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Festival Extreme

Stewart Oksenhorn

Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ 10th annual Labor Day Festival was four days of extremes and unexpecteds: an exceptional set from opening acts and a bland one from a headliner, a horrendous rainstorm and gorgeous gifts from the sky, a quasi-rainout balanced by a welcome consolation prize. Cake lead singer John McCrea wouldn’t shut up; Lucinda Williams followed by not saying boo. The only consistent in last weekend’s festival in Snowmass Town Park was the record attendance, and even that was improbable: the bill of Jack Johnson, G. Love & Special Sauce and Donavon Frankenreiter on Friday night, typically the weakest draw of the weekend, drew 11,000, mostly 20-something fans.

The most electrifying performance of the weekend came from Monday’s opening act, Robert Randolph & the Family Band. Pedal steel guitarist Randolph has come far from the gospel music he learned in a New Jersey church; his set was built on a Jimi Hendrix medley and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and the closest he came to gospel was a jam on “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But Randolph and his three-piece band shook the heavens nonetheless.California rock band Cake got into a profanity-laced tussle with the mostly phantom fans in the Patron seating area, and singer McCrea responded by turning his back to the empty seats and directing his offbeat contemporary rock to the general-admission crowd. His point was well-taken – no act wants to play to a sea of emptiness when there’s a willing crowd on the other side of the divide – though McCrea took his case a bit far.

Monday’s headliner, Lucinda Williams, spoke only with her music. Apart from introducing her band, the countryish rocker said not a word, didn’t even remove her shades. Solid versions of her tormented love songs, “Fruits of My Labor,” “Righteously” and “Drunken Angel,” satisfied fans, but she didn’t win over a new audience with her distant presence.

If any act earned converts, it was Steve Miller. Though 60, his hits 20-plus years behind him, Miller played a distinctive brand of rock, and threw in a worthy blues and jazz segment. He topped his set with an extended version of “Fly Like an Eagle,” jazzed up by saxophonist John Handy, and a rap by keyboardist Billy Peterson. Lyle Lovett, opening for Miller, turned in a predictably tight show, leaning heavily toward songs from his latest CD, “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.” Lovett’s 35-member choir came out for the final two songs, an appearance that was far too brief.Heavy rains nixed any possibility of David Byrne doing his scheduled set with the Tosca Strings. But after a delay that made any appearance seem unlikely, a willing Byrne and a stripped-down combo launched into an abbreviated set of Talking Heads favorites, including “Life During Wartime,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “Nothing But Flowers.” And nary a complaint was heard. Sheryl Crow, perhaps bothered by a cold and cold temperatures and travel hassles – or all of the above or possibly even none of the above – played a set of bland, middle-of-the-road rock.

Friday night featured an improbable mix of mellow, surf-inspired acoustic rock by Johnson and Frankenreiter, the more dynamic blues/hip-hop fusion of G. Love – and a crowd that easily surpassed the Jazz Aspen one-night record. The highlight, appropriately, was an impromptu moment: as a rainbow spanned the Brush Creek valley, Johnson and Love teamed for a glorious version of spiritual “Rainbow.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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