Jammed-in and jamming | AspenTimes.com

Jammed-in and jamming

Stewart Oksenhorn
Joss Stone (Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times Weekly)

Assuming no desperate need for a beer, or a bathroom, the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival last week marked a high point for music festivals in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.The lineup was packed more than ever with acts that specialize in live performance, bands that attract hard-core concertgoers, and this emphasis yielded positive results both onstage and in the crowd. The music, with one major exception, was blistering; the crowds were big – except on Sunday, when big turned enormous, and the jampacked environment prompted complaints about long lines for drinks and for relieving oneself of those drinks.When physical comfort permitted focusing on the music, the festival was heavenly. Band after band hit the stage in high spirits and delivered satisfying sets.

No one hit the stage harder – or more often – than Warren Haynes, who set the tone for the weekend. The singer-guitarist played as a member of the Allman Brothers Band, fronted his own harder-edged quartet, Gov’t Mule. and made a guest appearance with activist singer Michael Franti, where he found himself riffing on a “Sesame Street” medley. On a perfectly appropriate note, Haynes closed the festival with a solo show Monday night at Belly Up, gently bringing the weekend to an end with an acoustic performance that mixed the familiar (Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”) with the little-known. Among the latter was Haynes’ own “I’ll Be the One,” a romantic folk ballad that demonstrates the jam-rocker’s vast abilities.Barely a step behind Haynes was Derek Trucks. The slide guitarist formed, with Haynes, a potent one-two punch that made the Allmans Brothers’ set something far more than a blast of nostalgia. Trucks reappeared on Monday with his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, in the Soul Stew Revival, which beautifully blended old-school soul and worldly improvising.

Saturday was the wild card, as jam-leaning bands exited the stage in favor of mainstream acts John Legend and Joss Stone. The transition went off without a hitch. Legend has come a long way as a performer since making his local debut two years ago, and the 20-year-old Stone was a delight, with a powerful voice, a sweet personality, lots of leg and lots of purple. The exclamation point on the day of soul-singing was side-stage act Ryan Shaw, a rising star. Even the day’s touch of hip-hop worked, as Galactic added two guest rappers – Gift of Gab and Boots Riley – to its New Orleans-inspired funk groove.The only act not emanating good vibes was Nickel Creek. The acoustic combo’s festival-opening set started under a rainbow, a misleading sign from the heavens. The group announced its breakup a year ago, and clearly they are merely playing out the string. Spread wide across the stage, Nickel Creek’s members barely connected, and when they tried, it was awkward and sad. Chris Thile, the band’s gifted mandolinist, has chops to burn, but a vacant stare that says he’s a million miles away from this project.Another bluegrass-inspired band that might be at the end of the line showed that offstage differences could be overcome once the instruments were in hand. Colorado’s Leftover Salmon, coming off a two-year hiatus, made what might be their last concert a wonderful one.

It was fortuitous that Jazz Aspen got Nickel Creek’s set out of the way early. From the time rocker Ben Harper took the stage, following Nickel Creek, it was a memorable, hitch-free festival.Except for those full bladders and empty bottles on Sunday evening.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com