Highlights and lowlights of the local music scene
News-wise, the past 12 musical months in the Roaring Fork Valley could hardly have been better. Jazz Aspen Snowmass had a breakthrough year in attendance, despite weather that chilled the June Festival and soaked the Labor Day Festival. Snowmass Village threw an unprecedented amount of support behind concerts, bringing name bands to play on Fanny Hill with delightful regularity during the summer. David Byrne, Gillian Welch, Steve Miller, Lucinda Williams, Robert Randolph, the Roots and Psychograss all made their Aspen debuts. The Aspen Skiing Co. continued to stage massive, free winter productions.Best of all, the Belly Up filled the nightlife hole left by the 2003 closing of the Double Diamond. Except to say the Belly Up filled a hole is to shortchange the rave-worthy new club. Since its January opening, the Belly Up has transcended simply putting Aspen back on the nightlife map and positioned itself as one of the finest concert clubs imaginable. The willingness to bring in big names (Steve Earle, Crystal Method, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Toots & the Maytals) on such a regular basis has got to cheer the local music fans.On the stage and in the venues, however, the year was a more mixed bag. There were more than a few letdowns by highly anticipated acts, including Lucinda Williams, Hot Tuna and Al Green. Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, while smashing attendance records, was so-so artistically, with no one rising to the level of such past performances as Neil Young, Steve Winwood or Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers. Attendance was pitiful for the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music. With all the pieces in place, there is good reason to think that 2005-06 will be a spectacular year for the valley’s musicheads. But before we can get on to that, we must digest and judge what has transpired this past year.I call this little exercise in indulgent, righteous opining the Stewys. Come along with me and let’s reminisce about the musical highs and lows of 2004-05.Best jazz showIt’s a small but distinguished field. Nominees are two acts – the Wynton Marsalis Quintet and Medeski, Martin & Wood – that lit up Jazz Aspen’s June Festival; vocalist-guitarist Madeleine Peyroux, who made her Aspen debut at the Wheeler in February; and the spontaneous jam at Jazz Aspen’s JASummerNights Swing event.3 The winner is keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. The fact that their set was played for a nearly empty June Festival tent didn’t take a thing away from the intense, grooving musicianship. Tell you the truth, I don’t think the three noticed the lack of audience, so absorbed were they in their musical dialogue.Danny Gatton Memorial Stewyfor Best GuitaristNominees for this Stewy – named for the late rockabilly artist Danny Gatton, recipient of the first Stewy for best guitarist – are pedal steel monster Robert Randolph, who played his gospel funk at the Labor Day Festival; David Rawlings, who played aside Gillian Welch at the Wheeler; David Grier, who picked at the Beyond Bluegrass Festival as part of the bluegrass supergroup Psychograss; and bluesman Buddy Guy, who appeared at the June Festival.3 The winner is David Rawlings, whose acoustic work ranged from the rawest picking to the most elegant flourishes.Backstage after the concert, I commented to Rawlings that, while I was a big fan of his and Welch’s, I hadn’t expected him to be such an impressive instrumentalist. Rawlings, in his far-away manner, thought a second and said, completely earnestly, “You know, I think that just happened.”Best small-venue showGood shows do come in small venues. Nominees are bluegrass quartet Chatham County Line, which played at Main Street Bakery; avant-Latin band Yerba Buena, which did a JAS After Dark show at the old Whiskey Rocks; and the duo of David Lowery and Johnny Hickman from the Cracker/Camper van Beethoven sphere, for their show at the Blue Door.
3 Yerba Buena takes it by a hair over Lowery & Hickman. In addition to the nonexistent Stewy statuette and the equally imaginary prestige that comes with it, Yerba Buena graduates to a bigger venue. The colorful New York-based group, led by guitarist Andres Levin, is scheduled to play the main stage at the upcoming June Festival, opening for David Byrne on June 24.Best song performanceThe nominees for song performances that transported me to that blissful otherworld: G. Love and Jack Johnson celebrating the rainbow over the Labor Day grounds with a spontaneous duet of Love’s “Rainbow”; Gillian Welch’s inspiring autobiographical tune “Wrecking Ball”; David Lowery & Johnny Hickman doing their Cracker hit “Euro Trash Girl”; Steve Miller’s extended jamming “Fly Like an Eagle”; Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”; and Béla Fleck & Edgar Meyer’s jaw-dropping banjo-and-bass reinvention of Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo.”3 Welch’s “Wrecking Ball” slammed my brain and hasn’t let go. Seven months later, I still have the song in my head. Stewy for Gillian.Best singerThe nominees in this Lilith-dominated field are Gillian Welch, Madeleine Peyroux, Rickie Lee Jones, Shelby Lynne, and the duo of Xiomara Laugart and Cucu Diamantes of Yerba Buena.3 Taking the prize is jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux. Peyroux, who made her Aspen debut in February at the Wheeler, wasn’t about to win over an audience with her low-key presence. But her ear-catching phrasings on songs like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” were enough self-expression for me.Best showThe big one. Nominees to join past winners (including the Funky Meters, the Del McCoury Band, Michael Franti and Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers) are: Robert Randolph, Gillian Welch, Yerba Buena, Béla Fleck & Edgar Meyer, and Medeski, Martin & Wood.3 The winner by a decisive margin is Gillian Welch. Her September performance at the Wheeler was spare, as she was accompanied only by her right-hand man David Rawlings on guitar. But songs such as “Miss Ohio” and the magnificent “Wrecking Ball,” and a cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” tapped into the deep well of that old, weird America in a profound way. And an amazing show ended with a beyond-perfect encore: Old Crow Medicine Show joined forces with Welch and Rawlings for a take on the Band’s “The Weight,” followed by the old train song “John Henry” that built near to the point of explosion. After the stage cleared, Welch & Rawlings walked to the edge of the stage for an unamplified version of “Long Black Veil” which gave me chills.Other miscellaneous awardsMost disappointing showIn a fine year, there was no shortage of let-downs. Turning in less-than stellar performances were Lucinda Williams, who sounded fine but hid behind a pair of dark shades throughout her Labor Day set; Donna the Buffalo, which showed up at the Beyond Bluegrass Festival short two members (including lead singer Tara Nevins); Hot Tuna, which was musically unimpressive at a January Wheeler gig; and Al Green, who apparently mistook Rio Grande Park (site of the June Festival) for Las Vegas.
3 Taking the inglorious honors was Hot Tuna. Their highly anticipated show started out with an acceptably promising acoustic set. But the electric half was flat-out flat. Jorma Kaukonen’s weak vocals couldn’t compete with the full band sound; the overall product was more garage band than legendary rockers. The lone bright spot was bassist Jack Casady – but when’s the last time a bassist saved the night?Best opening actSharing this award are Old Crow Medicine Show, which earned a standing ovation for their opening set for Gillian Welch, and Robert Randolph & the Family Band, whose 2 p.m. Labor Day set kicked the butts of later acts Lucinda Williams and Cake. Old Crow gets the “St”; Randolph gets the “ewy.” Show I really wished I hadn’t missedThe list of shows it pained me to pass on is long, and one I shudder to revisit. (Fortunately, the ache passes. Eventually. Usually.) Among the ones that nearly killed me were Steve Earle & the Dukes at Belly Up; Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe at the Wheeler; Bruce Cockburn at the Wheeler; Sam Bush at the Wheeler; the subdudes at the Silvertree Hotel’s Cabaret Room; Otis Taylor on Fanny Hill; Poncho Sanchez and the Tribute to Ray Brown, both at Harris Hall this past winter; the Motet’s two shows at the Blue Door; Soulive, both at the Snowmass Conference Center and Belly Up; Billy & Jilian Nershi and Hot Buttered Rum String Band at the Blue Door … enough of this torture.3 The worst miss was Steve Earle, who I badly wanted to see recover from his subpar 2004 Wheeler show.Longest overdue debutIt’s hard to believe that Steve Miller, who dominated the 70’s and early ’80s, never visited Aspen, which attracted rock stars like flies to a light back then. (So the legend goes.) And Miller’s a mountain guy, having a house in Sun Valley for decades. But his appearance at last summer’s Jazz Labor Day Festival was his first time setting foot in the valley. Miller made the wait worthwhile. Though dressed like a country doctor, he was in good form, singing fresh takes on his book of hits.Most deserved encore performanceA tremendous downpour greeted Jackie Greene as he made his local debut on Fanny Hill last summer. And then the young California singer-guitarist passed out on stage.So giving Greene a mulligan seems fair. Greene, who signed with the Verve/Forecast label in the interim, is scheduled to return to Fanny Hill Aug. 18.Good news, bad news awardDavid Byrne, set to make his Aspen debut at the Labor Day Festival, was in danger of canceling altogether due to cold and rain. Byrne eventually took the stage, but without the Tosca Strings, a critical component of the acclaimed show he was performing at the time. Still, it was hard to complain about the consolation prize: a set of Talking Heads hits played by a stripped-down combo.The pure good news is that Byrne returns, with the strings, to Jazz Aspen’s June Festival, June 24.Best bathroom break
My wife Candice and I were mildly entertained by the swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the main act at Jazz Aspen’s JASummerNights Swing at Aspen Highlands. When Candice returned from the ladies’ room, she said, “I think I like the music inside better.” What music, I wondered, would be competing with the main act under the outdoors tent?A group of students from Jazz Aspen’s JAS Academy Summer Sessions, apparently as unimpressed by the headliners as we, had started jamming – most of them not on their usual instruments. In time, the jam grew to include renowned bassist Christian McBride – on drums – and top trombonist Wycliffe Gordon – on keyboards. McBride’s fiancée, singer Melissa Walker, launched into a Stevie Wonder medley. Coaxed on by a small knot of dancers, the impromptu jam was the perfect antidote to the over-rehearsed music a few steps away – and a reminder of what it is about music that brings such joy.We never ventured back to the main tent. But when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy finished and the crowd flowed back inside, they joined a surprisingly vibrant little scene that hadn’t been part of the evening’s scheduled activities.Count on JASummerNights Swing 2005 – July 23 at Aspen Highlands – being a highlight. And the main act, Latino funk-rap band Ozomatli, should even be worth checking out.Best interviewOn consecutive days in January, I interviewed George Meyer and Mike Reiss, two key “Simpsons” writers. I’ll let you know when I come down from the experience.On the musical side, it’s Hot Tuna’s Jack Casady, who was happy to lead me through a tour of San Francisco in the ’60s.Leading contenders for 2006 StewysWith only a trickle of summer acts yet announced, it’s already shaping up to be some kind of 2005-06. Michael Franti & Spearhead and Keller Williams, headliners at the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest (Snowmass Village, June 17-19); jazz guitarist John Scofield playing a Ray Charles tribute (JAS After Dark show, June 24, at Belly Up); Buckwheat Zydeco (June 30 on Fanny Hill); the subdudes (Aug. 11 on Fanny Hill). The favorite to be recognized this time next year is the Derek Trucks Band, which plays a free show Aug. 6 on Fanny Hill.And a trunkload of thanks: Josh Behrman; Nida, Martha and everyone at the Wheeler; Michael Goldberg; everyone at Jazz Aspen; Steve Standiford; Sandy Munro; Tim Lucca; the Aspen Music Festival and everyone else who gets the music here. To Rachel, Alan and Greg for sharing music, insight, stories and rumors. To everyone at the Aspen Times, especially my excellent editors Steve Johnson, Jeanne McGovern and Bob Ward.And enormous thanks to Candice, Olivia, Tony and Chatsi for things musical and not.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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