Belly up to a winter filled with live music

Stewart Oksenhorn
Drew Emmitt, formerly of Colorados Leftover Salmon, brings his new acoustic group to a January concert at the Wheeler Opera House. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.

The new club slated to open in the old Double Diamond space has a name, a targeted opening date, a talent buyer and plans that include an emphasis on live music.What the new Belly Up, hopefully set to open in time for the X Games the last weekend of January, doesn’t have are any scheduled performers.”Things are happening very, very quickly,” explained Michael Goldberg who, with his partner, fellow Aspenite David Gitlitz, signed a lease for the subgrade space two weeks ago. “So there are no artists lined up.”Belly Up – named after the live-music venue that has been a San Diego-area institution for 30 years and owned by Goldberg’s brother Steve for the last two – hired Steve Weiss as its full-time booking agent. Weiss, who has been booking three venues in the Minneapolis area, takes over the Belly Up position Jan. 1.The lack of announced performers is not quite as pressing a problem as it might be. For X Games weekend, X Games sponsors will bring their own acts to the club. And the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival is planning to use Belly Up as a venue for stand-up performances for its Aspen run, Feb. 9-13.Through the fog of busyness, Goldberg has remained clear on at least one thing – Belly Up will, like its namesake, be primarily a live-music venue.”Basically, we want to be like the original club. And it’s always been a music establishment. That’s its heritage,” said Goldberg, a serious rock fan who can be found in the photographers’ pit, shooting away, most every Jazz Aspen Snowmass event. “Last week they had Slightly Stoopid and Kinky – those are two bands I’d love to do here.”Among the ideas Goldberg has been considering for Belly Up are an elaborate video-screen projection system, flat-screen TVs and après-ski performances. In addition to a new stage, new bar, new bathrooms and an expanded dance floor, Belly Up has a full kitchen to prepare a bar menu during concerts and for private functions.While the music calendar is momentarily empty, Goldberg has no shortage of ideas for Belly Up. Nor is there any shortage of enthusiasm for the fact that Aspen will once again have a music venue worthy of the town’s reputation as the nightlife capital of Ski World, U.S.A.”I get stopped every day on the street by people with ideas,” said Goldberg. “And I’m surprised how many good ideas there are.”Belly Up’s schedule is clear, but more and more names are getting penned in at various other valley venues. And it’s shaping up to be one of the busier and more star-filled musical winters in recent times – even without the lineup sure to be compiled by Belly Up.

The two big names for the holidays are performers who fit in oddly well together: Rickie Lee Jones and Bruce Cockburn, who appear back-to-back at the Wheeler Opera House Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 28-29, in what is billed as An Acoustic Christmas.Both Jones and Cockburn will appear, as they often do, as solo, acoustic performers. Both are well-equipped to play unaccompanied: For the eccentric, unpredictable Jones, having the stage to herself gives her plenty of room to stretch out and be herself. And with the ability to play her flexible, jazzy songs on both piano and guitar, she can explore a variety of sounds all by her lonesome. Cockburn, as he emphatically proved last year at the Wheeler, is a one-man band, coaxing a staggering amount of sound from his guitar.And in recent times, the sensibilities of Jones and Cockburn have come closer together. Cockburn has long showed a strong social conscience, in songs like the environmentally focused “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” inspired by his observations of Central American politics. Jones was known for more romantic and hip material: “Chuck E’s in Love,” “Last Chance Texaco.” But last year, Jones made an abrupt turn by releasing “The Evening of My Best Day.” The album, her first of new material in seven years, featured such barbed political songs as “Ugly Man,” about George W. Bush, and “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act),” which criticizes both the legislation that threatens civil liberties, and the press for not covering the law adequately.Other concerts you can mark on the calendar:Halden Wofford & the Hi-BeamsDec. 31, Sunlight Mountain InnThis Denver-based quintet, led by singer-guitarist – and former fine-art painter – Halden Wofford, plays country music the way Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb would. Far from the slick and corny country acts of today, Wofford & the Hi-Beams play with a combination of swing and punk energy. The setting, at the base of the Sunlight Mountain Resort, should be a memorable one for ringing in 2005.A Funky/Folk New Year’s EveDec. 31, Wheeler Opera HouseInstead of big, national names for New Year’s Eve, the Wheeler has big, familiar acts. Lots of them. The Wheeler celebrates the turn of the calendar with a night of local musicians, including Dan Sheridan, Frank Martin, Shawn O’Neil & Kory Krahl and others.

Hot TunaJan. 7, WheelerAnd then the Wheeler gets big and loud. Long-running roots rockers Hot Tuna – still featuring the talented duo of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady – follows an acoustic set with an electric one. Hot Tuna is well-equipped to do both: The group spun off decades ago from psychedelic rockers Jefferson Airplane, and two years ago, Kaukonen released the folk-blues album “Blue Country Heart,” an acoustic gem.The Drew Emmitt BandJan. 15, WheelerColorado jam band Leftover Salmon, which billed its music as polyethnic Cajun slamgrass – a moniker that suggested maybe a quartet of its influences – has ended its 12-year trip. Now founding member Drew Emmitt uses his arsenal of instruments – fiddle, guitar and mandolin – for a more acoustic end. Emmitt has assembled a most promising quartet featuring guitarist Ross Martin, Leftover bassist Greg Garrison, mandolinist-turned-banjoist Matt Flinner. The group has already played such rooms as the Blue Note in New York and Sweetwater, outside of San Francisco.Jonny LangJan. 24-25, WheelerYoung hotshot guitarist Jonny Lang has showed he can rip the electric six-string in past Jazz Aspen performances. This time, Lang goes acoustic at the Wheeler – but still brings a full band to back him.Hit & Run BluegrassJan. 27, Main Street BakeryMore top-notch Colorado bluegrass in a setting well-suited to it. The quintet Hit & Run Bluegrass has won the best-band competitions at both Telluride Bluegrass and Rockygrass, so its days playing small venues like Steve’s Guitars and Main Street Bakery probably won’t last.

Madeleine PeyrouxFeb. 3, WheelerThe Aspen debut of jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux is an event a lot of people wanted to get their hands on; the concert is being co-presented by Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Mountain Groove Productions and the Wheeler Associates. “Careless Love,” Peyroux’s recent breakthrough album, affirms her appeal; the distinctive album, smokier than the work of Nora Jones, is appearing on several best-of-2004 critics’ lists.Sound Tribe Sector 9 and BlackaliciousFeb. 3, Snowmass Conference CenterA perfect late-night complement to the Madeleine Peyroux gig. Sound Tribe Sector 9 is on the leading edge of groups that combine jam-band sensibility and techno sound to make a dance-happy breed of music. Blackalicious plays a soulful brand of hip-hop.Poncho SanchezFeb. 27, Harris HallOver his latest series of recordings, Texas-born, California-bred conguera Poncho Sanchez has taken his fundamental Latin jazz closer to the funk edge, covering James Brown and bringing in Brown’s hornmen Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis. The results have been laudable; his 2000 release “Latin Soul” earned a Grammy for best Latin Jazz album and his recordings since then have built on those sounds.North Mississippi AllstarsMarch 9, WheelerCombining the gritty Hill Country blues from their native northern Mississippi, blues-rock à la Cream and the Allman Brothers, and jam-band habits, the North Mississippi Allstars made themselves a hit on the rock circuit. The more contemporary rock on last year’s “Polaris” broadened their palette. The Allstars are down to a trio, having dropped singer-guitarist Duwayne Burnside since their last Wheeler appearance.

Tribute to Ray BrownMarch 23, Harris HallRay Brown was an architect of bebop, playing in the postwar New York sessions with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Brown was also a major presence with Jazz Aspen, appearing frequently as a performer and educator. Brown, who died in 2002, will be remembered by a group that includes fellow bassists Christian McBride and John Clayton, and pianists Geoff Keezer, Gerald Clayton and Benny Green.Taj MahalMarch 28, WheelerThe decades roll by, and Taj Mahal is still there, absorbing influences. Taj, who first became known in the mid-’60s group Rising Sons, which also featured Ry Cooder, has since played Hawaiian music, jazz, r & b, Caribbean and more, putting his idiosyncratic blues stamp on it all.Also on the books: finger-style guitarist Pete Hutlinger (Jan. 12, Main Street Bakery); root jammers the Zen Tricksters (Feb. 4, the Blue Door); funk band Addison Groove Project (Feb. 6, Blue Door); progressive acoustic quartet Free Peoples (Feb. 20, Blue Door); Phish cover band Phix (Feb. 21, Blue Door); singer-songwriter Marc Cohn (Feb. 24, Wheeler); “1964 – The Tribute,” a salute to the early Beatles (March 12-13, Wheeler). Also, Malian singer-guitarist Habib Koité & Bamada (March 15, Wheeler); Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music, featuring bluegrass-rock band Donna the Buffalo (March 19) and Canadian acoustic group Vishten (date to be announced, Wheeler, with additional acts still to be determined).That’s enough to keep me busy. And if all goes as planned for Belly Up, Aspen will be one rocking place this winter.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is