Best concerts of 2009 in Aspen, Snowmass
December 31, 2009
ASPEN – Assembling my list of the finest musical moments of each year is always a pleasure. Here in the music-rich upper end of the Roaring Fork Valley, it is an annual exercise in abundance, trying to whittle the festival sets, the Wheeler shows, the Belly Up Aspen gigs, down to two handfuls of the very best.This year it has added meaning. As we all look back over the year just closed, the narratives that stand out are marked by stress and frustration. But as I focused on the musical highlights, 2009 became like all the other years: a barely interrupted string of memorable performances. Ahhh, escapism – how indulgent, effective and necessary.Following, a chronological listing of the year’s best musical distractions.
Who? Socialibrium was a thrown-together quartet of avant-funk players, headed by keyboardist Bernie Worrell (Talking Heads, P-Funk), and playing its third-ever gig. But the group found its feet immediately, firing up aggressive, sophisticated funk without retro leanings. Bassist TM Stevens was my find of the year. Part-time local P-Nut Daniel on electronic saxophone made an invaluable contribution.
What do you get when you cross Chinese folk with Appalachian gospel and string music? When the players – including singer-banjoist Washburn and her beau, banjo master Bla Fleck – are this adventurous, something eye-opening and virtuosic.
This show was billed as an acoustic gig, with the long-running barrio rockers playing the South of the Border material their parents listened to, on Mexican instruments. Which they did for the first portion of the show, and if it had gone on like that all night, there would have been no complaint from me. But after five songs, the electric guitars gradually were added to the mix, and Los Lobos broke into the boundary-pushing rock they are known for.
The electronica duo was fortified by a live band, and a parade of singers from Iran, Argentina, Iceland, Jamaica and Guyana, each one bringing a unique vibe – and plenty of exotic charisma – to the mike. Probably the most cosmopolitan night of entertainment Aspen has seen.
This Los Angeles electro-jam trio doesn’t need a ton of help, especially with the wildly exuberant Steve Molitz on keyboards. But for this festival date Particle brought in extra hands, including String Cheese Incident mandolinist Michael Kang and Tea Leaf Green guitarist Josh Clark, and the energy went over the top.
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These three kings of strings make it look easy to hop from bluegrass to classical, improvisation to composed music. Listeners from all ends of the musical spectrum had to be satisfied.
The politically and socially conscious soul-reggae singer always provides a mix of thoughtful words and danceable grooves. But Franti nearly died of a burst appendix a few weeks before his Labor Day Fest gig – just as he was making his first appearance on the radio charts, with “Say Hey (I Love You)” – and the scare brought him to a new level of energy. This one was explosive.
Elvis’ previous local gig, at Jazz Aspen’s 2006 June Festival, was imperfect, as he tried to share the spotlight with pianist Allen Toussaint. This one was close to perfect, as Costello, this time backed by his regular band, the Imposters, roared through their hits. A few more surprises in the set-list might have been nice for this Elvis lover, but it’s hard to complain about a set featuring “Alison,” “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” and so on. And man, did Costello bring it as a guitarist.
The Allmans, too, could have used more imagination in song selection. But Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes are an unbeatable guitar tag-team; founding Bro’ Gregg Allman was in noticeably better shape than at the band’s 2007 appearance; and the “Jessica” they played was spectacular.
Last time the New Jersey bluegrass-rock band played Aspen, in 2005, they put on a magnificent show for a third-full Wheeler Opera House. The word is out – this show sold out – and Railroad Earth justified the love with a glorious night of frontman Todd Sheaffer’s earthy songs and the band’s “We’re-all-riding-this-train-together” vibe.
It had been a full decade since the singer-keyboardist played a public show in Aspen. But Hornsby’s still got the full package – awesome piano skills, an adventurous spirit not afraid to turn sharp musical corners, and a hot, locked-in band ready to follow him anywhere.
Public Enemy has aged well and transfers its music to the stage well – two rare things in hip-hop. Rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav are a brilliantly balanced pair who add up to something special.
And another half-dozen deserving honorable mention: Guitar Blues: Lyle Lovett (Jan. 17, Wheeler); Ruthie Foster, Jorma Kaukonen and Robben Ford (Feb. 25, Wheeler); Bruce Cockburn (April 7, Wheeler); Sharon Isbin & Mark O’Connor (Aug. 15, Harris Hall); Solas (Nov. 7, Wheeler); Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa (Nov. 24, Belly Up).And no, I don’t see every show, though it’s nice that sometimes people assume I do. Here are the ones I missed that really tore me up: Gov’t Mule (Feb. 15, Belly Up); Brett Dennen (April 1, Belly Up); John Prine (July 15, Belly Up); Damian Marley & NAS (Aug. 4-5, Belly Up); Trombone Shorty (Aug. 6, Fanny Hill); Punch Brothers (Aug. 17, Harris Hall); Ani DiFranco (Aug. 19, Belly Up); Yo La Tengo (Oct. 11, Belly Up); and Robert Randolph & the Family Band (Dec. 12, Belly Up).Finally, the ones to keep an eye on in the year ahead: Punch Brothers (Jan. 16, Wheeler); Bla Fleck: The Africa Project (Feb. 5, Wheeler); Les Claypool (Feb. 12, Belly Up); Gov’t Mule (Feb. 14, Belly Up); Gomez (March 9, Belly Up); Harry Connick, Jr. (June 25, Jazz Aspen June Festival).firstname.lastname@example.org