Fall Flurries: Highs, lows, odds and ends from an entertaining summer in Aspen
As the leaves drop and the offseason takes hold in Aspen, you can’t help but get the feeling that the circus has packed up and left town. The hurly-burly of festivals and concerts, plays and art openings — this nonstop cavalcade of culture that runs from the Food & Wine Classic to the Aspen Filmfest has finally and suddenly halted.
Stevie Wonder has come and gone, along with Ann Patchett, several Marleys and ballet companies, a couple hundred music students and artists. The world’s best and brightest have all trekked to this remote mountain town to share their talents, one event on top of the other, for four straight months, then split. These are my odd notes (by no means comprehensive or objective) from an entertaining summer season on the arts beat in Aspen:
• He’s braved hurricanes out of the Gulf all his life in New Orleans, but the legendary Cyril Neville was sent running from the stage on Fanny Hill in Snowmass two songs into his free Thursday night concert as a nasty squall of wind and snow hit. The gusts sent the bluesman’s hat – and his amp — flying before he fled (along with most of the crowd).
• We won’t forget about you, Soulskin Dance. The San Francisco-based company, in its local debut, performed an interpretive dance of “The Breakfast Club” at the Aspen Fringe Festival.
• It wasn’t supposed to be funny, but the most hilarious thing I witnessed this summer was the “Understanding the Podcast Explosion” panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The crowd in the ballroom at the Hotel Jerome was mostly comprised of people who did not know what a podcast is (the remainder, it appeared, was there to pitch their own upstart pods). This left the brilliant minds on the panel (Dan Savage! Hanna Rosin! Franklin Leonard!) spending most of the hour literally explaining how to download a podcast, how to listen to a podcast and how to operate an iPhone.
• The Anderson Ranch Arts Center is still funky after all these years. As the institution began its summer-long 50th anniversary celebration, the Haas Brothers took the campus over during a residency that proved it can be as weird and whimsical as ever. Paul Soldner would be proud.
• Diana Ross, at 72, is still the queen diva. She soared through a triumphant, career-spanning, 90-minute set at the Jazz Aspen June Experience that solidified her legendary status for a sold-out crowd at the Benedict Music Tent.
• Whatever permanent hearing damage we all sustained from the Buzzcocks’ distorted, louder-than-bombs set at Belly Up was well worth it to see the punk legends in concert.
• Let us hope Sharr White’s chilling “Stupid Kid” has a life on many stages beyond its workshop production at the Aspen Fringe Festival. This very dark comedy about a kid coming home from jail offered an unflinching look at how we live in America today and at the institutional exploitation of the poor. As one character puts it: life is like a shit sandwich, you know exactly what you’re gonna get.
• Everybody was talking about making art with a social mission this summer, from Deborah Borda’s inspiring speech at the Aspen Music School’s convocation to the anti-Trump sentiments from the Drive-By Truckers at Belly Up. But nobody did it with the urgency of Anna Deveare Smith in “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education.” If you missed the preview of this tour de force, one-woman show at the Ideas Festival, get to New York this fall and see it during its limited run on Broadway.
• “Mamma Mia!” may have been the good-time hit of the summer at Theatre Aspen, but the one-man show “Buyer & Cellar” was the play of the season thanks to Jeffrey Correia’s bittersweet turn as the shopkeeper in Barbra Streisand’s basement.
• All due respect to Leonard Cohen and the bazillion artists who’ve covered his “Hallelujah,” but Renee Fleming’s rendition in the Benedict Music Tent may have risen to the top. She brought an audible majority of the crowd to tears.
• In a summer of mostly unexceptional shows in the art galleries around Aspen, the group exhibition “Mount Analogue” at Performance Ski was a triumph. As the eminent and always quotable art critic Jerry Saltz put it, “They’re doing a show in a stupid ski shop! And you know what, it’s one of the better group shows I’ve seen.”
• I miss the turkey sandwich and gravy at Boogie’s as much as the next guy. But the Gonzo Gallery takeover of the former diner space couldn’t have been put to better use than the brilliant “Gonzo Arabia” exhibition of work by talented young Saudi artists in an ambitious effort to use art as diplomacy.
• Surprisingly, the most rock ’n’ roll thing I saw this summer was violinist Jennifer Koh head-banging through Kaija Saariaho’s “Graal theatre” in Harris Hall. Koh literally tore the string on her bow to threads as she did sonic battle against an 18-musician ensemble, reaching up and tearing the tatters away between strokes.
• It may have just been another night for Ralph Steadman, but it was the night of a lifetime for a crowd of locals as the genius artist and Hunter Thompson collaborator generously hung out for hours at his Gonzo Gallery opening and signed hundreds upon hundreds of pieces for his adoring fans.
• None of us knew quite what to expect walking into R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills’ show with classical violinist Robert McDuffie at the Benedict Music Tent. Turns out, we should have known he’d prove one again that he’s one of the great pop music composers of our time. Mills’ new “concerto for rock band” sounded like classic R.E.M. but with McDuffie’s virtuosic strings subbing in for Michael Stipe’s voice (this was literally the case only on the reworked rendition of “Nightswimming.”) Here’s hoping they go in a studio soon and make a permanent record of the rock concerto.
• Dogs, families, ski bums and the classical music crowd found common ground at the strange and beautiful performance of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit.” Some sixty percussionists fanned across the lawns and aspen groves at Aspen Meadows and invited us to wander among them in a concert that left us all experiencing the local landscape with new eyes and ears.
• As Aspen Santa Fe Ballet bid farewell to the beloved and brilliant Samantha Klanac Campanile, who retired at the end of her 15th season here, the company added a gem of a new ballet to its repertoire in Jiri Kylian’s “Sleepless.” Performed in Campanile’s final run shows, it’s a great and sorta bizarre piece of dance theater with performers bursting through vinyl panels. We’ll get another chance to see it this winter.
• Only in Aspen is Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz a logical opening act for Common. After a characteristically clubby, gloves-on interview by Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson with Shultz and his wife Sheri, who runs the family’s charitable foundation, the coffee king brought the esteemed rapper to the Greenwald Pavillion stage to share a fierce a capella early version of “Black America Again.” The song is a powerful, timely statement about race and injustice in the U.S. that could become an anthem of our moment. (Common released a studio version of the song with Stevie Wonder last month and performed it at the White House in early October).
• MountainSummit continued its ascendance as a marquee late summer festival in Aspen, with its engaging mix of adventure and activism on screen and off at the Wheeler. “Almost Sunrise,” about veterans Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson’s cross-country trek to heal the psychic wounds of combat, should be required viewing for all Americans.
• My most memorable interview moment of the summer was Duran Duran’s John Taylor offering an extensive etymological breakdown of the American slang usage of “stoke,” which culminated in the rock legend talking about the band’s Labor Day Experience show and announcing: “We’re super stoked!”
• It may have taken Garbage 21 years to finally play Aspen, but the band’s Belly Up show felt like a homecoming for the band and bassist Steve Marker (who lives in Carbondale). The crowd ate up the band’s hard-charging renditions of its mid-90s hits as Shirley Manson and company also proved Garbage is more than a nostalgia act these days with stellar new material from “Strange Little Birds.”
• I’d never heard of Alan Shields before the late artist’s wonderful retrospective of playful fabric works opened at the Aspen Art Museum this summer. But I I got to know his work quite personally thanks to innovative presentations including a site-specific ballet by Soulskin Dance that moved around the works in July and a dramatic reading of his poetry there by Valerie Haugen and Kim Nuzzo in September.
• Many of the features in the lineup at the Aspen Filmfest proved divisive for the local audience, but the documentary lineup was particularly strong. If you didn’t catch them at the festival, do yourself a favor and hunt down “Accidental Courtesy,” “The Last Laugh,” “The Eagle Huntress” and “Gun Runners” in theaters or on-demand when they make it there.