Aspen Times Weekly: Aspen’s Best Concerts of 2014

by Andrew Travers
Trombone Shorty at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience. He played with his band, Orleans Avenue, and special guest John Boutte.
Lewis Cooper |

There were some unforgettable moments on Aspen’s stages in 2014.

Bobby Mason got married on stage at the Deaf Camp Picnic in Snowmass during his reunion gig with Starwood. Peter Yarrow, with the microphones malfunctioning and the moderator late to his panel at AREDay in the Hotel Jerome, treated the crowd to an impromptu concert that included “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer.” Folk phenom Jake Bugg battled through a 45-minute set at Belly Up in August, while fighting the effects of altitude sickness. Bluesman Gary Clark, Jr. lived up to the hype as the blues’ 21st century savior in his Aspen debut. Tiesto spun to an X Games crowd that lit up Wagner Park LED bracelets that changed color and blinked to his beats. Grace Potter saved the day with a show-stopping performance at the Labor Day Experience, filling in after Fun’s last minute cancellation.

Narrowing down a year of concerts into a list of five highlights is silly in a lot of ways – there are many more than five to celebrate.

And this isn’t a comprehensive list. I see a lot of shows, but of course, I don’t see them all. Gregg Allman’s set at Belly Up in June, I heard, was one for the ages. Lake Street Dive’s concert there in August is another I wished I’d been able to get to. I also missed The National’s January gig. Rufus Wainwright’s duet with Deborah Voigt at the Aspen Music Festival, too. And I can’t believe I got stuck upvalley the night the great Ramblin’ Jack Elliot came to Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale.

That said, it was a hell of a year on stage in Aspen, and these were five shows I’ll be talking about for years to come.

Lauryn Hill

Belly Up, July 2

The build-up to this show was filled with the kind of giddy anticipation and cautious doubt that seemingly only Lauryn Hill could inspire. With only one solo studio record in her catalog – 1998’s immortal ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” – and scant live performances over the last decade, along with a reputation for some on-stage misfires, what could we expect?

Turns out, it was one of the most engaged – and engaging – shows I’ve seen at Belly Up. Hill, backed by a four-man band, a DJ and three female back-up singers, played thoughtfully rearranged and often sped-up takes on her solo material, a suite of Fugees songs and a four-song closer of Bob Marley.

She sang soulfully, rapped muscularly and offered bits of scat, recitative and slam poetry through this sold-out show. She breathed new life into songs like “Everything is Everything,” foregoing a note-for-note rendition for a version that swerved from funky reggae into a ballad into hip-hop and back again.

The experience of seeing live music is best when you witness something new happening on stage. It’s often even better when you discover that new something in an artist you didn’t think had anything new to offer.

The Pixies

Belly Up, Feb. 14

I know all the hardcore fans hated the new album and everybody’s bummed bassist Kim Deal didn’t come out on this tour, but this sold-out Valentine’s Day show by the indie rock legends managed to be everything I’d ever want in a Pixies concert.

They played murderously loud and intense takes on “Caribou” and “Tame,” both the slow and fast versions of “Wave of Mutilation,” and mixed in the new stuff (most of which I like on the record and liked more live) including rousing versions of “Bagboy” and “Greens and Blues.”

Johnny Santiago supplied plenty of guitar theatrics. An unsmiling Black Francis was as ornery as you might expect. His only real interaction with the crowd was yelling at a fan for snapping a photo in his face, proving there’s still some punk in these Pixies.

Trombone Shorty and John Boutte

JAS June Experience, June 20

The orchestra seats of the Benedict Music Tent transformed into a makeshift dancefloor as Trombone Shorty and John Boutte played Boutte’s “Treme Song,” in one of the most kinetic performance I’ve witnessed in the tent.

Along with getting people out of their seats in often-stilted confines of the tent, Shorty (Troy Andrews) sort of did it all during this set. With his band, Orleans Avenue, he skipped between funk, rock, jazz and blues in songs powered by his charismatic stage presence and powerful lungs (the show included a three-plus minute, altitude-defying, single-note solo breathed life into the standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street”).

He played originals. He played Ray Charles and James Brown and Elmore James. He moonwalked and he commanded the crowd, but also stepped aside for the great New Orleans singer Boutte to take center stage for an interlude of his own songs.

Aspen Percussion Ensemble

Belly Up, July 8

This show, dreamed up by Aspen Percussion Ensemble director Jonathan Haas and performed by his talented young charges, was freighted with Haas’ passion and infused a bit of rock’n’roll attitude into the Aspen Music Festival classical music calendar. (It was the first time I’d seen a xylophonist perform under the auspices of the Music Fest in a Muse t-shirt, but hopefully not the last.)

Haas worked with Frank Zappa, before his death, to work up percussion arrangements of Zappa’s songs. His ensemble played powerful adaptations of Zappa songs like “Peaches En Regalia” and “Idiot Bastard Son” alongside compositions by Edgard Varese. Played by 19 musicians, with percussion insturments of all stripes covering nearly every inch of the stage, the Belly Up was thick with sound. Guest musicians played trumpet and flute from the floor below the stage.

In between songs, the performance included actors David Ledingham and Tom Egan performing excerpts from interviews with Zappa on music, adding a rare depth to the show and leaving even the most avid Zappa fans with something new to ponder and hum.

Johnny Marr

Belly Up, Nov. 30

Johnny Marr proved you don’t need Morrissey to keep the Smiths’ songs alive in a stunning Thanksgiving weekend set at Belly Up. But the show turned out to be much more than a Smiths cover show by the long-ago broken-up band’s legendary guitarist.

Yes, he played – and sang well – fan-pleasing versions of Smiths songs like “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “How Soon is Now” and “Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” along with Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” and a rip-roaring encore of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life.” But most of the set was filed with songs from the two recent albums that began his long overdue solo career. These songs aren’t people know by heart like the Smiths stuff, yet they sat comfortably beside the classics in a feverish set that never lost momentum. Driven by Marr’s legendary guitar work and his (who knew?) natural ability as a frontman, this was one for the ages.