For its first jump into hip-hop, Jazz Aspen is starting at the top. Kanye West’s last two albums, “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration,” have landed the socially provocative, musically gifted rapper/producer at the peak of hip-hop’s heap. West, the son of a photojournalist and the chair of the English department at Chicago State University, has uttered controversial words about AIDS, George Bush and American racism with a sense of lyricism, humor and, above all, musical sophistication. (West has produced tracks for Jay-Z, Janet Jackson. Alicia Keys and many others.) West plays the Labor Day Festival Saturday, Sept. 2; his fellow headliners – country crooner LeAnn Rimes, the Eagles’ Don Henley, and Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu – add up to Jazz Aspen’s most eclectic lineup ever. The festival runs Friday through Monday, Sept. 1-4.
Two years ago, in his local debut, Robert Randolph was the first act on a Labor Day bill that included indie rockers Cake and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Randolph, a pedal steel guitarist who plays an updated take on the sacred steel gospel style, was easily the day’s highlight. This year Randolph and his Family Band move up a notch as the second act on Saturday, Sept. 2, and it will be no surprise if they upstage the headliners again. About the only knock on Randolph is that he has lacked fresh material; in seven years, the band has released just two albums. That’s about to change, as the soul workout “Colorblind” is set for a September release. Guests include Eric Clapton, but Randolph isn’t likely to be intimidated. He was voted No. 97 in Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 rock guitarists.
Numerous bands talk about their variety of influences, but few demonstrate it like New Monsoon. Among its seven players, the San Francisco group features a tabla player, a banjoist and a conguero, as well as a guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. There are also sprinkles of didgeridoo and mandolin. The array of instruments isn’t just for show; when New Monsoon performs, the sounds of India, Cuba and Appalachia pour down. The band has also shown its diversity in the studio. Following the jammed-out “Live at Telluride,” New Monsoon last year released “The Sound,” a song-oriented rock album that nodded toward Santana.
In a year and a half, the Radiators will hit their 30th anniversary and equal the Grateful Dead for longevity in the jam-band world. And while the Rads have never made it near the level of popularity of the Dead – or numerous other, relatively short-lived acts – the New Orleans’ roots heroes have made marks in their own way. The band tours way more than virtually anyone; 2005 saw them rack up 140 shows. Ed Volker, the Rads’ keyboardist and philosophical leader, continues to make a claim as the most prolific songwriter in rock; legend has it that the thousand or so songs the band has brought to the stage represents a small slice of Volker’s output. And the Rads, who haven’t dented radio in decades, still turn out worthy albums. The recent “Dreaming Out Loud” finds them still pushing themselves. The same five Radiators who jammed in Volker’s garage in January 1978 return to Belly Up Thursday, Aug. 31.
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