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2003: A sound year

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

It was, as we know far too well, a disastrous year in live music for the valley. The biggest blow by far was the closing this past fall of the Double Diamond. To add insult to that grave injury, the club slated to sort of take the place or at least take over the space of the Double D, to be named Dukes, never even opened its doors. With the busiest part of the year upon us, Aspens finest rock-club spot sits dark and silent.The Grottos, which had done a fine job as a smaller, secondary live-music venue, closed down this past spring. In its stead came a sequence of foolhardy restaurant/club efforts the Mexican joint Cabos and the absurd, short-lived attempt to revive the old Golden Horn before the welcome recent news that the Grottos will return, headed by original main music man, Tim Lucca. It was fitting, then, that the year was capped by a non-event: the Widespread Panic shows in Carbondale that never had a chance of being anything other than a rumor.Given how bad the news was on the live-music front, it is odd to report that this past year was an extremely good one as live performances go. Looking back, there is an abundance of good shows filed away in the memory. The Wheeler Opera House had a rockin good year, as did Janus Jazz Aspen Snowmass. Dont get me wrong the future is mostly bleak and Id be very surprised if, a year from now, I was saying how good 2004 was on the local concert scene. The Grottos, even if it remains such, wont come close to filling the hole left by the Double D. The Aspen Skiing Company is trying its best, but staging outdoor concerts on ski slopes in late December, as they are finding out, is dicey business. According to one local promoter, several big-name touring bands have expressed interest in playing the Aspen area, but have opted not to, for lack of an adequate venue. Another local promoter said he has all but given up on Aspen, but continues to book acts in Vail and Steamboat Springs. There is still the Wheeler, which seems to have stepped up its efforts to bring in live music. But the Wheeler is a 500-seat, well-kept theater, which makes it unsuitable too small, too confining, or both for many bands. Several forces are trying to make Snowmass Village a music hot spot, but they fight an uphill battle. No one wants to drive to Snowmass much less drive back for a late-night concert. The Snowmass Conference Center is roundly acknowledged as a useless concert venue. The Silvertree Hotels Cabaret Room remains an exquisite jazz club; it also remains terribly underutilized.The best hope is that we will find pleasure in the little things small venues, lesser names, unlikely high points. Steves Guitars and Main Street Bakery have hosted some memorable nights in their intimate spaces. Top-notch jam-band Garaj Mahal put on a powerful performance at Zl Music Cafe. And then there is always the summer, when the outdoors spaces open up and the music is abundant.If all else fails in the popular and jazz music spheres, there is the classical music option, which is forever in good shape in Aspen. But looking back on 2003, there are highlights aplenty. Here are the best dozen of them.Derek Trucks BandDouble Diamond, Jan. 28The Derek Trucks Band, led by guitar phenom Trucks, is among the most adventurous bands out there, throwing blues, fusion, Indian music and more into the pot. I missed the opening band Tony Furtado, who apparently pulled his weight in this exceptional double bill but I had good reason. Over at the Wheeler, a benefit concert for Tibet and Buddhist causes featuring John Oates, Jeff Pevar, Jimmy Ibbotson and John McEuen, was well worth the late arrival at the Double D.Jurassic 5Double Diamond, Feb. 1I feel a bit guilty telling one and all how amazing this show was, since it was a private party for the X Games crowd, and thus closed off to one and all. Still, the show never had that VIP-only performance feel to it, not with Jurassic 5 on the stage. With four perfectly coordinated singers out front, and a drummer/sampler and scratcher behind them, Jurassic 5 showed that hip-hop can be outrageously energetic, musically dazzling, and a force for positive energy. It doesnt say much to note that it was the best hip-hop show Ive seen. (I havent seen many.) But to give it its due, it was one of my favorite shows ever at the Double Diamond (and Ive seen a lot of shows there). Mose Allison TrioWheeler Opera House, Feb. 8My dream come true Mose Allison at the Wheeler. And the 75-year-old singer and keyboardist lived up to my high expectations. Allisons trio played two long, energy-filled sets. His piano-playing and singing are still in fine form. Best of all, that wry, hip Allison sense of humor came alive in performance just as I imagined it would.Vince GillWheeler Opera Houses Beyond Bluegrass Festival, March 19In a rare solo acoustic show at an uncommonly small venue, country star Vince Gill displayed all his musical gifts for a memorable evening. What made the show super special was Gills self-effacing personality, sense of humor and generosity, which came off especially well in the Wheeler.Los LobosWheeler Opera House, March 27Due to a storm, Los Lobos arrived without some of their equipment. Playing on some borrowed instruments, the barrios rockers took the opportunity to get loose and goofy, working through a set of cover tunes and improvised stage talk. While a tad sloppy, it also allowed for some moments of spontaneous excellence.Patricia BarberJazz Aspen June Festival, Hotel Jerome Ballroom, June 19Singer-pianist Patricia Barber is the reigning queen of idiosyncratic, song-oriented jazz. Call her the female Mose Allison of her time. This performance, with her trio, was captivating, with Barbers unique piano-playing and netherworld voice accentuating a moody, jittery stage persona.Brad MehldauJazz Aspen June Festival, Hotel Jerome Ballroom, June 20The night after Barbers performance at the Jerome brought another top-shelf pianist, Brad Mehldau. I expected Mehldau to appear in his long-running trio, but it turned out to be a solo performance. No matter. Mehldau took jazz standards, Beatles tunes and more and twisted and molded them into feats of musical imagination. Del McCoury BandFanny Hill, July 4This gig, part of the Snowmass Free Summer of Music series, didnt compare to the Del McCoury Bands drop-dead gig at the Wheeler in 2002. For one-microphone, acoustic bluegrass, playing a small wooden theater is far preferable to an outdoor hillside crawling with partyers. Still, the McCoury Band is the best bluegrass group of the day it isnt even close and to hear the gospel number Get Down on Your Knees and Pray anywhere is a reminder of how music can move the soul.Greyboy AllstarsJazz Aspen Labor Day Festival, Aug. 29Theres little word yet on whether the Greyboy Allstars reunion has any legs; the groups only scheduled date is New Years Eve at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. So local funk fans have to consider themselves double lucky that Snowmass Village was on the Greyboys reunion itinerary. The quintet, credited with reviving the groove genre, played a butt-shaking main-stage set at Jazz Aspens Labor Day Festival, and followed with a late-night show at the Snowmass Conference Center. There was no rustiness in the music, and despite the artistic differences cited as a reason for the bands three-year hiatus, there were nothing but smiles onstage.Neil YoungJazz Aspen Labor Day Festival, Aug. 31 Greendale, Neil Young & Crazy Horses high-concept, low-tech stage show about family, the media, the environment and American life in these uncertain times, seemed to split the audience neatly in half. I was in the loved-it camp, finding everything from the grungy songs and raggedy sound to the cheap sets and ambiguous messages bordering on the divine. Young, who has rarely found a need to polish things up and make them simple to digest, seems to have hit his ideal with Greendale. That Young and Crazy Horse followed Greendale with an hour-plus set of ripping, thrashing oldies, including Powderfinger and Mr. Soul, made it one of the best concerts Ive ever seen. Easily my show of the year, with Vince Gill and Jurassic 5 a step or two behind.Wynton MarsalisWheeler Opera House, Oct. 26Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis takes knocks for his so-called artistic conservatism. None of that was evident here. Marsalis, playing in his new quintet configuration, showed plenty of musical daring; the music had a timeless rather than a nostalgic feel. Marsalis also displayed a loose humor. And his band, especially drummer Ali Jackson, smoked. Bruce CockburnWheeler Opera House, Dec. 29You knew it was going to be a special night when Bruce Cockburn, who hadnt made an Aspen appearance in more than a decade, received a huge ovation just for stepping onstage. Appearing solo, Cockburn dazzled with his finger-picking, provoked with his pointed political songs, and warmed the crowd with his humor and 45 minutes of encore.And the runners-up …The next eight: Smiling Assassins at the Double Diamond; The Mix at the Double D; North Mississippi Allstars at the Labor Day Festival; Branford Marsalis at the Wheeler; Garaj Mahal at Zl Music Cafe; A Little Less Blue at Steves Guitars; the JAS Academy Allstars at the Cabaret Room; Tim & Mollie OBrien at the Wheeler.


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