Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival provides good vibes, great music
If Jazz Aspen was looking for a portent to its biggest weekend ever, it got a positive one with its Friday night concert.The opening day of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival was marked by two excellent sets of music, good vibes all around, and a venue that was different and unfamiliar, but seemed to work.Gov’t Mule opened the festivities with a satisfying set. Frontman, singer and guitarist Warren Haynes led the four-piece Mule through music that spanned hard rock, classic rock and blues, with jam-band tendencies. Guest bassist Dave Schools was a welcome addition, not only for the attention he brings as a member of popular jam band Widespread Panic, but because he is an exceptional musician. Gov’t Mule’s set was marked by a cover of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said,” and a warm version of “Soulshine,” Haynes’ best-known song.The headlining set by Phil Lesh & Friends was outstanding, and showed why, of all the Grateful Dead successors, the current quintet led by former Dead bassist Lesh is the most popular. The band, playing its first performance in several weeks, showed no signs of rustiness, but a true happiness to be sharing the stage again. The two-set performance leaned heavily toward the upbeat; the opening tune was “Celebration,” the first track from the band’s recent CD, “There and Back Again.”Apart from the uplifting thread that ran through much of the song selection, there was also a clear country-music tilt: songs from the Dead repertoire included “Tennessee Jed,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Dire Wolf,” some of the most countrified tunes from the Dead catalog. Additional highlights were a strong “Uncle John’s Band” ? with Phil & Friends singing tight harmonies that put the Dead’s efforts at group singing to shame ? and “Sugaree,” with Warren Haynes (a member of Phil & Friends as well as Gov’t Mule) reinterpreting the lead vocals.Day two of the festival, while not as strong as the opening evening, was no disappointment. Soul singer Macy Gray, making her Aspen debut, turned the crowd on, even if her sound was predictably lacking in subtleties. G. Love & Special Sauce, making a second straight Labor Day appearance, brought their usual charming mix of blues and hip-hop, Love’s goofy appeal and solid musicianship. Opening act the Dirty Dozen Brass Band featured just six members, a player or two down from the usual, and seemed to lose something with the deletion.The Labor Day Festival concludes today with an acoustic music lineup that includes Willie Nelson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Nickel Creek and the Railbenders.Those who have paid proper attention to Nickel Creek should have known to expect some surprises when the band released its second album.For one thing, Nickel Creek is made up of three young musicians ? mandolinist Chris Thile and fiddler Sara Watkins, both 21, and guitarist Sean Watkins, 25, Sara’s brother ? who were still developing as artists and absorbing influences. The band would regularly declare that their influences were not limited to bluegrass, as their eponymous, 2000 debut might suggest. Both Thile and Sean Watkins released solo albums that showed other directions in the music: Thile’s “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” was a virtuoso, all-instrumental effort that embraced classical, jazz and newgrass; Watkins’ “Let it Fall” explored the vast world of acoustic sounds. But even those closely following Nickel Creek could not have predicted the music on “This Side,” the band’s second CD, released last month. Apart from the opening instrumental track, “Smoothie Song,” there is almost no bluegrasslike jamming. There is an emphasis on singing, but it is singing that comes out of the pop style; there is little connection to the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass. The second track is a cover of hard-rock band Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger.” And while the album is all acoustic, several tunes ? the bluesy “I Should’ve Known Better,” with string arrangements out of Bartk; and “Spit on a Stranger,” with effects reminiscent of the Beatles’ White Album ? show the use of studio technology.”This Side” is a different side for those expecting Nickel Creek to fulfill the role of the next great bluegrass band. The new album ? produced by singer-fiddler Alison Krauss, who also produced Nickel Creek’s first CD ? comes across as adventurous, sophisticated pop that happens to be played on bluegrass instruments.”I think it will come as a surprise to a lot of people,” said Sean Watkins, who has been playing with Sara and Thile since the three were kids, brought to San Diego bluegrass jams by their parents. “But not to the people who have seen us the last few months. It has the same energy, but in a more controlled way, using different methods. You can’t expect a band to stay the same, especially a band that strives to be better.”The early Nickel Creek sound won over many fans. The debut album has sold over 700,000 copies, a staggering number in the acoustic world. Watkins said that, though “This Side” is going to shock a lot of ears, often the music that takes the most getting used to turns out to be the most enduring.”Some of my favorite music now is music I couldn’t listen to when I first heard it ? Eliott Smith, the new Radiohead records,” said Watkins. “A lot of CDs I don’t necessarily like at first, but they have more longevity because they take me to a new place. They stretch me. The ones I frequent are the ones that stretch me. We’re hoping that’s how it is with people. We wanted to make a serious musical record, with serious thought behind it.”Such stretching involved a balance between the audience’s expectations and the band’s desires. In the end, though, Watkins said Nickel Creek is a band determined to set its own path, trusting that the audience would come along.”We could have done a record that sounded like the last one, something that most people wanted,” he said. “But you do that and you lose your personal musical identity. That’s something that Alison Krauss really impressed upon us ? personal musical integrity over what people want from you. It’s that musical integrity that produced the first album.”Watkins noted that it sometimes takes an effort to step away from one’s past, especially when the past has been so successful, and some have a strong interest in seeing that the success continues.”We try to banish those kind of thoughts in the studio and make something that represents where we are,” he said. “You have to think about your audience ? you don’t want to be jaded. But when you’re steeped in the business side, you get a lot of people telling you what kind of music you should play. And you do have to kind of shut that out.”That urge to push forward and stay true to oneself is at the heart of the title track to “This Side,” written by Watkins. “You dream of colors that have never been made/You imagine songs that have never been played …/It’s foreign on this side,” sings Watkins.”It’s about facing a change in your life,” he explained. “I used the movie ‘The Matrix’ as a template for it. It’s about being in a different place all of a sudden and not immediately liking it, but gradually enjoying where you are. I was thinking about a person’s relationship to truth ? how you realize you may have a skewed sense of truth, and in the end, you’re in love with this new realm.”Watkins believes that “This Side” will attract a new segment of listeners beyond the bluegrass fans. “That’s not the whole audience that we want,” he said. “It’s not like all of America is saying, ‘Whoa, here comes the next great bluegrass band.’ We’re looking for people who want quality of music, regardless of genre.”We love the fact that we’re turning people on to bluegrass. But it’s not our mission.”As expansive as Nickel Creek’s sound has become, there are still other musical ideas for the members to work out. Thile, in particular, has become noted outside of Nickel Creek, playing duet gigs with banjoist Bla Fleck, for example, at this summer’s Rockygrass festival. Watkins, too, has a solo career going: in addition to last year’s “Let it Fall,” Watkins has completed another solo CD, set for release early next year. The new album features saxophone bassoon, keyboards and drums, and Watkins said it is vastly different from his first solo effort.”It kind of makes us feel like individual musicians,” said Watkins, whose Nickel Creek schedule has kept him from doing any solo touring. “People get involved with bands and they start to feel as if they’re part of a machine. With Nickel Creek, it’s easy to be individual musicians, but the solo stuff is a great place to put extra energy. It makes us feel like three separate musicians, who don’t need the band to survive.”The Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival closes today at the base of Buttermilk Mountain. Opening the program at noon are the Railbenders, followed by Nickel Creek at 2 p.m., the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at 4:15 p.m., and Willie Nelson at 6:30 p.m.[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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