Aspen’s Wheeler sets winter lineup
ASPEN – Those attending events at the newly renovated Wheeler Opera House this upcoming season won’t see anything different at the 122-year-old theater. The latest round of improvements were limited to the basement offices, and the street-level restaurant and retail space that are part of the building. (Those with sensitive noses, however, might notice a change in the air in the theater space: “Remember you’d be in the middle of a show, enjoying yourself, and you’d get the smell of a nice fat hamburger? That’s gone,” Gram Slaton, the Wheeler’s executive director, said of the recent improvements.)Likewise, those surveying the Wheeler’s recently announced slate of shows for the 2011-12 season won’t be struck with the sense of a startling makeover. The lineup features several familiar favorites, as well as acts that, though relatively new to the Wheeler, fit in comfortably with the customary tendencies: acoustic guitars, names more familiar to those whose cultural landmark is the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” rather than the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” The schedule also aims at an easy-to-discern diversity: comedy and classic rock, touches of country and jazz, male and female, Latin sounds and theater – and did we mention a lot of acoustic guitars?”I think that’s part of our mandate. I think we have to,” Slaton said of the diverse offerings. “The Wheeler has a tradition of reaching out to the most varied audience as possible and I think we need to keep doing that.”Younger audiences who wonder if they are included in that broad embrace should take note of how uncrowded the Wheeler calendar is for the moment. Dates have been left open by design, to leave room for the sorts of acts that don’t tend to book their tours six months in advance – namely, those of the younger, more up-and-coming variety (and who might even have an electric guitar in their equipment trailer).”If you had talked to me this time last year, I think we had every weekend full,” Slaton said. “This year I’ve turned down things you would expect to see at the Wheeler because I want to take the opportunity to do some things you wouldn’t expect at the Wheeler. I would like to mix up our game. I think it’s time to mix up our game. So we are reserving our spots, so we don’t have to say, ‘Sorry, that weekend’s full.'”Performances leaning toward rock ‘n’ roll – to say nothing of full-blown rock bands – have been practically absent from the Wheeler in recent years. But the closing show at the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival last March featured two younger guys, Donavon Frankenreiter and Matt Nathanson, who can go for louder sounds. The concert was a hit, and broadened Slaton’s thinking.”I learned from that – this is a great house to rock,” Slaton, who took over the head job at the Wheeler six years ago, said. “I’m not interested in a hip-hop or reggae act. Leave that to Michael [Goldberg, owner of the Belly Up nightclub]. That’s a club thing. But there are a lot of new acts out there that would sound great and play well in our hall. I want to go get those.”For the moment, here’s what the Wheeler does have.• Loudon Wainwright III, Nov. 5 – Wainwright might be best known for some quirky things: the 1972 novelty hit “Dead Skunk”; playing Capt. Spalding – the “singing surgeon” – on the TV show “M*A*S*H”; being related to a large number of fellow musicians (ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, sister of Sloane Wainwright, father of Rufus, Martha and Lucy). And perhaps the quirkiest of all is his collection of twisted faces and gesticulations onstage. But Wainwright is not only a distinguished singer-songwriter, but also one with some notable recent accomplishments. He co-created the soundtrack to the 2007 comedy “Knocked Up,” and earned a Grammy in the best traditional folk category, for 2009’s “High Wide & Handsome,” a tribute to 1920s singer Charlie Poole.• Crystal Palace and Glenwood Vaudeville Revues, Dec. 26 – The valley’s best song-and-dance people, from the defunct Crystal Palace dinner theater and the very much alive Glenwood Vaudeville Revue, get a pair of performances, at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., at the Wheeler.• Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Dec. 28 – When Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews last appeared at the Wheeler, in 2005, he was a teenage, jazz-playing sideman in a New Years, New Orleans celebration. In 2010, he established himself as a multi-faceted artist, releasing the hit funk-jazz album “Backatown,” which featured an appearance by Lenny Kravitz. His latest album, “For True,” has contributions from Warren Haynes, Kid Rock, Jeff Beck and members of the Neville family.”Six years ago, he was considered still a kid,” Slaton said. “He seems to have blown up.”• Kim Carnes & Friends, Dec. 29 – Singer Kim Carnes, best known for the 1981 hit “Bette Davis Eyes,” showed that her raspy voice is still in fine shape with a well-received appearance at the 7908 Songwriters Festival in March. Her friends this time through are Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Hanna’s wife, noted songwriter Matraca Berg.• Best of the Fest, Dec. 30 – Four standouts from the Wheeler’s 2011 Aspen Laff Festival – Stewart Huff, Jackie Kashian and Auggie Smith, plus Todd Johnson, who will act as host – return for a night of stand-up.• David Bromberg, Dec. 31 – Not long ago, Bromberg took a hiatus from performing. For some 20 years. But the guitarist, a former collaborator with Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, returned a few years ago with his picking fingers in excellent shape. His performance of “I Will Never Be Your Fool” at the 7908 Songwriters Festival in 2009 was one of the great musical moments ever at the Wheeler; last New Year’s, he appeared as a guest with jam band Widespread Panic at the Pepsi Center in Denver; and earlier this year he released “Use Me,” which featured collaborations with John Hiatt, Levon Helm, Linda Ronstadt, Keb’ Mo’, Vince Gill and more.This New Year’s Eve show will feature an open bar, champagne toast, noisemakers and more.• Jon Anderson, Feb. 4 – The singer from progressive rock icons Yes appeared last winter with no dazzling instrumentalists like Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman or a revolving stage, just an acoustic guitar, his high voice and the songs. He returns with more of the same. “I love having Jon Anderson back because that was a really incredible evening,” Slaton said. “The way he took those complex songs and stripped them down and made them personal, that was something. I don’t love to use this word, but it was magical.”• Judy Collins, Feb. 17 – An alumna of the University of Colorado, and inspiration for the Stephen Stills song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Judy Collins established herself as one of the great interpreters of music, lending her voice to old folk tunes, the work of the Beatles and Leonard Cohen. She also has some worthwhile songs of her own to her credit; on 2008’s “Born to the Breed,” Cohen, Dolly Parton, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Baez, Shawn Colvin and others paid tribute to Collins’ compositions. At 72, she seems on top of her game; “Paradise,” released last year, earned solid reviews.• Aspen Laff Festival, Feb. 22-25 – The second annual Laff Fest, the Wheeler’s effort to get some laughs into its lineup, gets a boost with a closing appearance by former Aspenite David Brenner. The full roster of talent should be announced in December.• David Wilcox, Feb. 29 – The ultimate in the soft, sensitive singer-songwriters appears in a show co-produced by Steve’s Guitars.• Los Lobos, March 10 – The last time the experimental Latin rock band appeared at the Wheeler, much of their equipment did not – and Los Lobos responded with a loose, spontaneous and highly satisfying show. Fans shouldn’t count on a repeat, but what could be in store is something along the lines of their last Aspen gig, two years ago at Belly Up. That show, like the upcoming Wheeler date, was billed as an acoustic performance, and the band did start out on acoustic Mexican instruments playing traditional Mexican tunes. But halfway through the show, the guitars got plugged in, and the place started rocking, making for a perfectly balanced, and memorable, show.• Tiempo Libre, March 14 – While the players in Tiempo Libre trained in classical music at conservatories in their native Cuba, they listened to the forbidden radio broadcasts coming from Miami. Their latest album, “My Secret Radio,” is a tribute to the voices – Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Gloria Estefan, Earth, Wind & Fire – that they heard. As a testament to their diversity, their first album, the Grammy-nominated “Bach in Havana,” fused Bach compositions with Afro-Cuban rhythms.• 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival, March 21-24 – Woody Creeker John Oates remains on board as co-producer of this festival, which presents music performances from a songwriter’s perspective. Past artists have included New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint, Shawn Colvin, Jimmy Wayne, Keb’ Mo’, and Sam Bush, who in both editions of the festival has been a guest picker just waiting to be called onstage. A full lineup should be announced by early February.In addition to the Wheeler’s own shows, the Wheeler plays host to several events produced by outside organizations. Among those this season: the 14th Annual Tribute to John Denver (Oct. 14-15), with friends and collaborators of the late Aspenite remembering Denver in song; Theatre Aspen’s production of “Annie” (Dec. 16-23), featuring Aileen Quinn, a star of the film version of the musical; and jazz-bluegrass fusion quartet Bla Fleck & the Flecktones (April 5), the first Wheeler appearance to feature Howard Levy, the keyboardist and harmonica player who was a founding Flecktone and who rejoined the band last year after an 18-year email@example.com
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