ski bums playing music so that we didn’t have to work any other job,” Moseley said. “Music was a passion, but wasn’t a job at the beginning.”
Like most young people in ski towns — and many of the thousands of String Cheese faithful expected to descend on Aspen for this weekend’s shows — the young Moseley and his bandmates worked service jobs so that they could ski, bike, hike and occasionally bail on work for festivals like Telluride Bluegrass and RockyGrass. But then the band started getting some traction.
“When Billy, Michael Kang and I started playing happy hour gigs in Crested Butte, it was as if this great weight had been lifted of ‘Oh my god, I don’t need to show up and bus tables at the restaurant tonight because I’m playing! This is great. Can we turn this into a full-time thing?’” Moseley recalled.
A quarter-century later, String Cheese toasted its 25th with a monumental three-night New Year’s celebration at the 1st Bank Center outside Denver, with special guests like bluegrass master Sam Bush, pedal steel great Robert Randolph and New Orleans funk bandleader Ivan Neville joining in. They’ve followed it with celebratory multi-night runs of shows in Las Vegas; Lake Tahoe, California; and New Orleans.
“We are all really thankful that we’ve been able to do it and that the fans have been along for the ride for this long and we’re excited about where the band stands,” Moseley said.
But while many band anniversary tours are valedictory affairs that look backward, String Cheese has its feet planted in the now. The band is in the midst of a remarkably fertile and adventurous creative stretch, with new songs sprouting from the recently completed Louisville studio they’ve dubbed “The Sound Lab.”
“We’ve got new material that we think is as good as anything we’ve ever written,” Moseley said. “The band has a refreshed energy and excitement for the shows. We’re in a good place — just happy to be where we are and to play some special shows in Colorado.”
The recording studio and rehearsal space gives the band — finally, after 25 years — the chance to lay down songs whenever they’re inspired. It untethers them from the expensive and anxious grind of renting studio time and trying to make an album’s worth of tracks in a limited number of days.
Since going to work in the Lab last year, the band has released nine surprise singles. These fresh tracks hop un-self-consciously from bluegrass to funk and country to EDM to jam rock. The most recent came March 29, when they dropped “I Want You,” their folky down-home collaboration with Andy Hall of the Infamous Stringdusters. A paean to Colorado living, with breezy feel-good lyrics like “If the mountains are my home/Guess I’ve really got it made/Feels so fine to chase the sun/On a sunny day,” the band strategically released the single before this hotly anticipated Aspen run of shows.
Recent live shows have also been peppered with premieres of diverse and often untitled new songs that have sent String Cheese’s fervent fan-base chattering online.
With the Lab at their disposal, String Cheese simply loads in their gear whenever they get back from the road and they make music whenever they want.
“It’s been great,” Moseley said. “Being a band for this long, really the juice that keeps you going is being able to crank out good new material.”
They’ve additionally released a slew of live recordings in recent months — including a March 2002 set at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium — with recordings selected by band archivist Larry Fox.
String Cheese has never broken up, though for several years — after the arduous tours supporting the 2005 album “One Step Closer” — its members turned their attention to other projects. They didn’t release new music between 2005 and 2014, with scant live shows between 2007 and 2010. In short, String Cheese burned out at the tail end of its first decade of aggressive touring and unhinged live shows.
They learned from that experience, Moseley said, to keep it fun and fulfilling by making time for family and creative exploration off stage.
“Being able to have a bunch of new songs to play out live really keeps things interesting,” Moseley said.
And these days they mostly book multi-day runs of concerts in places they like. So, sure, a three-day concert series in Aspen or Jamaica or Lake Tahoe keeps the band happy.
“We prefer it,” said Moseley, who has been skiing in Aspen all week. “You can set up, settle in and get sound-checked and get the nuances of the sound and venue, and get to check in locally. If it’s in Aspen, we’ll get some time on the slopes and walk around town and connect with some local people and eat in the local restaurants.”
They challenge themselves to not repeat any songs over the course of a multi-day single-city stand. For a series like this weekend’s, that puts them in the 90-to-100-song range, which Moseley said is a welcome challenge.
“We are digging pretty deep into the catalog,” he explained. “It takes some rehearsal, on our part, to stay up on all those songs — a little backstage rehearsal to make sure everybody knows the parts and can remember. … That keeps it interesting for us.”
Celebrating 25 years in Aspen, Moseley and his bandmates can’t help but get nostalgic about their early shows here in the mid-’90s and their apres roots in Crested Butte. But it’s clear that they’re still looking ahead.
“The worst thing we could do is rest on our laurels and just say, ‘OK, let’s just show up and play,’” Moseley said. “We’re focused on trying to push forward with new and better songs and reach higher heights together.”
DeVotchKa goes back to its roots at The Temporary
The majestic sweep of DeVotchKa’s cinematic sound has landed the Denver-based rock band on the grandest of stages in recent years, including already legendary performances with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks Ampitheatre.
But the four-piece’s latest stop in the mountains brings DeVotchKa to the kind of tiny room where it started. The band will headline The Temporary at Willits — with a capacity of less than 300 — tonight.
“It takes us back to our roots,” DeVotchKa singer and bandleader Nick Urata said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “We spent years and years playing rooms like that, so it’s kind of our thing. The band feels at home in intimate settings.”
DeVotchKa’s first stop at the venue also will be its last. The Temporary is slated to close in early May, as its lease expires and its nonprofit operators pursue building a permanent nearby home for the Arts Center at Willits (expect tears from Temporary staff and regulars when the band plays “How It Ends”).
The band’s newest album, “This Night Falls Forever,” was released in 2018 after more than six years of off-and-on recording and writing sessions. The long creative process was slowed by frequent creative detours to other projects like the annual Colorado Symphony performances, DeVotchKa’s spin on the Sondheim classic “Sweeney Todd” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2016 and a Hollywood Bowl screening/concert performance of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in 2017, along with an increasing load of film score work for the band that broke out nationally with its soundtrack to “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006.
These weird and wild side gigs may have kept the band from releasing a follow-up the beloved 2011 album “100 Lovers,” but working on these film and theater projects was, as Urata put it, “the kind of stuff that we used to dream about when we played crappy little coffee shops and parties.”
Urata and his bandmates finished the new record in 2017, but then when they were delayed by a record label shuffle, they went back in and tinkered with the songs more.
“It took too long,” Urata said. “But for us it was super positive thing. We started having all these dream collaborations while we were working on the album and at the time we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just do both and it’ll be fine.’ But it drew out the recording process.”
You can hear the sonic imprint of those ambitious and theatrical undertakings on the new record, with strings and cinematic touches like the Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone whistling and the classic Hollywood swells of violins before the chorus on the album-closing “Second Chance.”
“We learned a lot and tried to bring some of the process and the grandeur of the scores we were working with onto the record,” Urata said. “It’s what we always aspired to be. It’s the record we always aspired to make.”
From its humble start in the late 1990s, it was improbable that DeVotchKa would rise from Denver musical oddity to internationally known, Grammy-nominated rock star status. More improbable is that the band wouldn’t compromise on its journey to the mainstream — retaining its offbeat blend of operatic drama and international sounds through the breakthrough of “How It Ends” and “Til the End of Time” on the “Little Miss Sunshine” soundtrack and in the years since.
The band still considers Denver home — and all four members still have actual homes there — but they’ve spent increasing amounts of time in Los Angeles in recent years to record and work on movies. Being away from Colorado and being a little homesick, Urata said, has helped fuel the band’s creative fires and inform the often-wistful mood of DeVotchKa’s songs.
“Early in our journey we all agreed we would get into a van and try to take our show on the road, wherever it would take us,” he said. “There is something about the process of leaving, seeing your home disappear in the rearview mirror, that opens you up to new creativity.”
And after 22 years, 11 albums and a growing list of odd side gigs, there is still uncharted terrain for DeVotchKa. Urata said, in all sincerity, that they want to make a Christmas album: “I know that sounds like a joke, but that’s always been a dream of ours.”
Marc Maron reflects on 1,000 episodes of ‘WTF’ and returns to Aspen
Marc Maron defined the podcast medium over the past decade with “WTF,” his essential twice-weekly conversation show.
“WTF” was born out of fear and self-loathing and desperation in 2009, when Maron’s stand-up comedy career was on the skids and his second marriage was recently ended. From his garage in Los Angeles, he launched “WTF” into an as-yet unformed podcast landscape with no clear path to finding an audience or making a buck.
It’s since become a cultural institution, with guests ranging from comedians and artists of all stripes to President Barack Obama, while reviving Maron creatively and leading to his defining stand-up work in the specials “Thinky Pain” and “Too Real.” Two weeks ago, Maron posted his 1,000th episode of “WTF.” On Saturday, he brings new stand-up material to the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and a sold-out Boulder Theater show Sunday.
Arriving at 1,000, Maron finally felt the enormity of the podcast and how it had transformed him.
“It’s the arc of the struggle,” Maron said in a phone interview from the garage in early March while he was putting together number 1,000 with producer Brendan McDonald. “Entering this thing with nothing more than, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”
For the landmark episode, McDonald and Maron broke from the established “WTF” format of a monologue followed by a long-form interview, and instead spent more than two hours reminiscing about the “WTF” journey together and responding to listener feedback: some hilarious, some heartfelt. (Yes, Maron shed some on-air tears as he thanked his longtime creative partner for making the thing happen.)
By the time he launched the podcast, Maron was already a stand-up veteran with specials and a record-count of appearances on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” to his credit, but he had become embittered as stardom eluded him. The podcast not only helped him find the massive audience he’d always craved, but also oddly humbled him and helped him find his voice as a comic (self-obsessed as always, but less angry and more funny).
“How it helped me is that once it became successful and I found my place in my business, my sense of self shifted,” he explained. “After working 25 years to get some traction and to get some voice out there that was me, it happened with the podcast. So after five years of the podcast, I had a certain amount of self-confidence, or self-esteem, that wasn’t there (before) because I had actually accomplished something.”
It mellowed Maron, now 55, and freed him from the confrontational and often alienating style of his early years.
“If you work your whole life toward something and it happens, it takes a load off and you can land in your body a bit,” Maron said. “So that helped. And the constant communication, talking to people and saying funny things.”
His relationship with listeners is distinctly intimate. Regular WTF-ers have become acquainted with Maron’s idiosyncrasies and obsessions — from his cats’ health to his tortured relationship with his narcissistic father, his ongoing struggle to quit nicotine lozenges, his long-ago struggle with alcoholism and addiction, his love of vinyl, his past as comedy’s biggest asshole. His stand-up has the same inward-looking bent, but his interviews end up being so revealing of guests because Maron himself is such an open book.
So how, as a stand-up performer, does Maron deal with audiences who already know him so well and may have spent hours listening to him talk about himself?
“The familiarity has only helped my stand-up in a huge way, because I don’t experience any apprehension or fear about being onstage,” he said. “Most comics pretend they’re not afraid most of their career and then one day it just goes away and you realize, ‘This is where I live, on this stage.’”
His free-form monologues at the top of the podcast led him to freedom onstage. He calls them a “workshop for ideas” for his stand-up sets.
“I don’t necessarily have an audience, but I have complete freedom of mind that lands with an audience,” he said.
But podcast fans may not realize that stand-up is his lifelong passion and can take an unusual interest in the mundane details of his life that spill out on “WTF.”
“They’d be surprised that I could do it so well, because it’s what I’ve always done,” he said. “And people would be like, ‘Hey, good show. Did you get that thing fixed at the house?’”
Putting together episode 1,000, Maron found himself thinking back to the early days of “WTF” when he was packing envelopes with schwag to send to people who’d donated $10 to keep the thing going: “There is a nostalgia to it, but — just like the beginning of my stand-up career — it’s like, ‘God, I can’t believe we did all that s—!’”
In the years that followed, the show rose to a hallowed place. In 2015, President Obama made the pilgrimage to the garage in a watershed moment for Maron and for podcasts at large. When the greatest interviewer of our time, Terry Gross, decided to open up in a rare and revealing personal conversation, she chose Maron as her interlocutor. When Robin Williams’ death by suicide shocked the world, Maron reposted a 2010 interview where Williams spoke candidly about his struggles with mental health. And, of course, Maron has ticked off consequential interviews with every comedy legend you can think of and with enigmatic cultural titans including Bruce Springsteen.
“It became something without any expectation,” Maron said.
The garage itself grew into such a hallowed landmark that when Maron moved to a new home last year, and left the Highland Park garage where it all started, it occasioned a New York Times story about the space that treated the ephemera piled there — posters and fan sketches and dusty books and family photos and Obama’s coffee cup — as treasured artifacts.
Concurrently, Maron has developed into a Screen Actors Guild Award-nominated actor, beginning by playing a version of himself on the IFC series “Maron,” then a washed-up wrestling promoter on Netflix’s acclaimed “GLOW” and now starring in the recently premiered Lynne Shelton comedy “Sword of Truth” and opposite Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix in the upcoming Batman flick “Joker.”
Last month, Maron was enshrined in pop culture history, appearing as himself on an episode of “The Simpsons” where Krusty the Clown comes to the garage for a “WTF” taping.
“It’s very flattering and sort of amazing that, at least to some people, I’m enough of a cultural icon to become part of the legacy of that,” he said of “The Simpsons” guest spot.
Among his obsessions, for nearly a decade of “WTF” episodes, was the inner workings of “Saturday Night Live.” In countless interviews with “SNL” players and alumni, Maron talked through his failed mid-1990s audition for the show. The inquiry more or less resolved in a two-part interview with “SNL” founder Lorne Michaels in 2015. But a new frontier in the saga began in this season of “SNL,” when, in a sketch lampooning podcasts, castmember Alex Moffat spoofed Maron, playing a cartoonish version of the comic (exasperated and wearing Maron’s thick eyeglasses and Doc Holliday goatee, he declares crankily “I gotta find something new, people, I’m gonna freaking kill myself!”).
“Well, if I’m going to get on ‘SNL,’ I guess that’s how I’m going to get on ‘SNL,’” Maron said of the skit with a laugh. “I think he did a good job with it. I would have liked to see more. And I would have liked to have had the opportunity in my life to have hosted ‘SNL.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I can live with the characterization of me.”
Maron is still a road warrior of a comic, flying to theater and club dates around the U.S. and Europe. He’s currently developing an hour of material for a new special, a follow-up to 2017’s “Too Real” for Netflix. The new material, he said, largely circles around the themes he’s been mining for decades like parents, addiction, middle age (there’s a bit about vitamins) and a dash of Trump and politics.
“I don’t think I’ve done better stand-up than I’ve been doing the last couple years,” he said.
And Maron is no stranger to the Wheeler Opera House stage. He first performed at the historic theater in the mid-1990s during the early days of HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. After HBO left town, he returned during the brief run of the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival in 2010 where he taped an unaired “WTF” episode with guests Michael Ian Black, Hannibal Buress and Gary Gulman at Belly Up.
His stops here have ranged from memorable gigs at the Wheeler to small barroom shows and what he called a “horrible TV taping” of Comedy Central’s “Kicking Aspen.”
“I had some good and bad experiences in Aspen doing comedy — the lack of oxygen is always an issue, in terms of your mental capacity,” he said with a laugh. “The first time I came up there, I decided I had to work out and I think I almost died.”
STS9’s Zach Velmer on fan service and his band’s sold-out three-night stand at Belly Up
Their Red Rocks shows are the stuff of legend, their New Year’s Eve runs in Denver draw fans from around the country and their annual Aspen stand is a bucket list item for every hardcore follower. The experimental jamtronica band formerly known as Sound Tribe Sector 9 — it’s STS9 these days — may be from Atlanta, but Colorado is ground zero for their tribe. A quick look at their stats on streaming services confirms that Colorado is the epicenter of STS9 fandom.
“It’s such an honor to have that kind of loyalty and consistency when we go to Colorado,” drummer Zach Velmer said in a recent phone interview from home in Santa Cruz.
The band’s three Belly Up Aspen shows — March 22 through 24 — have been sold out for months and are among the major musical events in ski country this winter.
The band is also setting up shop at Skye Gallery downtown with a pop-up art show featuring four original pieces of work by STS9. They’re based on the cosmic symbols that have long filled STS9’s album covers, T-shirts and multimedia concerts. The band and gallerist Skye Weinglass are hosting pre-parties at the gallery before each of the weekend’s shows.
“The last time we were there, Skye had a show and we were like, ‘Why don’t we just do something here?’” Velmer said. “It’s exciting for us, and for Aspen, and it’s a different experience for the fans.”
The new visual artwork comes along with a massive amount of recent studio work for STS9. Velmer teased: “2019 is going to be a very creative sharing year on many platforms.”
The band meticulously plans out set lists, mapping overall themes and minute details down to small nuggets to treat superfans, while always leaving open spaces for improvisation and surprise.
“There’s a magic that happens when we’re playing in the studio and rehearsing and there is a whole new energy when we are onstage in front of people,” Velmer said. “It multiplies. … We’re not necessarily making the music. We’re just letting it come through us.”
STS9 fans follow and study the band’s intricate, cross-genre performances with scholarly dedication, tracking and cataloguing set lists with a devotion reserved for only a handful of artists in the post-Dead era.
Velmer and his band mates — over the past two decades — have responded with thoughtful fan service, packing sets with brain candy for their hardcore fan base.
“We want our fans to have a special and unique experience,” Velmer said. “We look at sets, look at what we played last time — there is so much energy and thought that goes into creating these experiences for our fans.”
Knowing that fans are paying such close attention, of course, poses a challenge to STS9 to reinvent the wheel every night. But they try to challenge the fans as well, messing with them and pushing their boundaries.
“It’s a symbiotic experience for the fans and the artists — it’s cool and it’s very real time,” he said. “We can see it in the crowd — we can see people losing their s— and freaking out like, ‘Oh my god, this is what we’re doing?’”
At their most recent show, in Chicago, for example, the band dusted off its early rarity “Common Objects Strangely Placed” and mashed it up with the more well-know “GLOgli” from 2005.
Velmer was chatting recently with a fan on social media about some of the buried sonic treasures from STS9’s New Year’s Eve show at the Fillmore in Denver. The set included a 19-minute section where the bandmembers played melodies from six STS9 songs, mashed them up and layered them, rewarding the repeat listens and attentive ears of their most devout listeners. They’re planning some similar surprises for Aspen.
“It’s like a map and a puzzle,” Velmer said. “The band is having so much fun right now that it’s silly. … When you really start digging and diving into the magic of that, you see these things blossom that you didn’t even know were there.”
Most winters in recent years, STS9 has done a run of Belly Up shows — rare small club gigs for a band that fills large theaters and headlines to the largest of festival crowds.
“The crowd is closer to you than any other venue, so there is this primal rawness, this in-your-face thing,” Velmer said of the intimacy at Belly Up. “I look down and literally 3 feet away from me is a person staring at me.”
Aspen Laugh Fest: Jo Koy on parenting, skiing and upcoming specials (podcast)
Comedian Jo Koy can’t go more than a few days without doing stand-up. When he does, withdrawal sets in.
“When I take a week off I look like a crackhead in the corner of the house, like, ‘Man, I need to tell a joke! Where’s the stage at?’” Koy, who headlines the Aspen Laugh Festival on Saturday night, said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “I go crazy. I talk to myself. I think of jokes and try to work them out of my head.”
He learned on a recent trip to Hawaii that he can’t even take a vacation without a stand-up outlet.
“I was in Maui for three weeks and I went to an open mic bar,” Koy, 47, recalled with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve just got to go up!’ The next thing I knew the whole island was at this bar because Jo Koy was there. I had to do it.”
Koy, who last year was awarded the Stand-Up Comedian of the Year prize at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, may be the hardest-working man in comedy right now. His two sets at the Wheeler Opera House this weekend come in the midst of his “Break the Mold” world tour, which follows his recent taping of a new hourlong special for Netflix premiering in April. He is due to tape yet another hour of new material in June.
Koy plans to showcase new stuff from both upcoming specials in Aspen and, as always, do some improvising onstage. He also remains a regular on Adam Carolla’s popular podcast and hosts his own, “The Koy Pond,” weekly while he’s also developing a new animated series.
“I love to improvise,” he said. “I think that’s the gift that God gave me, so I’m exercising that muscle. I love going up and riffing in front of the crowd. If I can walk away from an hour set and say, ‘Alright, I got one new joke,’ I’m happy.”
Koy retires jokes after he puts them in a special, which has kept him generating new material and new stories constantly in recent years. But it breaks his heart, he said, when he has to retire a good joke.
“I look forward to them introducing me because I know that I’m going to hit that joke that night — I can’t wait because I know I’m going to crush it,” he said. “I can feel the energy of the room. I love that feeling. I can’t even explain that energy, but it sucks when the special hits and I’m like, ‘They’re gone.’”
His most recent special, 2017’s “Live from Seattle,” focused largely on his upbringing — he is the son of a Filipino immigrant mother and an American military man who left the family when Koy was a boy — and on raising his own young son. He riffs on childbirth, compares his son’s privileged life to his tougher early days, and mines his son’s bad hygiene and adolescent hijinks for laughs.
His son, now 16, is still providing ample fodder for Koy’s act.
“I’m dealing with a teenager,” he said with a laugh. “I’m living with a dude now. He thinks he’s cool, but I think he’s just a dirty-ass roommate and I’ve got way too many stories about him.”
So far, his son has been alright with his dad mining their relationship for stand-up material. Though, as teen angst has set in, Koy has learned to be sensitive to the kid’s feelings. He said he makes sure to turn punch-lines back on himself, rather than just making fun of his boy.
“I always put my son’s feelings first,” he said. “If he doesn’t want me to talk about it, I won’t. But for the most part he’s cool with it.”
And, he noted, dad’s comedy is what keeps him in a good private school and cool toys — his last special has an inspired bit about yearning to get him a hoverboard — and he occasionally has to remind his son: “Your stupidity gets us good s—, Joe!”
Koy is a magnetic storyteller, vividly and hilariously portraying his mom and his son and his sisters with the help of some chaotic physical comedy and goofy impressions. Unsurprisingly, he grew up loving storytelling comics like Dennis Wolfberg, Richard Jenny, Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg.
“I couldn’t stop watching that,” he recalled. “I loved the characters and relating to the stories. It was just a natural thing for me to do that onstage when I started doing stand-up. I had to talk about my mom, my son, my sisters.”
The advent of the podcast era has given Koy both a new outlet and a new workshop for developing material. He grew his international fan base through his regular guest spots on Carolla’s show and spun off with his own weekly comedians’ group chat in March 2016 on “The Koy Pond.”
“It’s the best hour and a half of my life,” Koy said. “We go in there with nothing and we try to build something. … It’s freestyle talking, it’s joke-writing, it’s exercising that improv muscle. It’s great.”
But his most personal project these days, and the one he’s most excited about (based on the enthusiastic “Yes!” he bellowed when asked about it) is “This Functional Family.” Koy has been working for seven years on this autobiographical animated series and recently signed with TruTV to bring it to the screen.
“That thing is my baby,” he said. “It’s my life and it’s cool to see TruTV support it and understand it and get my story out there.”
In preparation for his Aspen debut this weekend, Koy has been teaching himself to ski this winter at Lee Canyon outside Las Vegas, enthusiastically — perhaps over-enthusiastically — jumping into the downhill skiing with some comical results.
“No instructor, no nothing,” Koy said of his foray into snow sports. “Just ‘f— it, full-force down the mountain into a tree, flat on my face. I even slid down the mountain backwards with my head facing the bottom of the mountain. Do you know how embarrassing that is?”
Koy is bringing along his son and other family members for the Aspen Laugh Fest to test his burgeoning skills on some bigger hills, though he’ll be sticking to the greens and blues.
“I see people go down the black diamonds and I don’t know how you stop!” he said. “I watch people go down the black diamonds and I’m like, ‘Well, that guy is going to die.’”
Drew Emmitt looks back on thirty years of Leftover Salmon
As Leftover Salmon celebrates its 30th anniversary, music luminaries have been toasting the legendary Colorado band and a historian has devoted a new book to the titanic influence it’s had on bluegrass and jam music.
But in the beginning, all this scrappy Boulder-based outfit aimed to do was barnstorm Colorado’s ski towns with their freewheeling take on string music.
“We just wanted a way that we could go play ski towns in the wintertime,” founding member Drew Emmitt recalled in a recent phone interview from home in Crested Butte. “Our original fan base was the ski towns — Aspen, Vail, Steamboat, Crested Butte, Durango, Telluride. … That was our original circuit. We enjoyed playing Boulder and Denver, but what this band was really about was the ski towns.”
Ironically, focusing early efforts on the small but lively venues of hard-partying ski towns helped raise Leftover Salmon’s national profile before they began hitting the festival scene in the 1990s.
“So many people come through ski towns from all over the country,” Emmitt said. “It was a great way to get our name out.”
The band was birthed in 1989 with the merger of the Salmon Heads and the Left Hand String Band at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Leftover Salmon has been a staple in Aspen since the beginning, playing regular shows at the Double Diamond and later the Belly Up and the Wheeler Opera House, where the band returns for an anniversary show Thursday.
“The Wheeler might be my favorite venue in Colorado in terms of acoustics and ambiance,” Emmitt said. “I love playing there.”
Billed as “Stories from the Living Room,” the performance is a more austere, sit-down show that’s focused on storytelling.
“This band has a story to tell,” Emmitt said. “Coming up on 30 years as a band, people can finally see what we’ve done and that we were trailblazers. We were on the road in a school bus — a bunch of kids not knowing what we were doing and playing music and this is what’s happened. So it’s a good feeling. It’s definitely a milestone for us.”
In the “Living Room” shows they’re mostly leaving behind the rollicking and unhinged sets that have epitomized Leftover Salmon, with Emmitt mostly playing mandolin, keys player Erik Deutsch on grand piano and Greg Garrison on an upright bass. The band is bringing along some homey furnishings and personal knick-knacks to decorate the stage and set an intimate mood.
“It’s created some different directions for us,” Emmitt said of the tour. “The stories just spontaneously emerge while we’re doing the show. It’s really, really fun, it’s intimate and it’s a way to connect with an audience. We’re having a blast. It’s something completely different for us, so we’re really enjoying it.”
The “Living Room” tour also will make stops at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek and Washington’s in Fort Collins before it goes on a national run through spring.
The tour coincides with the release of music historian Tim Newby’s extensively researched new book “Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival,” published last week by Rowman & Littlefield.
“With the book coming out, it’s a great way to talk about that and tell some stories and sit there in the living room,” Emmitt said.
The book is a meticulous piece of reporting — undergirded by interviews with current and former band members — and a well-argued piece of long-form music criticism that delineates the band’s widespread influence on a generation of bluegrass, acoustic and jam bands.
It is narrated in chapters separated out by band member, with Newby tracking how each contributed to Leftover Salmon’s groundbreaking sound and musical language.
“It’s pretty trippy that somebody would want to write a book about us,” Emmitt said, admitting he hadn’t read it yet.
The first chapter is devoted to Emmitt and tracks the origins of what would become Leftover Salmon to a series of mandolin lessons Emmitt took in 1980 from Hot Rize’s Tim O’Brien, who recalls Emmitt’s revolutionary approach to bluegrass and nimble, high-speed picking style as already being fully formed.
“Drew could make a pretty good sound,” O’Brien says in the book, “but in a lot of ways he was already onto a style of his own, a style he still plays.”
Newby places Leftover Salmon in a lineage that began with Bill Monroe, evolved with the Grateful Dead, Hot Rize and New Grass Revival. His book details how the band’s progressive bluegrass style added (gasp!) drums to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and tossed in elements of Cajun, rock and whatever sounded right to them. The genre-bending result made them a staple of the jam band scene and pioneers of what became known as “jamgrass.”
“Leftover Salmon has been a crucial link in keeping alive the traditional music of the past while at the same time pushing the music forward with their own weirdly unique style,” Newby writes.
He also tracks the band through the untimely death of founding banjoist Mark Vann — killed by cancer at 39 in 2002 — and Leftover Salmon’s struggles in the years that followed.
The final chapter is written in the style of an oral history, with testimonials by musicians — from Sam Bush to Dave Watts and Railroad Earth to Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, moe., Widespread Panic and others — about Leftover Salmon’s legacy in bluegrass, jam music, songwriting and in establishing the national profile of Colorado’s adventurous music scene.
Emmitt said he hopes the legacy of Leftover Salmon is in emboldening musicians to challenge orthodoxy and taboos and keep making it new.
“I hope we can inspire other bands to do the same,” Emmitt said. “The music business is very competitive, it’s very uncertain. But if you follow your dream and keep at it, you can make it happen. And this band has proven that.”
He points to the work of Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters, Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers as proof that there’s still new ground to be broken in string music.
“All these bands that are coming up today are really busting things wide open in their own ways,” he said.
But, of course, Leftover Salmon is no nostalgia act. Emmitt and company are not done making new music and experimenting with new sounds, as evidenced on last year’s album “Something Higher.”
The genre-hopping record, Emmitt said, has translated well into the laid-back “Living Room” shows. It also includes one of the band’s most overtly political songs, inspired by President Donald Trump and written in the early days of his administration by Vince Herman. Its chorus goes: “This is now who we are / Love is gonna win again.”
“We’re all pretty politically aware — especially Vince and I are political junkies — and if you are paying attention, probably you’re pretty outraged about what’s going on in our country,” Emmitt said. “And we were able to put it in a song. … We’re all hoping to get out of this with our democracy intact. It’s pretty scary.”
And, yes, with this week’s hotly anticipated show falling on Valentine’s Day, expect some make-out songs like “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” on Thursday.
“We’ll have to play some good couples-focused songs,” Emmitt said. “We’ve got a few up our sleeves.”