Sounds good: The year in music, Stewy style |

Sounds good: The year in music, Stewy style

Story and photos by Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Chris Thile of Punch Brothers

The recording industry — that is, the business of selling recorded music — is, we are assured, a lost cause, never to return to anything like it was in the pre-digital era.

The concert industry is feeding on itself. Competition for acts is increasingly vicious, control is increasingly centered among a handful of corporations, and people’s options for how they want to be entertained are ever-expanding. Artists of the sort who can fill an amphitheater, and potentially do so for a considerable stretch of years, are dwindling in number: There are precious few new Springsteens, U2s and James Taylors in the pipeline.

Schools don’t teach music anymore. The stuff these kids listen to these days can’t compare to what we listened to in the (go ahead, pick your decade here). Radio sucks. These electronic musicians aren’t even musicians. Video killed the radio star.

All these complaints fail to take into account an essential thing: The music itself is in excellent shape. Not only that — it seems to be getting better. No amount of gloomy talk has stopped waves of kids from picking up guitars to write songs and form bands. Nothing is stopping them from looking over the horizon to what new sounds and novel ways of making them are out there. From the other end, there are plenty of older guys doing what old rockers are not supposed to do — continuing to treat music like a living experience rather than trotting out moldy hits for a nostalgia-grubbing audience. A lot of them are even making new albums; a lot of those albums are even good.

At least that’s the view I get from what very well might be the Aspen bubble. Belly Up continues to raise its bar in numerous ways; this past year was highlighted by the number of relatively young, relatively new bands that pulled in big audiences and put on excellent shows. For its efforts, the venue was included, at No. 16, on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 20 music clubs in the U.S.; it was the only one listed that wasn’t in a big city or a major college town. PAC3 kept up its startling ways, bringing big-name acts to small-town Carbondale and giving them a soulful place to perform. Jazz Aspen Snowmass has weathered its various challenges to stay in the festival game; it also has taken its small-venue program to a peak with its popular JAS Cafe series. The Wheeler Opera House has not only solidified its strengths but shows a willingness to stretch into the unexpected.

Need specifics? I’ve got them — photos, too. Let’s revisit these past few months of music-making in the valley with my annual exercise, the Stewys. I only hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. My only complaint: I wish I had seen more of it.

Most bizarre occurrence

And the nominees are: Al Green throwing his sweat — yes, literally, throwing his sweat, with his fingers, repeatedly — at the crowd (July 24, Belly Up); Jazz Aspen’s summer festival announcements, with a Labor Day lineup that bears little resemblance to Labor Days past and a June Festival that looks a lot like a Labor Day Festival; and New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia (Sept. 20, Belly Up).

Yep, the legendary Green, known for some of the most romantic songs in the soul catalog, aiming his sweat at audience members was really weird. But really no comparison to Big Freedia, whose obsession with all things related to the backside knows no bottom. A setlist of songs all related to the gluteus theme is bizarre enough; having two dancers to graphically illustrate the concept took this over the top. And the statue goes to Big Freedia, who hopefully knows where to put this memento. That would be on the mantel, not … no, don’t put it there!

Not nearly bizarre enough

Devendra Banhart (May 5, Belly Up): The singer-songwriter’s Aspen debut was very good. But based on his reputation, and the interview I had done with him, I was expecting it to be much stranger. I should note that Banhart, in the interview, warned me about his show: “I think it’s way more normal than a normal concert.”

Best multimedia doubleheader

Pulling myself away from Del McCoury & Sam Bush (March 21, Wheeler) was difficult; the duo was having a picking good time. But pull away I did, over to New York Pizza to watch the Denver Nuggets’ miracle victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Now that’s a doubleheader: Sam and Del playing “Roll On Buddy, Roll On” and the Nuggets coming back from five down with 14 seconds to go for the win — without even needing overtime.

Best opening act/side-stage act

And the nominees are: Wildcat! Wildcat! an ’80s-style synth band that opened for Alt-J (April 21, Belly Up); You, Me & Apollo (Sept. 2, Labor Day Festival); Milk Carton Kids, opening for Punch Brothers (Dec. 8, Wheeler); and honeyhoney, opening for Trampled by Turtles (Jan. 12, Belly Up).

And the winner is You, Me & Apollo. I knew nothing about this Fort Collins soul-rock band when I wandered over to the side stage, but within seconds I was hooked on the voice and presence of bandleader Brent Cowles. So, apparently, was everyone else within earshot of that magnificent voice. Cowles returned for another opening slot (Dec. 26, Belly Up, opening for Third Eye Blind) and is the early act at the upcoming Snowmass Mammoth Festival (June 7, Snowmass Village), but mark my words — someday, somewhere in this valley, this guy will get a top billing.

Best ‘Hey, it’s just like old Aspen’ experience

Granted, I probably wasn’t here for the true good old days, when a killer band would just kind of show up in an Aspen park and set up the gear and, as the tunes wafted out over town, the people would assemble for a loose gathering. As I understand it, this happened on a daily basis from 1971 to 1974. And it’s pretty much exactly what happened Aug. 19, when blues legend Taj Mahal and his seven-piece band rocked Wagner Park. A lot of people complained that they hadn’t heard about the event beforehand; it was part of the environment-focused AREDay, so it wasn’t on the music fan’s radar? But the spontaneity added to the charm — “Whoa, what’s going on here. Is that Taj Mahal?” — and any lack of advance notice didn’t prevent the crowds from coming.

You give geezer rock a bad name

In the category of old-timers who defy the geezer label and still bring it, the nominees are: Yes (March 12, Belly Up), the Steve Miller Band (Aug. 31, Labor Day Festival), Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Feb. 10, Wheeler) and Al Green.

Al Green did more than sling his sweat at people; his voice was in spectacular shape for a 66-year-old. But in even better shape was Yes, the British prog-rock band that is still going strong with much of its early membership intact. The Belly Up show, Yes’ local debut, had hardcore fans swearing this was as good as the days of yore. And for this Yes neophyte, the energy was impressive; the new singer sounded uncannily like the original singer, Jon Anderson, and had a great personality to boot; and guitarist Steve Howe instantly became one of my six-string heroes. Stewy to Yes.

Best song performance

No, I don’t keep notes on every song I hear performed. I operate on the notion that the really special ones stick in my head (right there alongside the image of Big Freedia’s two dancers bent over, thrusting their buttocks toward the crowd).

Here’s what’s still echoing between my ears: Joe Walsh covering Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” (Aug. 8, Belly Up), Sarah Jarosz covering Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” (July 26, PAC3), Brett Dennen on “She’s Mine” (March 22, Snowmass Base Village), Elvis Costello on “Alison” (June 16, Benedict Music Tent), Taj Mahal on “She Caught the Katy,” and Alt-J on that cool, exotic-sounding tune played around the middle of the set (so maybe I should take better notes).

And the winner is: Dennen playing my favorite song of his, a difficult song to remember all the lyrics to (trust me, it took me months to memorize, but it was worth it: When Dennen performed “She’s Mine,” it was me and a bunch of teenage girls standing up front, mouthing all the words). Note: Out-of-valley experiences are ineligible for Stewy awards, but Dennen doing “She’s Mine” at Telluride Bluegrass was probably my second-favorite song performance of the year.

Danny Gatton Memorial Award for Best Guitarist

Rockabilly guitarist Gatton won the first Stewy for best guitarist and soon after killed himself. No connection between the two events has been established, and authorities called off the investigation long ago.

The nominees are: Steve Kimock (Oct. 17, PAC3); Pat Metheny (Sept. 7, Wheeler); Steve Howe, of Yes; and Doug Pettibone, from Lucinda Williams’ band (Aug. 22, Belly Up). I’m going with Pat Metheny. Incomparably good.

My favorite interview

Reggie Scanlan, bassist of the New Orleans Suspects, gave me a colorful, insightful tour through the ’60s counter-culture, the New Orleans music scene and his former band, the Radiators.

Best instrumentalist who doesn’t play guitar

Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile (Dec. 8, Wheeler); the rhythm section from Joe Lovano’s Us Five — bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III (Feb. 1, Wheeler); Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (Sept. 1, Labor Day Festival); and cellist Ben Sollee (Nov. 16, Belly Up).

It’s Thile. And if Punch Brothers keep coming to town each year, we might be able to put this award permanently in Thile’s hands.

Best valley debut

Alt-J, Pedrito Martinez (March 31, JAS Cafe), Mutemath (Jan. 25, base of Aspen Mountain), Seryn (Feb. 20, Belly Up), Kid Rock (Sept. 2, Labor Day Festival) and Sarah Jarosz.

And I could go on with the nominees: Pickwick, Devendra Banhart, Mumford & Sons, Merle Haggard, Brit Floyd. A very fine year for newcomers.

Stewy goes to Seryn. I saw this little-known band from Denton, Texas, play an early-day set at Telluride Bluegrass and was floored. I came home raving about them to anyone who might care, with some clear spillage into people who clearly did not care at all. Among those who apparently cared were Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg and PAC3 director Josh Behrman, both of whom booked the band. (The PAC3 date got canceled). At Belly Up, Seryn’s explosive folk-rock was even better than I remembered. Get on board.

Special recognition for versatility

In the fall of 2011, New Orleans singer-guitarist Anders Osborne played a monster show at PAC3, a demonstration of the power of ripping electric guitar in the trio format. A year later, at Belly Up, Osborne went solo and acoustic, opening for reggae act Toots & the Maytals. Everything about Osborne’s appearance was different from the first one and was just as memorable.

Best singer

Nominees are Arleigh Kincheloe, of Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds (Sept. 10, Belly Up); Al Green; Sarah Jarosz; Brent Cowles, of You, Me & Apollo; and Galen Disston, of Pickwick (March 18, Belly Up).

It’s between the old guy and the young woman, but I’m going with Green over Jarosz. Green even took a moment to show off his voice, hitting a high note and holding it forever.

Best voice (non-music department)

When I heard that David Sedaris was coming to town, I didn’t have to do much preparation on the reading front; I had read most everything by the humorist. But I was about to watch some YouTube material and then thought better of it: Given the descriptions of how odd Sedaris’ voice is, especially his own descriptions, maybe it would be better to go in cold, having never heard him. Smart move. The second Sedaris opened his mouth (Nov. 24, Wheeler), I was floored — his voice was as high-pitched and unique as promised. Best of all, I wasn’t the only one in the Wheeler cracking up over the sound.

Best show

The big one. The nominees are: Brett Dennen, Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, Yes, Steve Kimock and Trombone Shorty.

And the winner is Pat Metheny, who moves jazz music forward every time he picks up his guitar.

Best development

Jazz Aspen’s JAS Cafe. The series caught fire this year, with one sellout after another and great performances by Monty Alexander, Lucien Barbarin, Pedrito Martinez and others. The upcoming summer lineup is promising if a little long on repeat acts. But the venue seems here to stay.

Worst development

The Wheeler pulling the plug on its 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival, which showed promise and had staged some memorable performances but struggled to book top-notch acts for its 2013 dates. So the event was canceled, with some vague talk of a possible revival.

Can’t believe I missed

A short list of the acts that came to town and I managed to miss: Robert Earl Keen, Martin Sexton, Rufus Wainwright, Dark Star Orchestra, Elephant Revival, Eliane Elias, Marc Broussard, the Wailers, Mickey Hart Band, Umphrey’s McGee, EOTO, the Dunwells, Tea Leaf Green, Joe Cocker, k.d. lang, Hot Tuna, Gogol Bordello, Blackberry Smoke, the Rev. Horton Heat, the Shins, Public Enemy, Perpetual Groove, the Motet, Buddy Guy, Mos Def, Stephen Marley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, March Fourth Marching Band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Beach House, Marco Benevento, Marcia Ball, Tommy Castro, Leon Russell, Jimmie Vaughan, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Kenny Loggins, the Rev, Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and the Dukes of September.

And mind you — these are just the ones that had me gnashing my teeth.

But the one I really missed was Hot Tuna (July 21, PAC3). Many are the people who said this was a shot not to be missed, and I shouldn’t have.

Front-runners for the next Show of the Year Stewy

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (May 21, Belly Up); Return to Dark Side of the Moon, with Karl Denson, Blackbyrd McKnight, Bernie Worrell and Nona Hendryx (June 7, Snowmass Mammoth Festival); Tedeschi Trucks Band (June 23, Jazz Aspen June Festival); Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (July 1, Belly Up); Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Sept. 1, Labor Day Festival); and Dr. Ralph Stanley (Feb. 1, Wheeler).

Huge thanks to Josh Behrman and the PAC3 crew; Michael Goldberg, Erin Noethen and everyone at Belly Up; Jim Horowitz, Andrea Beard and the Jazz Aspen staff; Gram Slaton and the Wheeler folks; Amy Kimberly; Janice Szabo; Alan Richman, Mike Miracle and everyone else who talks music with me; everyone at The Aspen Times; all the musicians; and my family.