Review: Kravitz, No Doubt, Hozier and more at Jazz Aspen Labor Day
Overheard in the crowd: ‘She’s of my era, and I’m old. That’s bad news for her.’
-- Drunk woman watching a youthful Gwen Stefani
Only in Aspen: Was that Gov. John Hickenlooper rocking out to Jimmy Cliff? Yep.
And then there’s this: The Best Rock Star Maneuver Award goes to Lennny Kravitz, who effortlessly punted a beach ball a good 20 yards from the stage while playing a guitar solo on “American Woman.”
Lenny Kravitz offered one of the jazziest performances seen on Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day stage in years, playing long and loose takes on a handful of his songs and showcasing a powerhouse 10-person band.
Kravitz closed out the Labor Day Experience on Sunday night, capping Jazz Aspen’s ambitious 25th-anniversary season. The rock veteran had never played Aspen before, to his regret.
“Now that I’m here, I can’t believe I’ve never been here,” he told the crowd in Snowmass Town Park. “This is me.”
He got things started with rip-roaring, straightforward versions of “Frankenstein,” “American Woman” and “It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over” before tearing into an epic, improvisation-fueled take on “Always on the Run.” Running well over 20 minutes, it incorporated extended solos from his band members. Kravitz stood back, danced and marveled as trumpeter Ludavic Louis took over with a soaring, altitude-defying, free-jazz improv.
The adventurous, maybe unexpected approach kept the audience rapt. He gave “Let Love Rule” a similar treatment, breaking it into movements that swerved between a capella crooning, hard rock, R&B and a long, bass-driven breakdown in which Kravitz sauntered through the audience with a hand-held mic, leading the crowd in a call-and-response of the “We got to let love rule” chorus.
Kravitz — in sunglasses and denim and with his pants on through the wardrobe-malfunction-free concert — reined things back in with a disciplined, soulful “Fly Away” before leaving the stage and returning for an explosive encore of “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” He took his final bow, a la James Brown, in a shawl/cape — an appropriate touch after this master showman’s performance. He then left the band onstage to rip for a few minutes more and enjoy the crowd’s final (huge) ovations.
No Doubt’s headlining set Saturday was more on-script, tearing through sing-along-friendly renditions of the band’s countless ska-pop hits and keeping the crowd doing the pogo throughout. (The band did offer a joyful, impromptu rendition of the Skatalites’ “Guns of Navarone” as a tribute to the late ska trombonist Rico Rodriguez.)
Singer Gwen Stefani may have intended to be ironic as she repeatedly gushed “I love this song” between anthems such as “Hella Good,” “Ex-Girlfriend” and “Spiderwebs,” but the crowd genuinely loved the set. Like Kravitz, Stefani is, at this point, a timeless rock star who commands attention whether stalking the stage, teasing fans or showcasing her dexterous voice. In an inspired girl-power touch, she called on the men and boys in the crowd to sing a chorus of “Just a Girl” and then had the women do the same (and do it much better).
A remarkably preserved Jimmy Cliff, nearly a half-century since his first album, gave a vital performance showcasing his undiminished voice and a tight band behind him. The Saturday afternoon set included crowd-pleasing, reggae-fied takes on Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” along with a fun, bare-bones “Bongo Man,” hits such as “Hakuna Matata” and reggae standards such as “Rivers of Babylon.” Surprisingly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer didn’t play “The Harder They Come,” which I suspect would have been his encore song had the crowd cheered loudly enough to bring him back out for one.
The Fray’s evening set Sunday was filled with Colorado love from and for the Denver natives, who — appropriately enough — said they slept under the mountain stars the night before. Their performance, anchored by the hits “How to Save a Life” and “Over My Head,” turned out to be one of the more playful of the weekend — it included lead singer Isaac Slade climbing the stage scaffolding, an acoustic rendition of Kanye West’s “Heartless” and a show-stopping take on Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” dedicated to “everybody born before 1990” (which, it’s safe to say from the looks of it, was most of this festival crowd).
Though No Doubt and Kravitz had never played Aspen before, you pretty much knew those rock veterans would deliver electrifying performances. Hozier, the 25-year-old breakout musician of 2014, was more of a wild card. But he, too, came through Friday night.
His set of little more than one hour included ballads and hard-charging blues, a spiritual and a playful take on Warren G’s “Regulate” (“Just for funzies,” he explained) and, of course, his one massive hit. The assured performance pleased a contingent of squealing teen girls as well as the uninitiated and the skeptical. It hopped smoothly between pop songs, subdued and soulful ones such as “Work Song” and the gritty blues of “Jackie and Wilson” and “Angel of Small Death and Codeine,” and held the crowd’s attention with the acoustic ballad “Cherry Wine Kiss,” complemented by a haunting cello.
“Take Me to Church” brought the house down. But by the time he played it, closing his compelling main set, you may have forgotten that there was one big hit you were supposed to be waiting for.
Fitz and the Tantrums got the worst of the weather at the otherwise sunny festival, opening their Friday evening set in a drizzle that turned into a downpour. The neo-soul outfit eventually got upstaged by lightning in the area, which nearly led to a full festival evacuation before it passed.
After a short delay and a parting of clouds, a grateful Hozier repeatedly thanked the crowd for “soldiering through” and sticking around for him.
“That cold, wet feeling running down your spine is just pure joy,” he said. “You guys are absolute troopers.”
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