An experiment worth trying
September 5, 2006
It’s a shame Kinky Friedman is too busy running for governor of Texas to have attended Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival. This was the Kinkster’s kind of bash. Texans and Jews – two groups in which Friedman proudly claims membership – gave standout performances Sunday and Monday to close a down-and-up festival on a high note.Four straight Texas acts, spanning all day Sunday and early Monday, gave satisfying performances on the main stage. These were not the Texas music icons, like Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, who have made multiple appearances at past Labor Day Festivals. Sunday opened with Del Castillo, an Austin band whose Hispanic influence comes as much from Spain as it does from the Tex-Mex border. Taking center stage for the band was powerful lead singer Alex Ruiz, but the most impressive part of the band were the twin Spanish-style acoustic guitarists, brothers Rick and Mark Del Castillo.
The closest thing to a quintessential Texas band to appear in Snowmass Village were Los Lonely Boys, whose very electric guitarist, Henry Garza, shreds in the manner of the late Texas star, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Garza’s playing grabbed the crowd’s attention; an instrumental encore that lasted nearly 20 minutes didn’t drag, but built in intensity. But the band also demonstrated its way with a pop song, as their hit “Heaven” was a sweet slice of radio rock.Closing Sunday’s bill was Don Henley. Henley is best known for songs that light up the dark corners of Los Angeles, and for his contributions to the Eagles. But Henley is a Texas product, and made his Jazz Aspen debut as a solo artist. Henley could have used fellow Eagle and loose cannon Joe Walsh; his backing band at the festival was professional and bland. Henley, however, didn’t need much help in the way of personality, thanks to a strong cache of songs spanning from mid-era Eagles to his solo work to a smart selection of cover tunes. Henley has a reputation for crankiness, and nothing he did onstage dispelled that image. He opened with “Dirty Laundry,” his biting critique of TV news programs, and introducing “Sunset Grill,” he advised the crowd not to go looking for it: it’s not there anymore, or at least not the way he remembers it from his glory days. But Henley knows how to make art of his crankiness, as well as his heartache and political agitation. A string of ballads from his “The End of the Innocence” album, including “Heart of the Matter” and the title track – went over particularly well. A trio of cover tunes – Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – were presented along with Henley’s own “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” in the show’s political segment. Though he avoided Eagles material entirely in the main set, his encore began with “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California.” Though the versions stayed well within existing lines, Henley’s voice was strong and distinctive.
The Polyphonic Spree, centered around Dallas rocker Tim DeLaughter, opened Monday with their odd and appealing mix of indie rock and chorale. They dressed in black militaristic uniforms, sang uplifting lyrics to rock rhythms and balanced between the indie rocker DeLaughter and a 10-piece female chorus. Both the sound and the emotional tone were hard to get one’s mind around. But it was different, interesting, and in the end, definitely enjoyable.The festival closed Monday with the Hasidic reggae artist, Matisyahu. Dressed in the customary black-and-white of the observant Hasid, Matisyahu looks devout, and thus older than his 27 years. His high energy, however, and his rapid-fire rap style of singing, owe much to his generation of music. His lyrics were difficult to discern, but that was little impediment to getting across his message of faith, unity, and joy through music.This year’s festival was said, by both Jazz Aspen insiders and fans, to be heavy on the experimental side, with the first appearance of a mainstream hip-hop act, and LeAnn Rimes representing a first dip into pop country. Consider this experiment largely a flop. Both West and Rimes drew small crowds, despite the weekend’s brilliant weather.
Rimes’ flashy appearance Friday night seemed ill-suited to the festival. She worked her way through all kinds of material – Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac, old-school country – but most all of it with more pop acrobatics than genuine emotion. She would have done well to listen to the opening act, Susan Tedeschi, a singer-guitarist whose set was filled with grit and spirit.Hip-hopper Kanye West, Saturday’s headliner, showed plenty of energy, personality and depth. But after a small handful of songs, the thin musicianship failed to prop up the show. West was, in fact, backed by a string septet, but the novelty wore off quickly. In a festival that has been built largely on the songs of classic rock heroes, and the musicianship of jam-band acts, West had a rough time connecting to the crowd, and he left after a scant 70 minutes or so. West, too, could have taken something from the opening act. Robert Randolph & the Family Band, playing their outrageously grooving soul-rock, was the musical high point of the festival.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org