And the Stewy goes to…
ASPEN – Ahhh, the good old days. Rock ‘n’ roll in the late ’60s – in San Francisco’s Haight district, if you really want to nail it down. Baseball in New York City in the ’50s, before the Dodgers headed to Los Angeles. Woody Allen in the mid-’80s, when he turned out a singular gem each year: “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters.” And of course, Aspen in the mid-’70s, when it dumped every night but turned to powder blue skies by morn, famous people roamed the town in search of common folk to mingle with, and the streets were lined with nightclubs, each one packed every night to hear the best local pickers, who made room on-stage for the nationally famous singers who showed up as reliably as Andrew Kole appears on Aspen’s election ballot.Might we add the Aspen music scene of whatever you want to call these years? (Something tells me that, a few decades on, when people get dewy-eyed about this magical, long-ago time, it will be referred to as “the Belly Up era.” Or, “the Goldberg years.”) Many are the nights I get home, my body atingle over the show just ended. Did I really just see the Flaming Lips at Belly Up, with Wayne Coyne in the space bubble passing (OK, attempting to pass) just feet from my head? I didn’t just imagine that Wilco show, did I?And just as many are the times I wake up in the middle of the night, doomsday thoughts in mind: What if Jazz Aspen’s business model turns out to be unsustainable, and they fold up their tents and pack ’em up? What if the Wheeler Opera House gets tired of fighting the good fight for their share of the audience, and goes to a program of all movies and school plays? What if the Aspen Music Festival stopped doing cool stuff like Edgar Meyer, Bla Fleck, Philip Glass premieres and the Aspen Percussion Ensemble concert? What if the Aspen Skiing Company decides to get out of the concert business? Scariest of all, the one that keeps me tossing and turning: What if Michael Goldberg said enough of catering to rock stars, staying up till all hours, schlepping his camera through the crowd, and acting as benefactor to Aspen’s music lovers, and let the Belly Up go belly-up?All of which pounds it into my head: These, Stewy, my friend, probably are the glory days. Enjoy them while you’ve got them. Carpe diem, dust in the wind, and all that.Now allow me to drift away from my in-the-moment reverie for a second, and speculate on the future. Quite likely, things are about to get even better. Josh Behrman opens a major new venue, the PAC3, in Carbondale later this month, and already the schedule (Bruce Cockburn, Robert Earl Keen, Leon Russell) means some laps on 82 are ahead. Jazz Aspen has partnered with a national booking agency, a move that seems already to be bearing fruit – a repeat of last year’s largely uninspired Labor Day lineup seems unlikely. The Wheeler’s 7908 Songwriters Festival seems to be gaining traction; give them a full year to get the next edition together, and it could be excellent. A new event, the EMU Eco-Music Festival, debuts in Snowmass Village this summer. And Belly Up, in its seventh year, still seems to be in ascent.So we’ve accounted for the present, and glimpsed into the future. Time for a step into the recent past. It’s a little annual exercise called the Stewys, to celebrate the 12 musical months that just went by. Hope you remembered to enjoy them.•Best thing to happen in a dark, forgotten basement room of a fancy hotel: Not with a pipe, but with his trumpet did New Orleans jazzer Nicholas Payton lure a crowd downstairs at the Little Nell for this show in Jazz Aspen’s extended June Festival. His quintet then proceeded to light up the place with a mix of funk, straight-ahead, New Orleans and African flavors.Capping the show: Payton’s regular bassist couldn’t make the gig. Meaning Christian McBride, Jazz Aspen’s distinguished artist in residence, had to sit in. Best substitution of the year.•Back so soon?: The Wheeler Opera House and Woody Creeker John Oates debuted the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival in September. Then returned for the second “annual” event a short six months later, seeking to anchor the festival in the high-season March calendar. I say, give this thing every chance it needs to thrive. Highlights abounded in both editions: Jim Lauderdale and the trio of Sam Bush, John Oates and David Bromberg in September; Ruthie Foster and John Hammond in the second. Just make sure Sam Bush is around to be the designated sit-in guy.• Scariest thought: “Holy crap – what if Wilco turns out to be just another really good band, and not the greatest thing on the planet?” I thought as Jeff Tweedy and company took the Labor Day Festival stage. This was after weeks of listening almost exclusively to Wilco and pumping up my personal anticipation to absurd levels. Fortunately, Wilco lived up to its own lyrics: Wilco will love you, baby.Someone’s listening: In last year’s Stewys, while bestowing the award for best debut on rappers Public Enemy, I begged them to come back and bring their band with them. Sure enough they did (Feb. 20, Belly Up), and sure enough it was another outstanding night of hip-hop.• 2010-’11 inductee into the Aspen Music Hall of Fame (non-musician wing): The guy who waves the Rasta flag at various Marley family concerts. He did his usual schtick – waving it wide and high from first note to last – at the Damian Marley & NAS (Aug. 13, Belly Up). Wonder what that’s guy’s been smoking? Oh, right.• Pick your poison: I went into the show by the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience with this thought: OK, this will be great, but of course not on the level of Grisman’s usual combo, the jazz-leaning David Grisman Quintet. And I was right, the bluegrass show isn’t quite as good as the DGQ – but I didn’t expect it to be nearly that close. Man, that guy is special.• Best use of a tank of gas: Heading to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It was my first time attending in 13 years, and it was just as I remembered: perfection.• The one that got away: Aspen Skico had big plans for a big festival on a big early-March weekend in big Wagner Park. And then scrapped the whole thing, saying they hadn’t allowed enough time to plan for it. Maybe next year.• Most improved band: Last time I had seen Umphrey’s McGee – 2009 Labor Day Fest – they were good. But they seemed to have a terrible knack for cutting short a jam just as it was getting good – going against all that is holy for a jam-band. They seem to have figured this out in their Belly Up appearance (Feb. 2). Now that just jammed.• Surprise, surprise (pleasant category): Booking Pink Martini as a headliner for the June Festival was just more evidence that Jazz Aspen was having an off-year. But is there anybody who didn’t enjoy their worldly take on lounge music?• Surprise, surprise (unpleasant category): I was just getting into Amos Lee’s music. I had a very good interview with him, after some previous yawners. And on the day he was scheduled to play Belly Up (Feb. 4), his album, “Mission Bell,” hit No. 1. And he gets sick, pulls out of his show. Drag.• Flame on!: In mid-December, Michael Goldberg gets a phone call from the Belly Up staff: Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne is in town and wants to take a look at Belly Up, to figure out the logistics for staging a Lips show – designed for big festivals – in a small club. Goldberg hustles over and Coyne points out that the space bubble, a highlight of the spectacle, will probably take out a bunch of stage lights. Goldberg’s response: “F–k the lights. I want to see the show.”P.S.: Coyne did attempt the bubble. The lights survived; the bubble deflated.• I was right: I had this bug in my head that Medeski, Martin & Wood had never really hit it right in the Aspen area, as all their past gigs had come in less than ideal circumstances – mainly on stages too big for their avant-jazz, instrumental music. The fact that they were booked to play Belly Up, I squawked again and again, was going to make a huge difference. It did. This thing was phenomenal.• Best John Oates sit-in: When the local musician, who sits in with jam bands, bluegrass pickers, bluesmen, hard rockers, etc., jumped on-stage with Umphrey’s McGee, I had to check twice to see that the smoking solos being played were Oates’. They were. (You can check for yourself; a video is posted on Youtube.)• Best debut: The nominees, for musicians finally making their way to Aspen already, are: Zakir Hussain, who played an Aspen Music Festival recital with Edgar Meyer and Bla Fleck (Aug. 18); Wilco (Sept. 3, Labor Day Festival); Flaming Lips (Dec. 27, Belly Up); Broken Social Scene (March 19, downtown Aspen).Winner: Wilco.• Best bassist to perform in Aspen on March 13, 2011: The nominees are Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke, who formed a double bill at the Wheeler; and Mike Gordon, who made his Belly Up debut. Let’s call this a three-way tie; all three of these guys are world-class. The real winners are listeners who love a big bottom end.• Best performance by Colorado band: And the nominees are: Leftover Salmon in their Belly Up debut (Feb. 27); Elephant Revival (Feb. 27, opening for Leftover Salmon); Otis Taylor (Aug. 27, Big Aspen BBQ Block Party); Kyle Hollingsworth Band (June 4, Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brewfest).The winner is Otis Taylor, who is generally thrown into the blues category, but whose show here included fiddle and pedal steel, making for a very contemporary mash-up of styles. Taylor returns July 21, playing the Snowmass Free Concert Series.• Best song performance: Here are the ones I remember best: “Elko,” Railroad Earth (March 20, Belly Up); “So Hard to Find My Way,” Jackie Green; “Impossible Germany,” Wilco; “Will Not Be Your Fool,” David Bromberg, ; “Henry,” Keb’ Mo’. Great moments all, but this is so easy. Bromberg’s performance-blues piece (Sept. 17, 7908 Songwriters Festival) dropped jaws – even those of fellow player John Oates, who looked on in amazement. A Stewy to Bromberg (who returns for a New Year’s Eve gig at the Wheeler). • Best movie about music since “Once”: “The Music Never Stopped,” directed by Jim Kohlberg. Not a Grateful Dead concert film, but a movie in which the Dead play a major role. Based on a true medical case study, the story is about a brain-damaged man whose mind responds to the rock music he loved as a teen. The way music is treated here – as a doorway, a connecting point – is touching and poignant. The film shows Saturday and Sunday, May 14-15, at the Wheeler.• Best quote: Jerry Joseph, of Stockholm Syndrome, about trying to rein in the jam-band tendencies of his co-frontman, bassist Dave Schools: “I’m the guy saying, ‘F–k you and your six strings. Sometimes I think bassists should be limited to five frets. You pull out that freaky bass playing, that f–king weirdness, Keith Richards would shoot you. So would Bob Marley.”• Best instrumentalist: The nominees are Chris Thile, of Punch Brothers; Zakir Hussain; Bla Fleck; Wilco guitarist Nels Cline; and keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood. The winner is Thile, who not only picks the meanest mandolin, but also came up with the musical vision behind the virtuosic, genre-jumping Punch Brothers.• Best show (the big one): I usually give five nominations in this category, and while I can easily find five shows that I will remember long into the future, it really comes down to three – Wilco at Labor Day; Medeski, Martin & Wood at Belly Up (March 3); and Railroad Earth at Belly Up (March 20). I could put the names in a hat and pick and be satisfied with whatever came out; all three of these were divine. But I’m going with Wilco, who, in their local debut, simply lived up to all my outsized expectations. A Stewy to Tweedy and the gang.• Show I REALLY wish I hadn’t missed: The worst part of my year – looking over the list of shows I missed. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, John Popper’s Duskray Troubadours, Chris Cornell, Tab Benoit, Carrie Rodriguez, G. Love & Special Sauce, Trampled by Turtles, Heartless Bastards, Drive-by Truckers, Meat Puppets, Soulive, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, KRS-One, Squeeze, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Wolfmother, Ani DiFranco, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Melvins, Lukas Nelson, STS9, Toubab Krewe, Cornmeal, Method Man & Redman, moe., Morcheeba, Ryan Bingham, John Prine, the White Buffalo. You get the picture, right? Contrary to some belief, I don’t see everything. But I’d like to.The one I really wish I hadn’t missed was STS9, the jamtronica band formerly known as Sound Tribe Sector 9. I haven’t seen them in years, and I miss them. Come back, and let me make amends.• Leading contender for 2012 Stewy for Best Show: Tedeschi Trucks Band (June 4, Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest). If anything beats the new group led by husband and wife Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, it’s going to have to be outstanding. Among those with a prayer: Lucinda Williams (May 14, Belly Up); Warren Haynes (May 26, Belly Up – though he’d have a better shot if this were with his new band, as originally billed, and not a solo show); Bruce Cockburn (May 29, to debut Carbondale’s PAC3 theater); Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt (June 17, Belly Up); Buena Vista Social Club (Aug. 21, Aspen District Theatre); Steely Dan (Sept. 3, Labor Day Festival).Enormous thanks to the people who aid and abet me in my musical pursuits (not to worry; I don’t think it’s a jailable offense): Josh Behrman and Vanessa Adam, Alan Richman, Mike Miracle, Gram Slaton, Steve Standiford, Amy Kimberly; everyone at Belly Up and Jazz Aspen; Janice at the Aspen Music Festival; Derek at Skico; all the musicians and publicists; and anyone else who stops me to talk about music.Thanks to everyone at The Aspen Times.Extra special thanks to my family – Candice, Olivia, Fluffy and my email@example.com
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