Aspen Times Weekly: The Quiet Year

The closest I’ve come to attending a concert in the past two-plus months was watching a teenager sitting on the banks of the Roaring Fork River practicing Led Zeppelin tunes on an acoustic guitar. My daughter and I stumbled upon him during a morning walk on the Rio Grande Trail, and sat entranced for several songs.

It was a welcome aural and spiritual jolt amid the numbing quarantine period, and a bittersweet reminder of the cherished rituals of live music that have been absent from our lives through the coronavirus crisis.

Aspen in summertime has arguably become, per capita, the best live music town in the U.S.

This remote and tiny mountain town — from June to September — has an independent venue in Belly Up Aspen that’s among Rolling Stone’s “Best Clubs in America” that brings top-tier acts straight from Red Rocks. It has three world-class orchestras that each perform weekly at the Aspen Music Festival in the Benedict Music Tent, premier ensemble and soloist recitals next door in Harris Concert Hall. The season is bracketed by Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ two tent-pole events: the downtown-wide June Experience and the massive pop music Labor Day Experience.

There’s the summer Snowmass ritual of the Thursday night concert on Fanny Hill, the soul-rending experience of a First Friday concert in the cozy confines of Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, the date nights at the JAS Café, the bar bands at the Red Onion, karaoke nights at Ryno’s.

Summer 2020 is going to be quiet, though. In successive recent weeks, Jazz Aspen moved its June and Labor Day festival lineups to 2021, the Music Fest canceled and Belly Up — which hasn’t hosted a show since the second week of March — “paused operations.” In this quiet year, Aspen will have exactly as much live music per capita as everyplace else: zero, or close to it.

Hundreds of summer concerts here have been canceled. Organizers are doing the right thing to save lives and keep people safe by canceling and following public health orders, just as we’ve all been trying to do right by staying home. And, of course, music can seem a trifle when as we’re dealing questions of life and death and deep grief for the suffering around the world. But it’s all right to miss the life-affirming experience of a concert.

Normally here in the mud-season hush of May, I’d be putting together my annual “Most Anticipated” list of concerts and cultural events. I’d be cramming for the season — listening to a ton of music from the artists on the summer docket, planning interviews, previews and concert coverage. In an alternate universe, I’m plugging away right now on stories about Chromeo, Kermit Ruffins, Renée Fleming and Stevie Nicks.

That anticipation, and the reason why the void of summer 2020 hurts, is less about the starry names of the artists and the sonic experience than it is about gathering people. That’s why we can’t have concerts during a pandemic and that’s also why we are going to miss it so deeply.

The Sunday concerts in the Benedict Music Tent aren’t an iconic Aspen experience just because it’s a great orchestra performing under the world’s best conductors and with superstar soloists. It matters because of the lawn, the picnic, the friends and family on the blanket with you.

Most Aspenites aren’t deciding whether to go to the Labor Day festival based on the artists on the bill, they’re going because it’s what you do Labor Day weekend here with the people you love.

The memories we make at Belly Up aren’t just about who is onstage but also, so often, about who ends up next to you on the floor during the show.

Yes, there are virtual experiences and streaming concerts and Instagram Live sets. Yes, we’re all grateful to have them right now to keep us sane. It’s what we have, so we have to embrace it. But it’s not the same if you’re not sharing it alongside other people. Some have quietly begun floating ideas for small-group socially distanced concerts this summer, others drive-in concerts, which would feel like liberation.

When full concerts do return, it will be, as Aspen Music Festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher put it, “nothing less than an explosion of musical joy.”

For now, if we love live music, then ensuring its return is also our duty. When you get the option to turn your festival ticket into a donation, if you have the money, you’ve gotta take that option if you want the festival to return in 2021. When you get a refund for a club show, take that disposable income and put it toward paying for merch or vinyl or by donating to one of the organizations supporting out-of-work musicians or struggling venues.

As Belly Up cleared most of its summer shows and stopped announcing new bookings, it joined the new National Independent Venue Association, a national advocacy group with 1,300 members aimed at saving small clubs nationwide from closing for good due to COVID-19. They’re asking fans to write to congressmembers to support small venues.

Some new ways of sharing live music will emerge this summer for in Aspen, maybe new traditions will be born, maybe we’re already seeing the beginnings of that.

The same May weekend that I got word Labor Day fest was officially canceling, the local singer-songwriter Brad “Bradman” Manosevitz played the first public concert in Aspen since mid-March. It wasn’t much — just Brad doing his one-man-band thing on the porch of Jour de Fete as people came and went for takeout lunch — but it was something, a socially distanced and masked and kinda weird something. And it gave us something to look forward to every Saturday he returns.

If there’s one thing we all know, Aspen won’t stay quiet forever.