Jazz Aspen Labor Day Experience review: Sting, John Mayer, Weezer, Luke Combs, H.E.R. and more
When Jazz Aspen Snowmass’s Labor Day festival took off in the new millennium, it was top-tier baby boomer acts who powered it to prominence — Bob Dylan (2002), Tom Petty (2003) and Steve Miller Band (2004). Those days are in the past.
Weezer’s crowd-pleasing, nostalgia-driven opening night headlining set at the 2019 edition of the festival marked an early indication of a generational shift toward the new oldies and an age of nostalgia for ’90s kids. Fans who loved early Weezer in adolescence — now in their 30s or 40s — found out Friday that their music now may be the nostalgia-based bread and butter of Aspen’s biggest pop music festival.
The weekend festival, boosted by the best weather the festival has seen in years and a blue-chip lineup, brought capacity crowds to Snowmass Town Park. It closed Sunday night with a hit parade from a still ageless Sting and boasted a Saturday night crowd-pleaser from John Mayer, along with well-received down-the-bill performances by rising R&B singer H.E.R., country star Luke Combs and rock band Portugal. The Man.
WEEZER LOOKS BACK
Led by singer and guitarist Rivers Cuomo, Weezer is making a case to be both the best Weezer they can be in 2019 and America’s best cover band.
The foursome has enough pop hits and rock anthems of their own to keep a festival crowd singing and woo-hooing and say-it-ain’t-so-ing along all night. But the band isn’t content with that these days, as it is leaning into its new status as both the great ’90s heritage act and the jukebox tribute band of the moment, layering nostalgia upon nostalgia for the masses in their 75-minute performance.
Playing to a buoyant crowd, the band played six out of the 10 songs from their self-titled debut “Blue Album” from 1994, opening with “Buddy Holly” and “Surf Wax America” to set the fan-friendly tone. (They actually played “Buddy Holly” twice — beginning the encore with a four-man barbershop quartet rendition that quieted the crowd to a hush.)
With few exceptions, they played the old stuff note-perfect from the recorded versions this crowd knew well, with details matching down to samples of the recorded background party conversations on “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Weezer didn’t show up to jam or mess around or hawk the new stuff (they didn’t play anything off their new album of originals).
Weezer gave the people what they wanted, which has been working for them lately. The cover songs — inspired by an online fan campaign for a Weezer version of Toto’s “Africa,” the centerpiece of a 2019 all-covers album — are downright irresistible in a live setting like Jazz Aspen. The first notes of “Africa” sent seemingly every cellphone camera in the crowd skyward. Additional covers included a mash-up of the Turtles’ “Happy Together” and Green Day’s “Longview,” Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” A-ha’s “Take on Me” and TLC’s “No Scrubs.”
Cuomo delivered his stage banter and rock star theatrics with the hint of irony that’s always been in Weezer’s DNA, as when he called out with a smirk early on: “Yo, Aspen! You ready for some Weezer rock?” But these cover songs were delivered with utmost sincerity (and the awesome soar of Weezer guitar). These covers are fun, which also has always been a Weezer staple.
The most interesting of the covers, musically, ended up being “No Scrubs,” because the band had to come up with its own rock arrangements for the R&B track and because Cuomo charmingly rapped Chilli’s cocksure verses.
Portugal. The Man singer/guitarist John Gourley, in his band’s hard-charging festival-opening set earlier Friday, praised Weezer lavishly for its mastery of writing bridges, calling them “the best bridges of all time.”
So, it made sense that a climax of Weezer’s set came during “My Name is Jonas,” when Cuomo, bassist Scott Shriner and guitarist Brian Bell posed in rock star formation at center-stage during, yes, the bridge before the final chorus.
For their part, Portugal. The Man — the indie rock stalwarts who have been thrust into pop stardom by the runaway hit “Feel It Still” — opened the festival Friday with a 90-minute set that may have been a shock to casual listeners expecting a dance pop show in the mode of “Feel It Still.” The band kept the guitars up front, a fact they underscored in the running commentary they displayed on the screen behind them (at one point it read, “That’s right, kids. No computers up here. Just live instruments.”) and incorporated more than a little thrash metal into the live versions, along with playful doses of Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and a set-closing “Hey Jude.”
STING’S ASPEN DEBUT
Early in his 95-minute set, Sting admitted with a smirk that he was an “Aspen virgin.” Yes, the legendary frontman for The Police waited until four decades into his reign of pop stardom to come to Aspen, but he delivered what the fans came for Sunday night, closing the festival with a hit parade for a lively sold-out audience.
Opening with “Message in a Bottle,” “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” and “Englishman in New York,” the performance was tight as a drum, honed in an ongoing world tour showcasing his biggest songs both from The Police and his solo career — the greatest hits he recently rearranged and re-recorded for the 2019 album “My Songs.”
Sting is a remarkably well-preserved 67 years old and wears it well, proudly sporting a tight, black T-shirt with cutoff sleeves that exposed his distractingly defined arm muscles. Energetic and engaged, he urged crowd participation throughout with built-in call-and-response passages, hand-claps and a bit of jazz hands. His voice is still a robust instrument, too. Though he occasionally leaned on his backup singers and talked through some lyrics, he hit the higher notes when he reached for them, including that iconic whine in the chorus of “Roxanne.”
He performed with a four-piece band, two singers and a harmonica player, but it was Sting’s show, tirelessly leading the action of center-stage and tapping his battered vintage 1957 bass guitar up through a set-closing run of “Walking on the Moon,” “So Lonely,” “Desert Rose,” “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take.”
It may have been a by-the-numbers greatest hits show, but you don’t go see Sting for new revelations. You go to hear those hits, to belt out “So Lonely” with 10,000 fellow fans, and if — like many Aspen concert-goers you’d never seen him before — to check the experience off your list of rock legends.
Few fans left early from his festival-closing concert, a testament to Sting’s enduring allure. His three-song encore began with “King of Pain” and “Next to You.” Then he quieted things down, saying “It’s my custom to leave a place quiet and thoughtful, so that you can go home quiet and thoughtful,” before ending playing “Fragile” to a hushed crowd.
It may have taken him 40 years of touring to make it to Aspen, but he left the stage with a promise to return: “We shall see you again!”
H.E.R., the recently anointed next big thing in R&B, opened for Sting and played for little more than an hour but left an indelible mark.
The 22-year-old, who earlier this year won the Grammys for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance, hopped from acoustic guitar to electric guitar and bass and keyboards all while delivering the vocal performance of the weekend.
She gave the crowd a stirring take on her Grammy-winning song, “Best Part,” and — in another nod to her versatility — followed it with a short reggae remix. She played some fresh unreleased material, covered Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” and, after spending much of the short set on intimate acoustic ballads, closed by ripping a distortion-heavy electric guitar solo in “Lights On.”
A JOHN MAYER FOR EVERYONE
John Mayer’s headlining set Saturday underscored how the singer and guitarist has improbably drawn fandoms spanning a rare and wide swath.
Playing to a sell-out crowd, under an evening of perfect cool summer mountain weather, Mayer’s 100-minute set had something for everyone. For the Deadhead crowd, there was a powerhouse six-piece band behind him with dual drummers and two backup singers. For his blues fans, there were his virtuosic note-bending guitar solos. For those who came for the ballads, there were sweet renditions of “Daughters” and “Free Fallin’” during an acoustic interlude. And for the Top 40-ers there was a big pop singalong to “Why Georgia.” Even the potheads had their moment with Mayer, as the wafts of smoke rising during his stoner anthem “Who Says” evidenced.
His guitar theatrics were never predictable or repetitive. Sometimes, as in Saturday’s renditions of “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” Mayer veered off into rollicking solo blues jams (the Jazz Aspen video crew did a commendable job of shooting close-ups of his finger work during these guitar passages, giving fans far from the stage a chance to see him at work). But for some of his pop hits, like “Love on the Weekend,” “Dear Marie” and “Why Georgia,” he stuck to the pop star script and skipped the jams. (Varied in tempo and style, the constant among the solos were Mayer’s notoriously dramatic face contortions.)
“It’s weird when you play a festival,” Mayer told the sold-out crowd a few songs in, “because you don’t know who is there for you and who is not there for you.”
One enthusiastic fan immediately tossed her bra on stage to signify she was, in fact, there for Mayer.
A bemused Mayer looked down at the bra and used the moment to lightly touch on his once-controversial and very public past with sex, and to note his maturing reaction to fan underwear arriving onstage. Bras, the 41-year-old noted, have a practical purpose: “Now I’m an older and wiser person and I’m thinking, ‘There is someone out there without support.’”
And for the fans who road-tripped from across western Colorado to the festival from towns with less glitzy names than Aspen, Mayer had a message: I see you. He mentioned that he flew into the Rifle airport and drove across Garfield County and up the Roaring Fork Valley for the show, crossing our stretch of Earth for the first time.
“Every town we passed, from Rifle to Aspen, I Googled it: population as of the 2010 census, chief exports, median income,” he said. “It’s wonderful country, we’re lucky to be here.”
Then Mayer added with a grin: “I’m John. My chief export is feelings, and business is good.”
Preceding Mayer, Luke Combs made his best effort to steal the show with a blistering and tough-to-top rock country throwdown. The 29-year-old newly minted country star laid on the charm, between songs telling the story of his recent meteoric rise from Nashville outsider to his string of six No. 1 singles. He also previewed tracks from a new album due out this fall, he shotgunned a Miller Lite between verses of “One Too Many,” and worked this cowboy-hat-wearing Texas-heavy crowd into a lather with boot-stompers like “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and a cover of Hank Willliams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” and got everybody singing along on his breakout single “Hurricane.”
Combs was backed by a six-man band of Nashville gunslingers and definitely won over some fans with this set, which mixed his humble charm as a storyteller and his blistering take on country rock and drinking songs, sung with a rasp and a twang that he modulated song to song.
The best of it was “Can I Get an Outlaw,” his ode to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and a less slick brand of country. Introducing it, Combs recalled the story of playing three of his future chart-toppers for a record executive who told him he’d never make it in country, given his burly stature and his slightly hard edge.
“He said to me, ‘You gotta write some better songs and nobody is ever going to pay their hard-earned money to hear you play your songs. So you’ve got to give them to somebody else.’ … This song sums up how I felt about that whole situation.”
Another high point of the early acts was the progressive blues bandleader ZZ Ward, who played her best-known song, “Put the Gun Down,” at the outset of her Saturday-opening act and ripped through a performance that wowed the early-arriving crowd.
Ward coyly suggested that fans who liked what they heard should look for an announcement soon from an Aspen music club: “We may be back some time in the fall, I may be hinting at something there.”