Labor Day Festival a five-night frenzy
September 5, 2005
Kenny Loggins, in a recent interview with The Aspen Times, said that his summer-long reunion with Jim Messina, after a 30-year absence of the ’70s duo Loggins & Messina, was not foremost about the music. It was about friendship and nostalgia and reliving the glory days, and not about making a fresh artistic statement.Multi-day festivals can be like that, too. Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival encompasses lots of things beside the music: drinking beer, enjoying the weather, hooking up with friends, sampling festival food, even shopping and letting the kids get their faces painted. But for those concentrating on the music, this year’s Labor Day Festival, which closed Monday, offered an unsurpassed five nights of joy. The Labor Day Festival has hit a level where even the little-known acts on the third stage are infinitely worth the walk to the far side of the Vendor Village.
Even before the music began to crank on the main stage, fans were getting a taste of something they won’t likely forget. Kan’Nal, a Colorado band that takes its inspiration from Mayan culture, turned their Village Stage set into a sideshow of the exotic, featuring women dancing while holding animal horns above their heads. The performance wasn’t just about visual gimmicks; with instruments like the didgeridoo creating a tribal vibe, and frontman Tzol singing very unfamiliar lyrics, the show was frequently described as a “trip.”The main-stage attractions couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, as rocker Jerry Joseph put on a display of songwriting chops and tight group dynamics. South African Johnny Clegg couldn’t match Joseph, though Clegg’s music, a mix of Zulu and rock elements, was pleasant and uplifting.Georgia’s Widespread Panic, which caused no small amount of prefestival anticipation, came out jamming; the band’s first-set opener, “Rebirtha,” lasted a good 15 minutes of ecstatic jams and quiet passages. That set the mood for the three-plus-hour show, which was longer on driving grooves than on tight songs. The encore featured three tunes – “Old Joe,” “Bayou Lena” and “Fishwater” – all with New Orleans references.
Friday opened with deSoL, making its Jazz Aspen debut, but its third Aspen appearance of the summer. The New Jersey septet’s Latin-accented rock, with songs mixing English and Spanish lyrics, were reminiscent of Santana – a connection made stronger when the band closed its set with “Oye Como Va,” a Tito Puente song Santana popularized. New Orleans funk-jazz band Galactic made explicit mention of the dire situation in its hometown. But instead of being dragged down by it, the group, especially saxophonist and harmonica player Ben Ellman, poured its energy into the music.The second night of Widespread seemed the flip side of the first, with songs given more precise structures. Set one ended with a pair of crowd favorites: the wonderful “Tall Boy,” and Jerry Joseph’s “Climb to Safety.” Set two closed with “Porch Song” – about as much of an anthem as Widespread has – and the encore featured a cover of War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” The diehards among the massive audience seemed in agreement that the show was a strong one.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard and his quasi-acoustic combo had no trouble at all making themselves heard, a tribute to the sound system. Blanchard, a New Orleans native, provided one of the weekend’s finest emotional moments with a moving, meditative piece in tribute to the birthplace of jazz. Joan Osborne covered all sorts of terrain: covers of Dylan (“To Make You Feel My Love”), the Dead (“Sugaree”), Dolly Parton (“Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”) and Motown (a “A How Sweet It Is” that added an edge to the sweetness), and her own tunes, old and new. Osborne’s voice, soulful and relaxed, made all the material sound like nothing but her own.Aphrodesia, a San Francisco band playing Afropop music, took advantage of the short rainfall between sets, getting a packed house in the Janus Music Tent. Those expecting to see a band in African-type garb were amused to see a nine-piece band in American stars and stripes. But the band did deliver the politically motivated African beats.
As for Loggins & Messina, they did try hard to make it all about yesteryear, playing virtually nothing but songs from their six-year run as a duo. But their band was sharp, Loggins was in great shape vocally, and the two-hour show never had the feel of a cheesy, tired reunion.If anyone showed that an aging rocker could pull out all the old, familiar tunes and breathe them completely back to life, it was Sunday night’s headliner, John Fogerty. Taking the stage with the energy of a Bruce Springsteen, Fogerty ripped through his Creedence Clearwater Revival hits in a manner that made it irrelevant whether this was 1968 or 2005. Fogerty didn’t make songs like “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and “Run Through the Jungle” about politics; his only speech about war, current and past, was a brief one just before his recent hit, “Deja Vu All Over Again.” Instead, the songs were about the songs – four-chord rockers with plenty of rootsy guitar leads distributed amongst the four guitarists. With drummer John Molo driving, and Fogerty playing against his reputation for crankiness, it was not only a weekend highlight, but one that Jazz Aspen will be deservedly touting in its promotional literature. Surprises can be great, but as a friend noted of Fogerty, it’s nice when someone gives you exactly what you want.Willie Nelson’s set also offered up just what you’d expect, including “Whiskey River” to open and close, and hits like “Georgia on My Mind.” But after Fogerty, Nelson’s laid-back appeal seemed appropriate only as a warm-up.
Yesterday began promising, with a wonderful groove set, spiced with Afro-Cuban rhythms, by Colorado’s Motet. But the fireworks gave out a few hours early, when African reggae singer Alpha Blondy, who had taken the stage 45 minutes late, announced after a few songs that his weakened voice would not allow him to continue. His band soldiered on, but the set disappointed. The weekend’s final act, British reggae singer Maxi Priest, didn’t lack for enthusiasm, but his pop style of reggae was not the thunderous conclusion this festival deserved.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org