John Oates revives 7908 music fest with star-studded virtual event
Oates plotting 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival’s post-pandemic return
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer John Oates is bringing back the concept of his 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival for a virtual benefit concert to help feed the hungry.
The online Oates Song Fest 7908, streaming March 20 through Nugs.tv, he says, is laying groundwork for re-establishing the festival in Aspen, where it ran in the Wheeler Opera House from 2010 to 2012.
“This is the first step in bringing it back to Aspen,” Oates said Wednesday via Zoom from Nashville. “I can’t think of a better place to put on an event like this.”
The upcoming online concert will benefit the nonprofit Feeding America to address food insecurity spurred by the novel coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis. It will feature performances by Oates’ longtime bandmate Daryl Hall (“One of the hardest guys to get!” Oates joked) along with a genre-hopping mix of rock stars from the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir to Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar and everybody from Michael McDonald to Darius Rucker to Sara Bareiles and Jewel.
Alumni from the old Aspen 7908 fest on the bill include Keb Mo, Shawn Colvin and Matt Nathanson.
Oates will perform and co-host alongside the YouTube star Saxsquatch from Nashville.
Doing this virtual event for a global audience with a lineup of household names, Oates believes, will propel the Aspen festival back into existence with premier talent.
“This will put this concept on the radar of a lot of artists who might not have been able to participate before,” he said.
The virtual event was born out of a scuttled plan for shows at the Wheeler this winter, Oates said.
After spending most of his time in Nashville in recent years, Oates and his wife, Aimee, returned here to ride out the novel coronavirus stay-home period and spent the summer of 2020 back at their Woody Creek ranch, where they first settled in the early 1990s.
Oates recalled that last summer he ran into Aspen Mayor Torre — who decades ago worked as a sound man on Oates tours — and got to talking about reviving the 7908 concept.
Torre put Oates in touch with interim Wheeler Opera House director Nancy Lesley, who Oates said was supportive of him doing a 7908 charity event — with limited seating — over the Christmas holiday.
That idea was scrapped when the spike in new coronavirus cases led to stricter public health guidelines and kept the Wheeler closed through the winter.
Talk of doing it here in March was scuttled, as well, Oates said, as cases worsened in the new year. But throughout the process, Oates was talking to musicians and producing partners interested in bringing 7908 back.
“Having gotten my juices flowing for the show and realizing that the live version was not going to happen, my wife and I said, ‘Maybe we can do a charitable live-streaming event on a more national level?’” he recalled.
They connected with Feeding America, which they’ve supported through past events and which Oates touts for putting 98% of funds to food banks.
Then he started reaching out to artists, and was overwhelmed by how many performers jumped on board.
“We got a great response, then it began to take on a life of its own,” he said.
The event grew in scope as Oates brought a production team from Drive Entertainment in and connected with Nugs.tv, which has emerged as the industry leader for streaming concerts in the pandemic, curating a jam-centric lineup of diamond-quality streaming shows for a global audience.
“We wanted males and females and all different styles of music,” Oates said, noting the range from rockers like Grohl to country stars like Gavin DeGraw. “We didn’t want it to be just some genre-specific thing. We wanted it to have broad appeal. … I’ve been impressed and very humbled by the incredible response.”
Oates himself plans to debut a new solo song, “Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee,” which emerged after writing and idea-swapping sessions last summer with fellow Woody Creeker Joe Henry, best known as a novelist and as John Denver’s lyricist.
The original iteration of the festival was launched in fall 2010 as the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival and was co-produced by Oates and the Wheeler, running in three iterations before going on hiatus after the 2012 festival.
Intimate and inspired by songwriters-in-the-round events at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, 7908 invited singers to tell the stories behind their songs and led to some memorable onstage collaborations. Headliners at the Wheeler included the likes of bluegrass great Sam Bush and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and “godfather of Americana” David Bromberg, with smaller shows — free and some serving free beer — at bars and hotel lobbies around town. The festival introduced local audiences to emerging performers like Nathanson and Donavon Frankenreiter, who has since become a seasonal staple at Belly Up.
Oates is imagining the 2.0 version of the festival — for 2022 perhaps — would be a multi-venue Aspen event with the Wheeler serving as a main stage and concerts also streaming online.
“The Wheeler is the ultimate venue for this,” he said. “It’s the perfect size, the perfect feel.”
Oates, due for his second COVID-19 vaccination shot next week but with concert tours still on hold, is planning to return to Woody Creek after the March 20 streaming event. He and Aimee plan to enjoy the tail end of ski season and summer in the mountains, he said, while plotting the future of 7908.
“I would hope to become an annual event,” he said. “A legacy event.”
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