Labor Day Festival have you frazzled? Fret not.
Steve Miller hasn’t put out a record of new material in a decade. That weird David Byrne has been doing weird things with strings and Brazilian music. Lyle Lovett almost got killed by a bull. Sure, Lucinda Williams is on a CD run that beats the heck out of anybody else around now, but isn’t she a little less-than-scintillating onstage?So of course you’re confused, wading through the schedule for Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival. Not to worry. Stewy’s been doing the legwork for you, scouting out the latest on all the acts. Here’s everything you need to know. (And keep in mind my track record: Last year, I predicted Neil Young to be the best show at the fest; he was. And at the bottom of my list was Bo Diddley, whose brief, lame set justified my call.)1. Lucinda Williams, Monday, Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m.My reports on Lucinda Williams’ live shows range from righteous to horrendous. The views of her personality go from obnoxious drunk to tortured, misunderstood poetess.None of that matters to me in the least. Based on her last three albums – the folky “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the mellow “Essence” and last year’s raw, rocking “World Without Tears” – Williams is the reigning queen of pain, turning her heartache into vivid emotion and poetry. Combine that with the fact that I’ve never seen her – this is her Aspen debut – and I’ve got to see for myself. This is the one not to miss.2. Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Monday, Sept. 6, 2 p.m.Four years ago, Robert Randolph was avoiding trouble in his harsh hometown of Irvington, N.J., by playing pedal steel guitar in his local House of God church. This summer, he’s been hanging with a different god: Eric Clapton, for whom Randolph has opened a series of arena shows. Each night, Randolph has jammed on a few songs with Clapton.Randolph started out playing a gospel style known as sacred steel. But as last year’s CD “Unclassified” shows, the music is as filled with the spirits of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan as with the Holy Ghost.
3. David Byrne, Saturday, Sept. 4, 4:15 p.m.Based solely on his leadership of Talking Heads, the seminal ’70s New York art band, David Byrne would be a must-see. Throw in the inventive solo work he’s done since, such as his recent string-infused “Grown Backwards,” and I’m even more intrigued.But here’s the kicker: A bunch of friends went to this summer’s Bonnaroo festival. With the likes of Trey Anastasio, String Cheese Incident, Bob Dylan and the Dead on the bill, not one of them traveled to Tennessee to see Byrne. Yet it was unanimous among them that the best thing at Bonnaroo was the former Talking Head, who was joined, as he will be in Snowmass, by the Tosca Strings.4. Jack Johnson, Friday, Sept. 3, 8:30 p.m.Listening to a steady diet of Hawaiian singer-songwriter Jack Johnson lately, I’m convinced there is a subtle depth to his laid-back, acoustic surf-rock. On the other hand, I could easily see his mellowness verging on the comatose. At the very least, there should be some interesting onstage collaborations here. Johnson appears with his friends, label mates and current touring partners G. Love and Donavon Frankenreiter.5. Steve Miller Band, Sunday, Sept. 5, 6:30 p.m.A week ago, Steve Miller would have been a few notches down the list. But during an hour-long phone conversation, the funny and engaging Miller gave me plenty of reason to think he’s more than a bunch of 30-year-old hit songs. Miller – a mountain guy who lives in Ketchum, Idaho, and favors skate-skiing – throws Coltrane and old blues into his set, which will feature saxophonist John Handy. And even if his show does amount to a nostalgic hit-fest, I won’t have to stand around waiting for that one worthwhile tune. Miller’s got plenty of them in his repertoire.6. Lyle Lovett, Sunday, Sept. 5, 4:15 p.m.
Lyle Lovett, once an Aspen regular, hasn’t visited since his 2002 encounter with a charging bull that left the iconic Texas singer-songwriter with multiple fractures to his right leg. Lovett’s musical chops seem to have survived the incident; last year’s “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” was up to his high standards. And here’s a twist: Lovett, who has appeared here with his Large Band, small combos, medium-size groups – and two memorable occasions with just a percussionist at the tiny, old Howling Wolf – will bring a 35-voice chorus to the Labor Day gig.Some things, alas, never change. Lyle wouldn’t grant me an interview. Yet again.7. G. Love & Special Sauce, Friday, Sept. 3, 7 p.m.G. Love, who has successfully fused hip-hop and folk blues (along with country, reggae, rock and more), has been a hit in two recent Labor Day appearances. There’s a good chance G. and the two-piece Special Sauce will be better than ever this time around. Their new album “The Hustle,” released this week, finds them as good as and more expansive than ever. Love is newly signed to his buddy Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label, ending his difficulties with major-label land. And he’s touring in the company of Johnson and Donavon Frankenreiter, which should make for a good time.8. Cake, Monday, Sept. 6, 4:15 p.m.About all I know of Cake is the music on “Pressure Chief,” their forthcoming album due Oct. 4. I somehow missed the first four albums from this central California pop-rock quartet, including 1996’s platinum “Fashion Nugget”; I have yet to hear anything about them as a live act. On “Pressure Chief,” the music is part mechanical, part organic, slightly goofy and, thanks to the offbeat vocals and lyrics of frontman John McCrea, unique. I’m reminded slightly of Talking Heads.9. Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2 p.m.British-born, New Orleans-based singer-keyboardist-guitarist Jon Cleary has appeared at the Labor Day Festival before, as Bonnie Raitt’s bandleader. Cleary’s recent album with his own band, “Pin Your Spin,” modernizes traditional r & b with contemporary grooves and a smooth touch.
10. Sheryl Crow, Saturday, Sept. 4, 6:30 p.m.In the time since Sheryl Crow made her first Aspen appearance – a free show at the Double Diamond in 1994, just before her debut, “Tuesday Night Music Club” blew her up into a rock star – I haven’t been moved to seek out one of her albums, attend a show or keep in mind what her subsequent radio songs have been. I once heard her version of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” on the radio, and could not believe how completely she drained all the ominous weight out of the latter-day Dylan masterwork. How Crow gets to be a bigger star than Lucinda Williams shows how screwed-up our collective taste is.11. Donavon Frankenreiter, Friday, Sept. 3, 6 p.m.Donavon Frankenreiter grew up learning to play music with Jack Johnson, records for Johnson’s label, and used Johnson’s studio for his self-titled debut CD, which was produced by Johnson and features the single “Free,” a duo with Johnson and co-written by Johnson. So is it any wonder that Frankenreiter sounds just like Johnson?That tidbit aside, Frankenreiter’s CD is a nice listen. If you like Jack Johnson’s music, that is.12. BR549, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2 p.m.At least on their recent CD “Tangled in the Pines,” BR549 plays hokey, retro country swing. There’s a 5 percent chance of me getting to the festival on time to see their show; assuming I do, I give a 10 percent chance of being significantly impressed by their live show. Bad odds.
And that’s just the main-stage stuff. Fret not; I have opinions about the JAS After Dark series.Two main-stage acts are featured in JAS After Dark shows: Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen are in the Silvertree Hotel’s Cabaret Room Sunday, Sept. 5, and Robert Randolph’s show that night in the Snowmass Conference Center should be an absolute monster.The pick of the rest are the subdudes, who play Saturday, Sept. 4, in the Cabaret Room, and Soulive, set for the same night in the Conference Center. The subdudes, who went subterranean for several years, returned to the stage two years ago and seemed to be in good form. Earlier this year, the acoustic soul-rock band with roots in New Orleans and Colorado released “Miracle Mule,” their first post-split CD, and it proved that their sound and soul is intact.Soulive, a modern groove trio from New York, played the Labor Day main stage in 2001. Soulive separates itself from most jazz trios by featuring two powerful soloists, organist Neal Evans and Eric Krasno, with drummer Alan Evans holding down the rhythm.New York funk-rock octet Deep Banana Blackout, which plays the Conference Center on Friday, Sept. 3, is also returning from the abyss. The band, formed in 1997, took a hiatus in the early ’00s; this show, the last of a handful of summer dates, has sometimes been billed as a reunion gig.Assembly of Dust, a Vermont jam-rock band led by singer-songwriter Reid Genauer, is set for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 4-5, at the Mountain Dragon. Animal Liberation Orchestra, a jam-funk quartet from San Francisco, makes its area debut with gigs Friday and Saturday, Sept. 3-4, at the Blue Door. Hot Buttered Rum, a progressive string band from California, plays Friday, Sept. 3, at the Mountain Dragon. Jazz-groove outfit Topaz is at the Blue Door on Sunday, Sept. 5.Jazz Aspen’s 10th annual Labor Day Festival runs Sept. 3-6 in Snowmass Village, with a main stage in Snowmass Town Park. Tickets are available at the Wheeler Opera House box office by calling 1-866-JAS-TIXX (527-8499) or by going to http://www.jazzaspen.orgStewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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