Fall Flurries: Highs and lows from an entertaining summer
October 9, 2015
On a cool June evening, I checked the time as I left a Summer Words event where the legendary Garrison Keillor read dirty limericks and talked about how the tough crowds of Minnesota had shaped him as a humorist.
If I hustled, I realized, I could catch most of Gregg Allman's set at Belly Up — I did, and was treated to another timeless performer showcasing his remarkably preserved skills. Earlier in the day, I'd interviewed the punk band The Offspring and a Broadway director coming to town to stage "Junie B. Jones The Musical" — I'd also talked to the artist Enrique Martinez Celaya about his new book on teaching at Anderson Ranch and moderated a panel of New York literary agents and editors at The Gant.
Such is life on the arts beat in Aspen in the summer. You drink from a cultural firehose daily. Once the aspens go golden and the autumn offseason sets in, you can step back a bit and reflect on the nonstop barrage of entertainment. This is my (very subjective, somewhat random) look back at some of the most memorable moments of Aspen's summer of 2015.
P In what felt like both a history lesson and a historic collaboration, Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White played what turned out to be one of the finest shows in Belly Up's summer lineup. They performed early Americana and country songs, infusing them with a contemporary musicianship and a reverence for their musical forebears. Expect to hear a lot more about this collaboration, as the trio plays Carnegie Hall next month and puts together a live album.
P Jon Peterson nailed the bad-boy act and bawdy schmaltz of the debauched Emcee in Theatre Aspen's immersive production of "Cabaret," with a fabulous ensemble revolving around him.
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P Snowmass Village's Beth Malone conquered the theater world in Broadway's "Fun Home," and local thespians and theater fans (and Malone's family) filled the Wheeler Opera House to watch a live broadcast of the Tony Awards as the groundbreaking production won Best Musical.
P Great American novelist and Aspenite James Salter died at 90, just as the Aspen Summer Words literary retreat got underway. Salter, it turns out, quetly helped revive the Aspen Writers' Foundation once upon a time, making the gathering of literary luminaries and emerging writers a fitting tribute.
P At the Food & Wine Classic, when you're overheard mentioning that your wife is from Wisconsin, a mustard maker from Pleasant Prairie may just hand you a box containing a lifetime supply of Mustard Girl mustard. My cupboards now overfloweth with this delicious condiment.
P With 80-plus fans dancing onstage, Rodrigo y Gabriela blew the roof off of the Benedict Music Tent at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience.
P The most civil debates about gun violence I've heard took place at the Aspen Institute's "Guns in the Hands of Artists" exhibit, where artists shaped decommissioned firearms into works of art and sparked conversations between people on both sides of the divisive issue.
P The Aspen Ideas Festival got a sense of humor in participatory sessions on improv comedy and Shakespearean acting — a welcome addition to the lineup that put me, improbably, in chain mail.
P Street artist JR's impromptu collaboration with dancer Lil Buck at Ideas Fest — who danced in a pond on the Institute campus — has to be one of the most beautiful things ever seen in Aspen (which is saying a lot).
P Is there anybody on the planet cooler than Frank Stella? The easygoing and influential painter, 79, came to Anderson Ranch to talk about his roots in the minimalism of the 1950s and embracing today's 3-D printing technology.
P After a 2015 winter without a local performance, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet came back strong with the debut of Alejandro Cerrudo's "Silent Ghost."
P The acclaimed Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo surprised a swooning Benedict Tent audience with a charismatic, hammy performance at the Aspen Music Festival that included silly stage patter and a sweet serenade of a little girl from the crowd.
P Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" may have incited a national incident when it was exhibited in New York City in 1999, but Aspen embraced the artist's work in the monumental retrospective "Night and Day" at the Aspen Art Museum. The three-floor, five-gallery show is up through Nov. 1 — if you do nothing else this month, go see this show if you haven't yet.
P My great Belly Up musical discovery of the summer was the young powerhouse vocalist Zella Day. This is one of those shows we'll be bragging about in a few years when she's winning Grammys and conquering the music world.
P The absolute silence of the reverent, sold-out crowd at Iron & Wine's solo show at Belly Up was among the most remarkable things I've witnessed at the club. The audience hung on Sam Beam's every word as he took requests and played his stripped-down acoustic songs in a powerful, patient and assured performance. Here's hoping he becomes a regular in the club. Other indie highlights from Belly Up: Lake Street Dive, TV on the Radio, Jenny Lewis and Black Pistol Fire.
P Technical difficulties with the massive balloons (meant to represent elephants) in the Aspen Music Festival's semi-staged version of the epic opera "Aida" didn't take away from a showcase of virtuoso singers like soprano Tamara Wilson. The laughter around the Benedict as the balloons sunk into the crowd actually provided a nice (and rare) moment of levity that night.
P The Gonzo Gallery's return on Hyman Avenue with a massive show on Hunter Thompson's 1970 campaign for sheriff started a communitywide conversation about police, development and the future of Aspen. Art can do that, this exhibition and complementary "Liberty Salon" series proved.
P Brian Wilson's Belly Up show often felt like a Beach Boys cover band performance, with his stellar backing band (most of them members of an actual Beach Boys cover band) doing most of the heavy lifting. But the few flashes of solo brilliance — "Love and Mercy" and "God Only Knows" — were unforgettable. Wilson was among a constant stream of music legends in the club this summer — John Prine, Buddy Guy, Graham Nash, Michael McDonald and Steve Earle among them.
P If you thought there was no room left for more summer arts programming, think again. The inaugural Aspen Theatre Festival felt like a vital addition, bringing new theater and workshops to Theatre Aspen with readings of the in-progress "The Agent" and "Finn the Fearless."
P Todd Hartley's "The Generations of Tantalus" improbably shaped Greek mythology into broad farce in hilarious, well-attended outdoor performances presented by the Hudson Reed Ensemble.
P MountainSummit's ambitious 2015 program broke out of the walls of the Wheeler Opera House, bringing families into Wagner Park and a sold-out crowd to Belly Up for Nathaniel Rateliff.
P Lenny Kravitz closed out Jazz Aspen's 25th anniversary season with a loose, jazzy set that actually included a lengthy free jazz solo from Ludavic Louis and 20-minute versions of a handful of his hits at the Labor Day Experience. Rather than coming off as self-indulgent, his adventurous set worked and kept the crowd rapt.
P Bummer of the summer: Local singer-songwriter Jackson Emmer moved away to Asheville, North Carolina, just after dropping a fantastic new solo album. We won't be seeing him play Justice Snow's for awhile, but here's hoping he breaks out and comes back on a big national tour sometime soon.
P Bright Light Social Hour came to jam, trading in the party rock of their last Belly Up stop for a more thoughtful, intricate sound from the Austin buzz band.
P I can't wait for more people to see Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's "Anomalisa," which screened as a late addition to the Aspen Filmfest lineup, because it's the kind of movie you need to talk about. The stop-motion film is as mind-bending, hilarious and heartbreaking as you'd expect from the writer of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation."