New album, first tour since 1990 brings Hot Rize to Aspen |

New album, first tour since 1990 brings Hot Rize to Aspen

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Hot Rize is kicking off its first full tour since 1990 with a string of Colorado gigs, including tonight's at the Wheeler Opera House. Their new album, "When I'm Free" is due out Sept. 30.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go ...

What: Hot Rize

When: Thursday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m.

Where: Wheeler Opera House

Tickets and more info:

When Tim O’Brien and his band mates in the bluegrass band Hot Rize decided to go on tour for the first time in nearly 25 years, they wanted to do it right.

Rather than simply booking a bunch of dates and playing their hits, the band, formed in Boulder in 1978, opted to enter the studio together and write a ton of new music before going on the road. The tour begins with a Colorado leg and brings Hot Rize to the Wheeler Opera House on Thursday, Sept. 25, and the time in the studio produced “When I’m Free,” their first studio album since 1990. It’s due out Sept. 30.

“We wanted to come back and not just be a shadow,” said Tim O’Brien, who sings and plays mandolin, guitar and fiddle in the band. “We wanted to be the real thing again. I think the work’s going to pay off.”

Hot Rize has reunited sporadically at festivals and for one-off concerts since 1990, but other than that they hadn’t played or practiced together. After the 1999 death of guitarist Charles Sawtelle, they added Bryan Sutton to the lineup. Three years ago, at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention, O’Brien — who has had a successful solo career — and banjo player Pete Wernick started talking about giving it a go again.

“He said, ‘We have something really unique and it’s a crime that we’re not doing it,’” O’Brien recalled.

Rather than just covering the old hits that fueled their rise to prominence in the ‘80s and influenced the new generation of bluegrass outfits, they decided they needed a new “calling card.”

“We put a lot of advance work into this,” said O’Brien. “It started with getting back into the studio, weaving our identity back together, giving everybody ownership of the thing so the bond is stronger.”

O’Brien is committed to touring with Hot Rize for a year, he said, following his year touring solo with Darrell Scott.

They’re breaking up the shows into a few distinct parts. They start with the old stuff, “to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” then play some of the new material. After that, they bring out Red Knuckles and the Trail Blazers — Hot Rize’s cheesy swing band alter ego — and then Hot Rize returns to close out the show.

“We didn’t really change our identity,” said O’Brien. “We’re using the same formula, in that we have original songs that we play from a traditional direction.”

I related to O’Brien a story about a young rock band from Boulder that I’d recently interviewed. The lead singer had told me that playing straight-forward rock and roll gave them an advantage on the Colorado music scene, because most young people these days are starting bluegrass bands instead. O’Brien laughed at the notion that bluegrass is suddenly hipper than rock.

“The stuff goes in waves,” he said. “The Boulder thing is particularly unique, because you had Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon and those jam-band bluegrassers. Each generation has to have something to inspire them to pick it up.”

O’Brien has left Boulder for Nashville, but the Colorado music scene in general — and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in particular — is still his spiritual musical home, he said. The festival and the Colorado scene bred a new style of bluegrass, epitomized in Hot Rize, that brought a contemporary approach to the traditional bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.

“There’s an open-mindedness to the culture in Colorado that made events like Telluride Bluegrass really a good idea,” he said. “To me, when they started that (in 1973) it was like a chemical reaction, where it foams up into this explosion.”