Aspen: Music seen, 2008
December 24, 2008
ASPEN I hate to, but have to, confess: Looking back, 2008 was a year of a lot of misses for me, concert-wise. I missed a rare small-club appearance by one of the (few) rock bands of the moment, the Raconteurs. I missed the most entertaining man in hip-hop maybe in all of entertainment Method Man. I missed the hardest-working man in show biz, Warren Haynes, even though he gave me (naturally) two chances to see him. (Actually, I did see all of two songs during Haynes two-night, solo acoustic run at Belly Up in September meaning I missed 37 songs, none of them repeated over the two nights. (Haynes, of course, will give me another chance, this time with his band, Govt Mule, Feb. 15 at Belly Up Aspen).I missed acts I love (Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, the Roots) and acts I was fully prepared to love (Amanda Palmer, Mavis Staples, Tegan & Sara, Andrew Bird, the Dandy Warhols, Band of Heathens). I missed shows downvalley (the subdudes, in Carbondale) and way the hell downvalley (Ahmad Jamal, in Glenwood Springs). I missed Burning Spear, Vieux Farka Tour and Buckethead all in a three-day span! I missed the ultimate rock star, the Dalai Lama.On a less tragic note, I missed cover bands paying tribute to Neil Diamond, Guns n Roses, Prince, the Doors and many more.A lot of missed opportunities. And then I happened to look back at my summer music preview story, which listed the top 25 shows I was looking forward to. I managed to catch 18 of them. It jogged my memory. I remember seeing shows that surprised me, that baffled me, that delighted me, that disappointed me. I remember an eight-day span in February seeing Stockholm Syndrome, North Mississippi Allstars, Drive-by Truckers, Easy Star Allstars, Martin Sexton, Galactic and the Felice Brothers. I saw the Radiators, twice. I saw a tribute band, Lez Zeppelin. They rocked.In fact, I saw a lot of shows. Just not all of them. Which is always going to feel like a missed opportunity to me.Here is the best of what I saw and heard in 2008, in chronological order.
After making their Aspen debut in 2007, with the largely acoustic The Dirt Underneath tour, Southern rockers Drive-by Truckers returned with their full, fire-breathing electrified rock show. For a short while, I missed, slightly, the texture and restraint of the acoustic gig. But somewhere around the middle the Truckers caught fire, turning their literate take on Southern culture into explosive rock n roll. The Truckers pull the rare double feat of making the live-show list while also landing near the top of the best CDs of 2008 list, for their enormous Brighter Than Creations Dark.
The finest bluegrass band in the land, maybe in all of bluegrass history, and one of the great American music acts in any genre, the Del McCoury Band plays their instruments brilliantly and sings beautifully, jams with abandon one minute and sings the sweetest gospel the next. I kept screaming (as I always do) for their quiet, chilling version of Get Down on Your Knees and Pray, which almost convinces me to accept Jesus as my savior, and they delivered. And then somehow they topped that with a finale of My Love Will Not Change, extended with a breathtaking fiddle solo by Jason Carter. And somewhere in the middle of all this, my old buddy Steve Postell, who gave me plenty of memorable moments during his years as an Aspen musician, showed up, unexpectedly, from Los Angeles.
Whether Jorma Kaukonen is deserving of his No. 54 ranking in Rolling Stones list of the greatest guitarists is debatable. Maybe, at 67, hes dropped a few licks from his repertoire. Which doesnt mean that Kaukonen isnt an outstanding player, and it certainly doesnt prevent Kaukonen and his loooong-time partner, bassist Jack Casady, from generating an amazing spirit even after nearly 50 years playing together. Playing in a quartet, and alternating between acoustic and electric tunes, Kaukonens music was at least good enough to have Casady literally running around in circles onstage.
Not to be cruel or insensitive, but Brett Dennen resembles a misshapen, overgrown pumpkin, and the last thing youd expect from his looks is a soulful, graceful dynamo. But thats what the sold-out crowd got: affecting songs, an uplifting vibe, and even some awesome dance moves. Mason Jennings solo acoustic set was almost the opposite austere and still. But his songs, voice and presence were nearly as much of a treat as Dennens show. As a bonus, Missy Higgins earned raves in her opening set but I missed it. I did see her join Dennen and Jennings for an all-hands mini-set that closed the night in glorious style.Good news: Dennen returns to Belly Up on April 1.
It had been so long since Ani DiFranco played Aspen 13 years that I forgot that she was more than the folk/punk/indie/angry/bisexual icon that she was way back then. DiFranco is also a ferocious guitarist as percussive a guitarist as Ive seen a magnetic personality, and a hell of a songwriter. And now she even has a monster band, featuring avant-jazz icons, bassist Todd Sickafoose and percussionist Mike Dillon. DiFranco isnt the raging girl she was once pigeonholed as, but she can still work herself into a froth, as she spit out the words to Napoleon: Everyone is a f—ing Napoleon. Lets hope its not 2021 before she hits town again. Shell be 50 then way too old to be the angry young girl.
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No doubt Dianne Reeves is among the handful of premiere jazz vocalists of the day as she has proved in past Jazz Aspen appearances. But here Reeves was accompanied by only two guitarists, and how would a combo with no rhythm section fill the space of a 3,000-seat tent? Answer: by being so tasty, so skillful, having such interplay with her immensely talented sidemen, Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo. They made their way through jazz with blues feels, South American touches, ballad feels, soul tones all of it magnificent.
Generally, I exclude classical concerts from this round-up not because I enjoy them less, but because my expertise in reviewing classical music is, ummm, missing. But this Aspen Chamber Symphony concert, conducted by David Robertson and featuring young cellist Alicia Weilerstein as soloist on Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijovs Azul, requires mention. I had heard of Golijovs reputation as a groundbreaking contemporary composer, and here it was in full flower: a grooving, exuberant piece of music that allowed Weilerstein to truly express her personality. The concert ended with Schuberts Symphony No. 9 the Great symphony which seemed OK to me. But I had already heard greatness.
It was pure fun, Carbondale-style, with spinning, bouncing people filling Sopris Park on a perfect summer evening. Not to sell short the music itself: Panjea is an African-oriented groove band, led by Chris Berry, an American-born musician who spent his years in Africa learning to play the mbira, the African thumb piano. Adding a jammy hop to the sound was mandolinist Michael Kang, formerly of String Cheese Incident.
The latest Aspen Music Festival appearance by acoustic bass superhero Edgar Meyer wasnt quite as good as his last two: a solo gig in 2006, and a mind-boggling duo concert with fellow bassist Christian McBride in 2007. This one wasnt as focused or smooth, and it could have used more volume. Still, it was easily good enough for this list. As Meyer said, Thile is doing exactly what the young players are supposed to do: Raise the musical bar. Thile may not have the overall musical genius that Meyer possesses, but his mandolin runs are like lightning, and, at 27 he is still mastering the trick of combining the precision of classical music with the freedom of bluegrass. Hell get there.
I never had that revelatory Widespread Panic experience either I caught a so-so night, or saw them in an imperfect venue (the Wheeler, the Snowmass Conference Center), or a good show was curtailed by bad circumstances. But it all came together on the front end of their two-night stand opening the Labor Day Festival in Snowmass Village. New guitarist Jimmy Herring couldnt be a better fit, and the set list seemed geared for my enjoyment. I missed the next night, but word is it measured up to the first one. Consider me a full-blown Spreadhead.
Very honorable mentions: the Neville Brothers, Easy Star Allstars, Martin Sexton, Ziggy Marley, John Fogerty, New Orleans Traveling Road Show, Tom Morello and Robben Ford.And front-runners to make next years list: Femi Kuti (Jan. 20, Belly Up); North Mississippi Allstars (Jan. 28, Belly Up); Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, featuring Bla Fleck (Feb. 7, Wheeler); Govt Mule (Feb. 15, Belly Up); Michael Franti (acoustic show at Belly Up on March 6, and with his band, Spearhead, Sept. 4 at the Labor Day Festival); Los Lobos (an acoustic show, March 22, Belly Up); and Brett Dennen (April 1, Belly Up).firstname.lastname@example.org