2006: A year in music worth remembering
December 26, 2006
In the upper valley’s concert scene this past year, most items were on the upswing. To wit, Belly Up came into its own in its second full year, booking numerous nights, many big names, and bringing to Aspen a bevy of acts – especially hip-hop and indie rock – that would have skipped right on by in the past. Snowmass continued its rise as a summertime music destination, with its three major components – Chili Pepper & Brew Fest, Massive Music & Movies, and the Snowmass Free Concert Series – enjoying banner years. The Wheeler Opera House, under director Gram Slaton, became a friendlier place for both people who want to dance (rules against standing up and moving were relaxed) and people who want to sit (the new seats offer considerably more legroom).Jazz Aspen Snowmass went in two directions simultaneously. Jazz Aspen’s June Festival, traditionally the mellower, older-skewing of the organization’s two summer bookends, was a thrill, earning raves both expected and unexpected – and easily outpacing its late-summer counterpart, the Labor Day Festival. Jazz Aspen also hit a high point with its JASummerNights Swing, a benefit event that manages to be a musical achievement as well.Out of these ups and downs came two handfuls that earned well-deserved space in my long-term memory, and a few that reached the epic level. Let’s revisit a dozen of the best shows of a very acceptable musical year in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, chronologically listed.
Railroad EarthJan. 31, WheelerIt was evident from their first Aspen appearance, a tiny gig on top of Aspen Mountain some five years ago, that New Jersey sextet Railroad Earth was onto something – namely, exceptional songs, adorned with lengthy jams. In their first return to Aspen, the band showed how they had fulfilled that promise. Frontman Todd Sheaffer is in the top ranks of songwriters, and the band’s warm acoustic ways are an open invitation to good times. The Wheeler was less than half-full, which worked as a mixed blessing: Some energy was sucked up by those empty seats, but the small crowd allowed a barn-dance feel.Advice for Railroad Earth (assuming they want to build a bigger Aspen following): Play a free, outdoor summer show. You’ll be in.Little FeatFeb. 23, Belly UpEveryone should age like Little Feat. Yes, they lost their first frontman, Lowell George, 25 years ago, but other than that, the original lineup is intact. And, in their fourth decade, they are learning new material (John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain,” the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”) and playing the old stuff with fire in the belly.Cowboy JunkiesFeb. 27, WheelerIn their Aspen debut, Canada’s Cowboy Junkies showed how to make slow, sad songs into an uplifting experience. I expected lead singer Margo Timmins to deliver desperate and lonely emotions convincingly; the added treat was brother Michael Timmins and his edgy, angry guitar.
Ben HarperApril 3, Belly UpBen Harper’s second show of a two-night stand came to a curious ending, with Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, fleeing the stage as if they had a midnight plane to catch. Everything leading up to that – burning rockers led by Harper’s lap steel guitar and a mini-set of solo acoustic numbers spotlighting his vocals – was as expected for the sold-out shows. Few singers get as impassioned as Harper, and fewer still express the emotion with such force and beauty.
Medeski, Martin & WoodJune 9, Fanny HillThe avant-jazz trio of keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood seems constitutionally incapable of doing anything but going full-bore all the time. Their previous local appearance was as an opening act for Buddy Guy at Jazz Aspen’s June Festival – in front of a few dozen early arrivals. They hardly seemed to notice they were playing for themselves, and played brilliantly. This one, in front of a more attentive and appreciative Chili Pepper & Brew Fest crowd, grooved beginning to end.
Trey AnastasioJune 25, Jazz Aspen’s June FestivalLocal Phish phans couldn’t even dream of seeing the band in their hometown; Phish had long outgrown any Aspen venue (they last appeared in Aspen in 1991, at the Wheeler), besides which, the band broke up in 2004. A show by singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio would be the best they could hope for, and indeed, his festival-closing appearance in Rio Grande Park was as good as they could have hoped. Anastasio was his gleeful self, making happy magic with his guitar. Those who wanted a helping of Phish got it, as he pulled a handful of tunes from the Phish repertoire, including two – “Gotta Jibboo” and “First Tube” – that made for a monster encore, in length and intensity.Edgar MeyerJuly 22, Harris HallWho else could play a solo concert on acoustic bass, draw a sell-out crowd, and send that audience home stunned by the performance. No one but Edgar Meyer, whose recital featured a set of works by other composers, arranged for bass, and a set of his own compositions. Meyer has said of his relationship to his instrument that he “is” the bass. The way he embodies the art of sound, it might be more to the point to say that he “is” music itself.
Allen ToussaintJuly 22, Jazz Aspen’s JASummerNights SwingCapturing the attention of a benefit-event crowd can be a headache for even top acts. But Allen Toussaint had no problem filling the dance floor for Jazz Aspen’s annual summer fundraiser (this year billed as the New Orleans-themed CrescentCitySwing). The singer-pianist-gentleman-New Orleans icon led a band filled with horns and backing singers, and played songs made popular by Jerry Garcia, Patti Labelle, Little Feat and Glen Campbell – all of which happened to be written by Toussaint himself. His version of a song he didn’t write – Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” – was a needed jolt of New Orleans.
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Toussaint had already appeared in a high-profile Jazz Aspen event, billed as special guest for Elvis Costello’s June Festival appearance. But Toussaint on his own was better.
SouliveAug. 3, Fanny HillThe New York City groove trio Soulive absolutely funked up Fanny Hill in their Snowmass Free Concert Series appearance. Guitarist Eric Krasno was the lead instigator, but organist Alan Evans was not far behind (particularly in light of the fact that Evans handles the bass lines from his keyboard stool, and well enough that it’s possible not to notice that Soulive lacks a proper bassist). The trio’s future is in the air: They have announced that they will take a break from touring, and they canceled an Australian tour due to unspecified health concerns. On the other hand, they are playing a run of shows into March, at which they will debut material for a new album. Either way they go, best to have caught them on Fanny Hill.Jerry DouglasAug. 26, Belly UpJerry Douglas long ago laid claim to the title of best dobro player in the world. His show at Belly Up – mixing bluegrass, jazz, electric rock and a phenomenal solo cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Little Martha” – put him among the world’s greatest string players.Gov’t MuleSept. 3, Belly UpAfter a headlining gig at Red Rocks, rock quartet Gov’t Mule headed to a far smaller space, Belly Up, with predictable results. The Mule kicked down the walls with their hard-edged take on the jam-band approach, as singer-guitarist Warren Haynes pulled the band through reggae (Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself), old rock (the Boxtops’ “The Letter”), folk-tinged rock (“I’ll Be the One”), and material borrowed from Haynes’ other band, the Allman Brothers (“Soulshine”). It was the sort of destination concert that drew attendees from around the country (I stood with fans from upstate New York) and had Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg standing outside afterward, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
GomezOct. 30, Belly UpGomez, playing their Aspen debut, impressed with their English take on American jamming. Instead of the typical extended guitar solo, the five members of Gomez – including three guitarists – do a dense group style of jamming. The band is a quasi-democracy, boasting four songwriters, but clearly the leader of the bunch is Ben Ottewell, a strong singer and blues-inspired guitarist.Another 10 from 2006 worth remembering: Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, Sonya Kitchell, Tab Benoit, Nickel Creek, the David Grisman Quintet, Robert Randolph, Matisyahu, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Yo La Tengo.And the top nonconcert musical experience: One Sunday morning in July, fellow reporter/music hound Joel Stonington came into my office, babbling some nonsense that sounded like “Béla Fleck is playing live at KAJX.” Since it was only two blocks away, Stonie and I headed over to the Red Brick Center for the Arts, pulled two chairs up to the studio window, and, yes, listened to Fleck and fellow banjoist Abigail Washburn perform for KAJX listeners – and a live audience of two.Those looking for a scheduled performance by Fleck are directed to Belly Up on Feb. 8, when the Flecktones play two shows, including an early one scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. start. This happens to be the early pick for best show of 2007.Other early contenders to make the list of the best shows of 2007: Robert Earl Keen (Jan. 12, Wheeler); Big Head Todd and the Monsters (Feb. 19, Belly Up); and the jazz duo of guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau (March 16, Wheeler).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com