Aspen Times Weekly: Labor of Like |

Aspen Times Weekly: Labor of Like

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Country star Keith Urban headlines Saturday night, Aug. 31 at the Labor Day Festival.
Luis Sanchez |

There have been 18 Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festivals, and take a guess how many ol’ Stewy has attended. That’s right — all of them. He has seen all and knows all: which classic rocker will never be invited back because he cut his set short so he could catch a flight (rhymes with “petty”); the ins and outs of the Cake versus VIPs brouhaha (for the record, I was in the VIP section, but took a neutral stance on the battle); which band was gently booted from its backstage tent to make way for Stephen Stills (the B-S Foundation, which featured Stewy on guitar and vocals). I recall the epic moments (Wilco, Bob Dylan playing “Visions of Johanna,” even if I couldn’t recognize the tune till the third verse, Steve Winwood when the geese flew overhead, chef Martin Oswald’s short ribs in the VIP tent) and the lesser ones (from the second Chuck Berry picked up his guitar until he finally put it down).

I am blessed not only with memories, but also foresight. I strongly advised not dismissing John Fogerty as an old crank, and predicted he would give the crowd-pleasing performance that he did indeed deliver. I’ve encouraged music lovers to show up early for opening sets by Ryan Bingham, Jackie Greene and Rodrigo y Gabriela. (And the B-S Foundation!) I spread the word that Neil Young’s set, comprising largely a performance of the “musical novel” “Greendale,” would be unusual, but definitely worthwhile.

There’s only one area that comes to mind regarding the Labor Day Fest where I confess to a small measure of ignorance. I haven’t the slightest clue what’s going to happen over the three days of the upcoming festival (Friday through Sunday, Aug. 30-Sept. 1). Give me the emerging jam band, the ’60-s throwback rocker, the young singer-songwriter, and I’ve seen them, or know their music intimately, or have scouts out in the field feeding me reports on their merits. But Jazz Aspen has done a fine job of throwing me for a loop this year, hitting the bulls eye of ol’ Stewy’s musical blind spots.

Commercial country stars? Pop acts who I hear only when my 14-year-old daughter commandeers the car radio for the teen-pop station? Bands from that magical decade of the ’80s, when my ears were reserved exclusively for the Grateful Dead and other Jerry Garcia-related projects? Hey, if you really wanted to confound me you could have found some Bulgarian choir music, or that band that crosses smooth jazz and gangsta rap, Public Empathy.

But the fact that I don’t know the first thing about the music isn’t going to prevent me from writing about it, and pretending I can wisely recommend what you should see. (Hey, this is pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing with classical music for 20 years now, and no one’s gotten hurt.)

After extensive research, here it is, a list of the Labor Day Festival mainstage acts in descending order of excellentness. Hey, my guess is as good as yours.

1. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros (Sunday at 5 p.m.)

Hey, a band I actually do know something about. Not only can I tell you that there is no Edward Sharpe; that they recently released their third album, a self-titled one; and that the concept for the group was developed while lead singers Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos were sitting on an otherwise empty stage in Telluride Town Park, but I have seen them play twice and can comment intelligently on the music. Since their hit first album, 2009’s “Up From Below,” the Magnetic Zeros have moved toward a sound that is less grand and more gospel, but they retain the shambolic, shamanistic vibe they began with.

The weekend’s great subplot: What will be the highlight tune — the Magnetic Zero’s “Home” or Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”?

(Note: The excellent music documentary “Big Easy Express” featured Mumford & Sons, who played last year’s Labor Day Festival, and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, who play this year. Be nice to hit the trifecta and book for next year Old Crow Medicine Show, which rounded out “Big Easy Express.”)

2. Paper Bird (Sunday at 3)

My favorite new genre of the moment is what could be called baroque folk or freak folk — music with clear folk roots in the writing, singing and instrumentation, but with an expansive vision of the sound. Few groups are doing it as well as Paper Bird, a seven-piece Denver group featuring three female leads singers and two sets of siblings. Their recent album “Rooms” is original, beautiful and captivating, and they get here just as they are taking flight in their career.

(Note: Paper Bird was not in the original festival lineup, but was a late replacement for another Denver group, Churchill, which broke up. Things you’re unlikely to hear anyone ever say years from now, “Damn, remember when Churchill almost played in Snowmass?”)

3. Keith Urban (Saturday at 7:15 p.m.)

I’ve listened to a bunch of Keith Urban songs and they haven’t made me rethink my general stance against commercial country music. But while I trust my ears when it comes to the music itself, I also have some trust in all those reports I hear that Urban, a 45-year-old Australian with 14 No. 1 songs, is an outstanding performer, which makes me think of last year’s Labor Day show by Kid Rock. I came away more of a fan than I would have thought.

4. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals (Friday at 6 p.m.)

If this band of straight-up rockers, led by the firecracker singer Grace Potter, is half as good as they were in their last Snowmass appearance, a free 2010 show at Base Village, they will win over a legion of fans.

5. Jason Mraz (Friday at 8 p.m.)

Jason Mraz’s sweet-hearted, bubbly folk-pop makes Jack Johnson’s look heavyweight by comparison. He seems to pour much of his creativity into titles for his albums: “Mr. A-Z” (a play on his last name); “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things” (borrowed from a work by artist David Shrigley, but I like it as an album title). Can’t wait to hear the teenyboppers start screeching when he plays “I’m Yours” and “I Won’t Give Up.”

6. Train (Saturday at 5 p.m.)

If Jason Mraz were a band, he’d be Train. Honestly, can someone pinpoint any significant difference between Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” and Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up.”

7. Little Big Town (Saturday at 3 p.m.)

The names of the three albums released between 2005 and 2010 by Little Big Town, an Alabama-bred country-pop quartet: “The Road to Here,” “A Place to Land,” “The Reason Why.” Just knowing that, I would guess, with a high degree of confidence, that Little Big Town wouldn’t be “The Kind of Thing I Like.” And that’s without even getting to the name they chose for the band.

8. Journey (Sunday at 7:15 p.m.)

True story, I swear. As I compiled this list, I got to No. 7 and thought, OK, story’s done. But wait … shouldn’t there be one more act? I tallied the numbers — two bands on Friday, three each Saturday and Sunday … something’s missing. I thought a minute and couldn’t come up with it. Then I checked the Jazz Aspen website. Oh yeah, those guys.

A Rolling Stone critic once wrote that Journey was a “dead end for San Francisco area rock.” Two points to make: One, the band has had a fairly thorough changeover in its membership since then, including its lead singer. Also, I thought the dead end for San Francisco rock was definitively marked by the Starship and their song “We Built This City.”

(Note: Journey’s current lead singer, Arnel Pineda, was discovered by the band when they saw Youtube videos of him doing Journey covers. Which gives me the idea for a reality TV show.)