Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Adding ‘Flavor’ to winter |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Adding ‘Flavor’ to winter

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Stewart OksenhornCover design by Carly Hoover

Deep inhale. What do you smell? Nope, but good guess.That’s Aspen cultural schedule for this winter, which has a distinct new-calendar smell. Aspen’s most acclaimed restaurant has been replaced with a new room, new concept, new dishes. With Harris Hall unavailable for the season, several events move into new quarters at the Wheeler Opera House, which should give them a unique feel. The town’s most historic hotel shows its renovated face to the community, and adds a long-lost dining component. A handful of people – including the planet’s greatest humorist, a most intriguing jazz up-and-comer, the folk-rocker behind one of the year’s most acclaimed albums, a memoirist on top of the world and a return of one of our own – all make their Aspen debuts. John Denver, believe it or not, gets a fresh look.And for a true novelty, I will even recommend a road trip to Vail.So what’s new? Read on.

– Free –

(on Snowmass Mountain, opening Nov. 22)The Aspen Skiing Company unveils a new playground – Burnt Mountain, on the far east end of Snowmass Mountain, just past Long Shot. It’s a substantial addition of 230 acres, but hardly on the scale of the monumental opening of Highland Bowl. Burnt Mountain leans toward flatness. For those who love trees, though, it is a heavily gladed area, more like a forest than a set of trails.

(Nov. 25, Wheeler Opera House)When the publicist turned down my request to interview David Sedaris, I followed up with an offer to be Sedaris’ tour guide/sex slave for his first visit to Aspen. That’s how badly I want to spend some time in the company of mankind’s greatest humor writer.It’s also a reflection of how badly I imagine Sedaris needs my services. (The tour guide part, I mean. Only the tour guide part.) His essays, collected in such landmark books as “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” and the upcoming “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” depict an awkward, incompetent and odd homosexual – someone who would not fare well, unaccompanied, on the unfamiliar, mean streets of Aspen.(And if the only way I get personal time with Sedaris is by … you know … I’d think about it. That’s a true fan.)And on the topic of gay men so freaking funny that I’d consider most anything to get some time with: John Waters is set to appear Jan. 17 in a Gay Ski Week event at the Wheeler. Waters, the man behind “Hairspray” and the character John, owner of the collectibles store Cockamamie’s in the “Homer’s Phobia” episode of “The Simpsons,” appeared at Aspen Shortsfest in 2001, and consented to a phone interview with me. I have often said it was the only interview I would have paid to do; speaking with him was like getting 20 minutes of one-on-one stand-up.

(opening Nov. 30 in the Little Nell hotel)Montagna, which set a new culinary standard in Aspen, shut down earlier this year. In its place comes Element 47, which introduces a new concept (far heavier on la carte dining), an even greater emphasis on local ingredients (including a multi-course meal devoted entirely to regional products), and, hallelujah, a completely transformed dining room (great as the grub was at Montagna, the look just reeked of outdated hotel dining) by Bentel & Bentel, which earned a James Beard Award for restaurant designed. Chef Robert McCormick’s new menu, divided into small, medium and large plates, includes Emma Farms Wagyu beef, Columbia River sturgeon, Colorado lamb shank and braised pheasant terrine.In other news: Ryan Hardy, the former Montagna chef who left Aspen to open a restaurant in New York City, is finally seeing his plan come to life. His 60-seat, Italian-influenced place, still to be named, will open in the spring on Lower Sixth Avenue.

(Dec. 13)Aspen’s most iconic building reopens, and probably wakes from something of a year-long slumber. (And on a more personal note, ceases, finally, that construction racket outside my window.) The Hotel Jerome welcomes in the community with a pair of pre-Christmas open-house events that include a tour of the new Jerome B. Wheeler Suite.And there is good reason to visit the Jerome after the open house. Prospect, a restaurant that returns to the hotel’s original dining space, overlooking the courtyard, is an American bistro headed by chef Rob Zack, who returns to the Jerome after opening the Viceroy in Snowmass Village.

(Dec. 14, Belly Up)James Mercer, leader of rock band the Shins, can’t claim to be prolific, not with five albums in 15 years. But he is consistent and consistently interesting. The Shins’ 2001 debut, “Oh, Inverted World,” was hailed as a vital addition to indie rock; this year’s “Port of Morrow,” their latest album (and first since 2007), sounds fresh and captivating.Also making their local debuts this season at Belly Up: Divine Fits (Dec. 12), a new band fronted by Spoon lead singer Britt Daniel; U.K. hard rockers the Darkness (Feb. 2); and America (March 15) – yes, that America, on their 40th anniversary tour.

(Dec. 15, Vail)There, I did it. I recommended you drive to Vail. Now that’s something new. Obviously I have a very good reason for having you pull over at that glorified I-70 rest stop. Wilco, the modern-day saviors of rock ‘n’ roll, play Vail’s Snowdaze, as part of the Snowdaze festival (and won’t be playing an Aspen date). It’s part of Vail’s 50th anniversary celebration – so feel free to inform the Vailies that Aspen’s got a couple decades on them as a ski resort, and a good 80 years on them as a town. (If Wilco announced they were going to make this an annual thing, and would never play Aspen, I’d think about moving to Vail. For a second or two.)

(Dec. 25-Jan. 1, Wheeler)Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series has been around for two decades. But this year, with Harris Hall unavailable, the series moves to the Wheeler, for a cozier room and a more convenient location. (The docket of screenings is also shortened slightly, and the series is condensed from its customary two weeks to one.) No matter the venue, the Academy Screenings delivers something fresh out of the box: Films considered Oscar contenders, many of them special presentations, shown here weeks before they are widely released.Among the films to be shown this year are “Amour,” German director Michael Haneke’s French language story of elderly love that earned top honors in Cannes; “Hyde Park on Hudson,” starring Bill Murray as Franklin Roosevelt during an affair with his cousin (Laura Linney); and “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s comic drama of an oddball Philadelphia family. The full program of approximately 16 titles will be announced Dec. 3.

(Jan. 4, Belly Up)Joshua Tillman is part of the same Seattle freak-folk scene that gave us Fleet Foxes – in fact, Tillman has been a member of Fleet Foxes. Tillman says too much is made of his FF connection – he only appeared, playing drums and singing, on one of the band’s albums, and toured with them for a short while. (Of course, Fleet Foxes have only two albums, and the one Tillman contributed to was last year’s sensational “Helplessness Blues.”) Sure enough, Tillman has something else worthwhile to trumpet. His solo debut “Fear Fun,” released under the name Father John Misty, exists on a similar plane as Fleet Foxes – folky, dreamy, fuzzy, otherworldly, reeking of the woods of the Pacific Northwest. It’s among the best-reviewed albums of the year.

(Jan. 12, Wheeler)When Aspen native Bella Betts left town, she was a little kid with a big interest in folk music. Betts, now a Boulder resident, is all grown up – 12, in fact, and on the petite side. But her musical abilities have sprouted enormously over the last few years, enough that Bella and her mandolin have made appearances with Chris Thile, Amos Lee and Sarah Jarosz. Her concert at the Wheeler – a free event on the Saturday night of Winterskl – features her backing band, the Little Stars, and songs from her forthcoming debut album, tentatively titled “Lights Around a Curve.”

(Jan. 18, PAC3, Carbondale)Keyboardist Marco Benevento has played in the valley before, as a member of avant-groove combo Garage a Trois and of the Benevento/Russo Duo. But this is his first appearance under his own name (and as a jam guy, he should by all rights have performed here a whole bunch of times). Through a series of solo albums, including the new “TigerFace,” the 35-year-old Benevento has carved a new niche built out of rock rhythms, improvisational jazz and electro sounds. Cyril Neville and Devon Allman, both part of royal music families, have performed in the valley before. But not together. They team up in the Royal Southern Brotherhood, making its local debut Feb. 7 at PAC3.

(Feb. 5, Wheeler)Yes, violinist Gil Shaham studied at the Aspen Music School, practically grew up in Aspen, and returns to perform most every summer. But this year the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music series moves to the Wheeler, and fans will get to see Shaham, and accompanist Akira Eguchi on piano, in a different setting. Shaham, well-versed in local traditions, should be able to make the most of the new venue. Also performing in the series are two more acts familiar to Aspen audiences: the Boulder-based Takcs Quartet (Feb. 28), and pianist Conrad Tao (March 16), a former student in Aspen who gave one of the highlight performances here last summer.

(Feb. 15-16 and March 16)The program for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s local show is new-ish: “Last,” commissioned by the ASFB from Alejandro Cerrudo, had its premiere last summer; “Return to a Strange Land,” by Jiri Kylin, is new to Aspen; and Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba” hasn’t been seen here since 2005. The really novel part is the absence of Seth DelGrasso, a founding member of the company who retired from the stage recently. These will be the first Aspen performances in ASFB’s 17 years without DelGrasso.The ASFB’s annual “Nutcracker” (Dec. 15-16) will again feature Norbert de la Cruz in the role of the Jester. De la Cruz broke out big-time as a choreographer this year with the Aspen performances of his “Square None.”

(due for release in February)The years have not been particularly kind to John Denver, either his music or his persona. All that could change with a tribute album featuring some truly hip musicians – Brandi Carlile, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Brett Dennen, Lucinda Williams and more – covering Denver’s songs. Truly enticing: rockers My Morning Jacket’s version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Admit it, you can’t wait.

(March 29-30, downtown Aspen)The Skico’s annual early spring street throw-down gets a little wilder this year. Or at least longer – this year’s CORE Party runs two nights. March Fourth Marching Band, the costumed, stilt-walking troupe from Oregon, should thrive in the outdoor setting on March 29; the next night, it’s Grouplove, an indie rock quintet from New York.

(March 29-30, JAS Caf Downstairs@the NellA New Yorker piece on Havana-born, New York-based percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez last spring got me thinking, “Man, this is a guy I’ve got to see.” (“If anyone can move Afro-Cuban music into greater visibility, it’s Martinez,” the article stated.) I put Martinez’s weekly gig at a Cuban restaurant in Manhattan on my wish list, but now I don’t have to travel east to see him (though I still reserve the right to do so). Martinez’s four-piece group closes Jazz Aspen’s winter jazz series with two fiery nights in the cozy spot known as the JAS Caf.Setting the stage for Martinez, the JAS Caf series is loaded with Latin talent, including the Brazilian duo of singer Rose Max and guitarist Ramatis (Jan. 11-12); Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias (Feb. 8-9); and Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander (Feb. 28-March).

(April 12, Paepcke Auditorium)A respected but hardly widely known writer, Cheryl Strayed vaulted into household-name territory with “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Published last March, “Wild” is a memoir of the author’s 1,100-mile hike, which prompted big-picture reflections on the death of her mother, when Strayed was 22, heroin use, family dissolution and more. The book topped The New York Times bestseller list in July; a film version, starring Reese Witherspoon and with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, is in the works. Strayed gives a reading in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series on April 12.Other new voices in the series: Serbian-born Ta Obreht (Feb. 7), whose 2011 novel “The Tiger’s Wife,” written when she was 25, earned the Orange Prize for Fiction; and Karen Russell, whose novel “Swamplandia!” was a finalist this year for a Pulitzer, with Elissa Schappell (March 4).