Aspen’s Wheeler lands variety of acts |

Aspen’s Wheeler lands variety of acts

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times

ASPEN On a conscious level Gram Slaton seems to have forgotten his mandate to fill the Wheeler Opera House with live performances when he was hired as the Wheelers executive director three years ago. Slaton remembers vividly being directed by his bosses, the Aspen city councilmen, to make the city-owned Opera House a friendly for everyone, but the other instruction is a dim memory.But its not as though he has thumbed his nose at that mission. Instead, it seems that programming live acts at the Wheeler has seeped into Slatons bones, and become a habit as much as a goal. The upcoming season of Wheeler-presented performances was loaded enough that Slaton unveiled it in two separate blasts over the last few weeks; he was worried that dumping the whole calendar of 18 shows at once would overwhelm audiences.I didnt want to say Bernadette Peters is coming back, and oh yeah, Jerry Jeff Walker and Arlo Guthrie are coming back, too. It was enough saying Bernadette and Lily Tomlin are coming back in one breath, he said. More activity in the building? We certainly have that. Jeez, we have that. Were running my kids ragged.The Wheelers own presentations are only part of the story, though it is the biggest part. The Opera House is also rented out to other promoters, who bring in their own productions: Fridays Common Thread concert, for instance, a fund-raising event for a variety of organizations, that features soul singer Amos Lee, members of the country group Sugarland, and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls. That show is being presented AEG Live and the Messina Group.On the Wheelers side, this winters slate of shows almost fits into a homecoming theme. The schedule features a handful of acts who have had tight relationships with the Wheeler in the past, but for one reason or another havent played there in years; there are also a bunch of artists who are returning after relatively recent hit appearances at the venue.

Slaton says that putting together the seasons program has been even crazier than usual (though it should be noted, all event promoters, everywhere, at all times, claim that booking their dates is crazy, chaotic, difficult and nerve-wracking). Coming to the West is much more difficult than going to the Northeast, or California, said Slaton, who came to the Wheeler after more than a decade as executive director of the Community Arts Center in the central Pennsylvania town of Williamsport. The whole booking process was hobbled by four- or five-dollar-a-gallon gas. There were acts that we, or Michael [Goldberg, owner of Belly Up Aspen] couldnt lure here for anything. Now the whole situation is reversed: Gas is cheaper than its been in 30 months, and no ones got any money.Slaton isnt billing this winter as an anniversary season for the Wheeler, though he could. It was 25 years ago this winter, in 1983-84, that the Opera House underwent a thorough renovation that transformed it from a decrepit venue, used mostly for movies, as well as summertime Aspen Music Festival concerts, to the Victorian-era gem it is now.Heres what the Wheeler is bringing in over the next few months.

Lime Creek Christmas, Dec. 8-9Woody Creek songwriter Joe Henrys novel-in-progress has a history at the Wheeler, but it hasnt been staged locally since 1993. Performed by actor Anthony Zerbe and singer-songwriters Beth Nielsen Chapman and Hal Ketchum, Lime Creek Christmas is the story of an old Westerner returning to the ranch where he was raised, sparking memories of holidays past. Chicago City Limits, Dec. 10 This New York-based sketch-comedy ensemble brings its current show, Revenge of the Reindeer, in its Aspen debut. Expect more commentary on the political happenings of late than ho-ho-ho good cheer. Barry Smiths Baby Book, Dec. 11 Aspenite (and Aspen Times humor columnist) Smith in his latest one-man, multi-media show. This ones about pictures, and potential, much of it unrealized. A John Denver Holiday Concert, Dec. 19-23 Not to be confused with the Musical Tribute to John Denver concerts held every October at the Wheeler. The Holiday Concert features two musical theater-type singers (rather than former Denver collaborators) in a Broadway-like show, featuring the songs of the late Aspen icon. Its produced by Aspen resident and Broadway producer Hal Thau. An Evening with John Oates, Dec. 27 Oates, a Woody Creek resident and half of the pop duo Hall & Oates, has stepped out on his own lately, with an excellent new album, 1000 Miles of Life, a string of local guest appearances, and now this concert, where hes backed by a three-piece band. Local residents are being offered a special $25 ticket. The Best of David Brenner Presents Whats So Funny? Dec. 28 Last winter, part-time Aspen comedian Brenner hosted the four-part Whats So Funny? series, featuring young comics dedicated to the art of stand-up. Brenners gone, to Ashland, Ore., but the cream of last years series returns for one night of laughs. Bernadette Peters, Dec. 29 After a one-year absence, the singer/dancer/actress returns with her cabaret-style show, featuring a 22-piece orchestra. Ryan Shupe & the Rubber Band, Jan. 9 Special for the Winterskl weekend: an acclaimed acoustic band that, while from neighboring Utah, has yet to play Aspen, with a ticket price of $5, and a drink on the house. Last Comic Standing, Jan. 18 Five finalists from the stand-up comedy reality show leave the small screen to make a live appearance. Also on board is Iliza Shlesinger, a Dallas-raised comedian who this year became the first woman to take the shows top prize. Chris Hillman/ John McEuen/ Herb Pedersen, Jan. 31 Three top names in the country-rock realm pool their talents. Hillman is a former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother; McEuen, the string man of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; and Pedersen, among other things, the replacement for Old & in the Ways original banjoist a picker by the name of Jerry Garcia. Second City National Touring Company, Feb. 13 Once an Wheeler regular, the long-running Chicago-based comedy troupe returns for some more made-up-on-the-spot comedy. Tom Rush, Feb. 19 Real old-school folkie Tom Rush he broke the songs of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne way back in the day comes back with stories and songs. Vusi Mahlasela, Feb. 20 Known as The Voice in his native South Africa and known for his collaborations with Dave Matthews in the States the poet, singer, songwriter and activist Mahlasela made his Aspen debut in the Aspen Writers Foundations Lyrically Speaking series at Belly Up. Now the Wheeler gets a touch of his worldly sounds and wisdom. An Evening with Jerry Jeff Walker, Feb. 21 One of the early innovators in the Texas troubadour scene, and best-known for writing the enduring hit Mr. Bojanges, Walker used to make frequent Valentines Day visits to Aspen. Its been awhile now, which might explain why his timing is slightly off. Guitar Blues, Feb. 25 An odd, but welcome, trio concert. Guitar Blues features two genuine six-string heroes Jorma Kaukonen, and Robben Ford who come from different ends of the guitar spectrum. Kaukonen has specialized in rural, acoustic blues, mainly as part of Hot Tuna, for 35 years; Ford is a jazz-blues specialist who has been a member of the Yellowjackets, a sideman for Joni Mitchell, and leader of the memorable trio, Robben Ford & the Blue Line. Joining them is Ruthie Foster, a dynamic singer and presence, but no ones idea of a guitar goddess. Interesting, all three appeared in separate concerts in the area in the past year, and all three gave standout performances.

Cherryholmes, March 13 This bluegrass family act, featuring six members of the mellifluously named Cherryholmes clan, earns awards every time they turn around. Twice in the last three years, they were honored as Entertainer of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. An Evening with Lily Tomlin, March 18 In 1985, the stars aligned between Tomlin and Aspen. Tomlin had a show she needed to workshop; the Wheeler was a little-used venue; John Denver had his Aspen home unoccupied for a few months and was willing to loan it out. So Tomlin set up shop and worked up what became The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which would earn Tomlin a Tony for best actress the following year. The story I got, she could come to Aspen and workshop her piece for a month, out of the public eye, said Slaton. Back then you could say, Lilys going to do another show in three days, and the place would fill up. According to Wheeler records, Tomlin made appearances at the Wheeler in February, March and April of 1985. Arlo Guthrie, March 24 Another returnee, Guthrie hasnt played the Wheeler in an even decade. As for what to expect, besides a shot of 60s hippiedom, is up in the air. His manager called and says, Arlo is interested in coming out there, you want him? recalled Slaton. I asked whats the show, and he said, Well I dont know. Well figure it out later. My experience with Arlo is, it starts out just going to be him, and by the time he gets here its [his son] Abe, and four other people and he just makes it work great. Other acts coming to the Wheeler this winter season: Aspen Choral Societys Messiah (Dec. 12-13); An Evening with Professor Kenny Watson (Jan. 3); Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen (Jan. 10); the Beatles stage show, 1964 … The Tribute (March 28)

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