Review: Diana Ross, Booker T. & Marcus Miller at Jazz Aspen June Experience
A pair of septuagenarian music legends book-ended the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience last weekend with age-defying sets of immortal songs that proved to be more than run-of-the-mill oldies acts from Diana Ross and Booker T.
A sold-out crowd greeted Ross with a roar the night of June 24 in the Benedict Music Tent, as a massive white drapery dropped and revealed the queen diva belting “I’m Coming Out.” For 90 minutes, the 72-year-old Ross muscled her voice through the instantly recognizable hits from the Motown era with the Supremes through the height of disco.
Still a triumphant star who wears her fabulousness on her sequined sleeve, Ross sang through a perma-smile under a mane of curly black hair and left the stage regularly for costume changes, switching in and out of combinations of tassels, capes and boas.
The set ran through her catalogue, songs so familiar that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist: “Baby Love,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I Will Survive.” These songs are such staples as covers and sing-alongs — at bar mitzvahs or karaoke nights or pride parades — that it’s legitimately disorienting to have the actual Diana Ross sing them in front of you. It’d be like Christ showing up at your church to give a sermon on Sunday morning.
And how did she sound? Pretty remarkably great. The familiar soar in her voice is still there, and she had a strong trio of backup singers in her nine-person band to fill in where she needed them.
It all made for one of the most memorable JuneFest shows of recent vintage, and also gave us one of the festival’s most absurd moments: local philanthropist Bob Magoon onstage dancing to “Upside Down” beside Ross.
Booker T.’s “Stax Revue” ran through a similarly iconic set list at Sunday night’s concert. The R&B legend offered brief, deadpan introductions to songs that reminded you of the jaw-dropping breadth of his career, the songs he played on and the greats he played with — from B.B. King, Otis Redding, Albert King and so on.
But the high point was his mournful, dirgelike tribute cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
At 71, Booker T. remains a master of the Hammond B-3 organ, tearing through faithful renditions of “Hang ‘Em High,” “Time is Tight,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and “Green Onions,” picking up a guitar for “Knock on Wood,” “Try a Little Tenderness” and a roaring “Hold On I’m Coming” that closed the pre-encore set. On songs that required vocals, he stuck with the ones in a low register and deferred to his bandmates on higher ones — most notably Anthony Hamilton, who brought the house down with “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” (though the attempted crowd whistle-along fizzled as few could keep up).
Booker T. was preceded by the jazz bassist Marcus Miller, whose long, complex jams with his four-man band blended world music rhythms with a rock-leaning brand of American jazz (and a cover of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” for good measure). Miller and his four-man band worked songs into explosive improvisational interplays of virtuosic talent. Unfortunately, as has often been the case with early acts on double-bills at JuneFest, the crowd in the tent was sparse for much of a powerhouse performance that fiercely kept the “jazz” in Jazz Aspen.
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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