2005: A year of great music – and plenty of it
December 28, 2005
There was no doubt 2005 would see a massive bump upward in the quantity of concerts presented in the valley. Snowmass Village expanded its summer of music to an unprecedented level; Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival grew an extra day. Then there is the not insignificant matter of the Belly Up, which continues to challenge the stamina and pocketbook of local concertgoers with its nearly night-in, night-out programming.Fortunately, in this instance, expanding the quantity has not diluted the quality. It seems like, for the most part, the more concerts you do, the better you get at it. Snowmass had numerous memorable gigs. Of the 14 shows I saw at the Belly Up (a pitiful number, I know), there wasn’t a bad one. Jazz Aspen might have pushed its luck with five days of Labor Day; after four exceptional days, the festival petered out with a weak day five. And the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music took a nosedive, in quality and attendance, to the point where it looks like a thing of the past.Thus, picking the top dozen shows of the year involves more judicious thinking than in recent years. Which I am glad to do. Here they are, in order (though I reserve the right, in future conversation, to disregard the opinions stated here).David ByrneJazz Aspen June Festival, June 24David Byrne’s June Festival appearance came with great expectations. Byrne was supposed to perform his highly praised show, featuring the Tosca Strings, at the 2004 Labor Day Festival. But the cold, wet climate forced Byrne to curtail that set (turning into a short but crowd-pleasing show of songs Byrne did with his former band, Talking Heads).It was well worth the wait. Byrne, known for his wide range of musical tastes, mixed European classical music, African-derived funk and South American rhythms with good old U.S. rock ‘n’ roll. Despite the complexity of the arrangements, and the relative unfamiliarity of the material, the crowd grew entranced. And when Byrne rewarded the fans with his better-known songs, the roof came off.Bonus: The tented June Festival was a far better venue for the performance; the strings would not have been nearly as effective in the open-air Labor Day venue.
Lucinda WilliamsBelly Up, Aug. 16Despite the consistent excellence of her recordings, alt-country queen Lucinda Williams comes with a reputation as a hit-and-miss performer. More than a touch moody, so they say.Williams proved she could miss, with her cold, impersonal 2004 Labor Day Fest appearance. But at the Belly Up, Williams hit on all cylinders. Connecting thoroughly with the audience, she ripped through the rockers and poured her heart into the downbeat tunes till her makeup was melting off her face and she looked every bit the tear-streaked protagonist of most of her songs.After the show ended, and the house music came on, some movement onstage caused a commotion among the departing crowd. I’ve seen enough shows to know it probably was just roadies packing the guitars. Wrong. Lucinda and her band came out for another handful of songs, putting an exclamation point on the night.the subdudesFanny Hill, Aug. 11When a band breaks up, loses a key, original member and then returns after a break of several years, all their talk of being better than ever isn’t supposed to be true. But the subdudes, a soul-rock band that splits its home base between Fort Collins and New Orleans, truly are stronger than ever. Expanded to a sextet from the original foursome, the ‘dudes have more versatility and as much soul as ever. Their “Late at Night,” a stomper about partying too hard, was a 2005 highlight. They even broke out several new tunes, to be released on “Behind the Levee,” due out this month.
Michael Franti & SpearheadSnowmass Village Chili Pepper & Brewfest, June 18As far as a concert experience, I rate Michael Franti’s Fanny Hill gig a notch below his 2004 gig at Snowmass’ Silvertree Hotel. (Of course, that one earned my award for best show of the year.) But on a family level, nothing can touch the Chili Pepper & Brewfest show.My daughter Olivia – a major Franti fan – was more psyched to see this show than any other in her six-year existence. But she was not so comfortable in the middle of the crowd, so I took her sidestage, where we had a great view and room to dance. Franti saw Olivia boogying and invited her, repeatedly, to come dance with him. She edged closer and closer to center stage, but couldn’t get up the nerve to sit on Franti’s lap and be serenaded. (My wife Candice, another major Spearhead lover, would have happily traded places with her.) As it was, Candice and I danced joyfully, listening to a favorite singer on a beautiful night, watching our little girl get her first taste of musical ecstasy.Kronos QuartetBenedict Music Tent, July 8It was a different kind of artistry, a rare atmosphere, for the Benedict Music Tent. San Francisco’s long-running Kronos Quartet bathed the tent in colored lights, turned up the amplifiers when necessary, and performed three encores. But those were just window-dressing for the high-wire, exotic string music Kronos made. Playing compositions from Ethiopia and Azerbaijan, from India’s Bollywood and Icelandic pop group Sigur Rós, the quartet demonstrated how very alive and to-the-moment classical music can be. The concert ended with “Different Trains,” Steve Reich’s minimalist meditation on the trains that sped Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. Brilliant in about a dozen different ways.John FogertyLabor Day Festival, Sept. 4A month after John Fogerty’s wildly crowd-pleasing Jazz Aspen debut, it was reported that Fogerty had, after decades of spectacularly bad blood, made amends with the folks in control of his Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog. Judging from Fogerty’s jubilation, that good news was already in the works by Labor Day. Fogerty attacked the CCR hits he had virtually disowned with the enthusiasm of a kid who needs to make an impression – not a 60-year-old with a reputation for surliness. Essentially a greatest hits show, but with none of the tiredness that tag suggests. And what hits.
Derek Trucks BandFanny Hill, Aug. 6Playing with the same core of bandmates since he was 16, guitarist Derek Trucks continues to take giant steps forward musically. With the addition of vocalist Mike Mattison, the Derek Trucks Band has the added dimension of classic soul. But the heart of the band remains the high-energy instrumental fusion that touches on Pakistani, blues, groove, jazz, rock and more.
John ScofieldBelly Up, June 24And if Derek Trucks wasn’t the best guitarist to come through the valley this year, then John Scofield was. Sco’ was said to be bringing his Ray Charles tribute show to this JAS After Dark date; that was bad info. But even in his standard instrumental trio setting, Scofield lit the place up with his masterful playing. Scofield, whose 2005 album “What’d I Say” was a star-studded tribute to the late Genius, did return to the Belly Up in September to play his Charles show. But I missed it. Damn.Widespread PanicJazz Aspen Labor Day Festival, Aug. 31-Sept. 1I saw all of the first show by Georgia jam kings Widespread Panic, but only the first half of the second night, widely agreed to be the better of the two. Anyway you slice it, though, Panic deserves its loyal following. John Bell is one of Southern rock’s great singers, and the rhythm section of bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Sunny Ortiz is a groove machine.
Blues TravelerBelly Up, July 1Ten years after their massive hit song “Runaround,” Blue Traveler is still looking to recapture the studio magic; 2005’s “Bastardos” isn’t it. But live, Blues Traveler is as potent as ever. Their Belly Up gig, a rare small-club appearance, was punctuated by “The Mountains Win Again,” a tremendous love song inspired by Aspen and written by late Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan, a frequent Aspen visitor.Steve ForbertSteve’s Guitars, April 24Folk-rocker Steve Forbert charmed tiny Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale with old hits (“Romeo’s Tune”) and new works (“Wild as the Wind,” a tender memoir of the late Band bassist Rick Danko). Forbert worked the intimate room perfectly, with spontaneity and humor.Christian McBride BandBelly Up, July 22, late showBassist Christian McBride moved into funk mode for the late show, breaking out his electric bass and bringing in special guest DJ Logic. Keyboardist Geoffey Keezer and saxophonist Ron Blake stood out as much as McBride, which is saying something.
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Twelve more really good memories: Sound Tribe Sector 9 (Snowmass Conference Center, Feb. 3); Madeleine Peyroux (Wheeler Opera House, Feb. 3); Marc Cohn (Wheeler, Feb. 24); the Radiators (March 5, Belly Up); Psychograss (Wheeler, March 16); Keller Williams (June 17, Fanny Hill); New Monsoon (June 17, Fanny Hill); Yerba Buena (June 24, Jazz Aspen June Festival); Joan Osborne (Sept. 3, Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival); the Motet (Sept. 4, Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival); The Charlie Sexton and Shannon McNally Rock & Roll Revue (Belly Up, Nov. 22); Drew Emmitt Band, featuring Billy Nershi & Keith Moseley (Belly Up, Nov. 26).* * * *And thanks to Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg, the list of shows I really wished I hadn’t missed is longer than ever. Thanks, pal.Topping the list is the June 13 show by Southern rocker Dickey Betts. He may not be good enough for the Allman Brothers, who shoved him out a few years ago. But he was apparently in top shape at the Belly Up; I couldn’t go anywhere for weeks without hearing about this show.The two others I was most pained to miss were bluesman Charlie Musselwhite (July 8, Fanny Hill), who, I have it on good authority, smoked; and Sufjan Stevens, in his Aspen debut (July 30, Belly Up).Other shows I somehow found reason to miss include: Damian and Stephen Marley; G. Love & Special Sauce; Shawn Colvin; Los Hombres Calientes; Chuchito Valdés; the Ray Brown Tribute; Dirty Dozen Brass Band; must I go on?Sigh … Neko Case; Mofro; Robert Walter’s 20th Congress; the Funk Brothers; New Mastersounds; Hot Buttered Rum String Band; Robert Cray; Taj Mahal; the Wailers; Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings; Liquid Soul; Jonny Lang; Blue Highway; DJ Spooky; Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez; Tony Furtado; Jon Cleary; Benevento/Russo Duo; Big Head Todd and the Monsters.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org