Labor Day hot picks Who to see, who to skip (nobody)
August 21, 2007
So, you didn’t know that Galactic, the New Orleans funk-jazz band, had re-emerged as a hip-hop outfit? You didn’t know that Nickel Creek, one of the best and most popular groups in acoustic music, had announced their breakup?Weren’t aware that one of the most prominent bands in Colorado music history could be making its farewell appearance in Snowmass Village?Bet you can’t guess the latest field that Michael Franti – musician, poet, filmmaker, activist – has broken into?And I’m sure you weren’t aware that a member of Phil Lesh & Friends, who released one of the best CDs of 2006 and is just 26 years old, is on the bill for Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival?Admit it, you’re going into this most anticipated of musical weekends blind. Sure, you know the Allman Brothers are playing – but do you know who is in the Allmans these days? (Hint: One of the surviving founding guitarists is not; his bros gave him the boot seven years ago.) Do you know anything the Allmans have done since 1973’s “Brothers and Sisters”?Fret not, my less-than-perfectly-obsessive companions. Stewy is here obsessing for you, ready and willing to lead you through the darkness and into the light of what might be the biggest weekend in Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ 18-year history. I’ll give you the latest on Ben Harper and Joss Stone, let you know who not to miss, who is worth schlepping your “tuchis” across the festival grounds to see in the JAS Village Stage, and who it is OK to skip. Let’s address that last one first: Don’t skip anybody. This is Jazz Aspen’s most crowd-pleasing lineup to date. There are no weak links on the main stage. But given these crazy times, what with iPhones and webcasts competing for our attention, it’s necessary to prioritize. So it’s Stewy to the rescue again. Following is the slate of Labor Day Fest main-stage acts, in order of how important it is to see them, from one (ditch your family and risk a lifetime of future therapy appointments to see it) to 11 (sell your blood to a blood bank to raise ticket money. Hey, I told you this was a strong lineup).
The Allman Brothers have had tremendous highs (the early years, when Duane Allman was still alive and making his reputation as a supreme rock ‘n’ roll guitarist) and pitiful lows (much of the ’70s and ’80s, when the band was either broken up or should have been).Consider this one of the better times. The Bros – with three original members, including one Allman, Gregg, on vocals and keyboards – were reawakened in the late ’80s with the addition of singer-guitarist Warren Haynes. A decade later, they received another infusion of young blood with guitarist Derek Trucks (nephew of founding drummer Butch Trucks), who has taken over a leadership position in recent years. The band’s latest CD of new material, 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note,” is a worthy addition, but as in the glory days, the magic is made onstage.Fun fact: The Allmans placed an insane four guitarists in Rolling Stones’ 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Duane was No. 2; Haynes, 23; Dickey Betts, 58; and Trucks, 81.
I once asked Michael Franti, the charismatic 6-foot-6 singer, poet and activist who also goes by Spearhead, if pushing his political agenda (anti-death penalty, anti-war, pro-marijuana) got in the way of having fun onstage. (In my defense, this was before I had seen him perform.) Franti laughed.You don’t have to be an anti-Bush lefty to have a good time with Franti. While he doesn’t shy away from politics – his finest recording, 2001’s “Stay Human,” was a concept album about capital punishment – Franti’s concerts are more a dance-filled celebration of peace and humanity, with groove to spare.Franti, who made the 2005 film “I Know I’m Not Alone,” documenting his visits to Iraq, Israel and Palestine, is now the author of the children’s book “What I Be,” about self-acceptance. Franti connects with kids as well as with adults; he is the only rock musician my 8-year-old daughter has ever shown deep interest in. She’ll probably kick me for ranking him as low as second here.
A British, Jewish, hippie, vegetarian, dope-smoking soul singer who broke through at the age of 16, channeling Aretha Franklin and the Jackson 5? And she has an eccentric side to boot – Stone’s stumbling appearance at the 2007 Brit Awards, where she spoke in a fake L.A. accent, was just the start of the fodder she has produced for the London tabloids.At the age of 20, Stone has already found the need to make a new start; her new album is “Introducing Joss Stone,” with a theme of recovery. It doesn’t hurt that Stone, known for performing barefoot with a flamboyant wardrobe, should be the most photo-friendly artist of the weekend, or that she is the lone main-stage artist to be making her area debut.
The family that stays together, plays together. Trucks and Tedeschi, who married in 2001 and have two kids, were both moving in the direction of old-school soul music. Tedeschi, a blues singer-guitarist, went the spiritual soul route on 2005’s “Hope and Desire”; the next year, singer Mike Mattison joined the Derek Trucks Band, and the group released “Songlines,” an album influenced by soul stars Donny Hathaway and Solomon Burke (as well as avant-jazz icon Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the Pakistani “qwaali” style. So to continue exploring the soul track – and to expand the family’s quality time – they formed Soul Stew Revival, and dug into the repertoire of Aaron Neville, Delaney & Bonnie, Jackie Wilson and their own additions to the repertoire.
The headlining slot on Monday has usually been reserved for a reggae act; artists filling the spot in the past include Burning Spear, Alpha Blondy and, last year, Matisyahu. The tradition continues as the festival closes with Gov’t Mule.OK, Gov’t Mule’s blessings to Jah come through a hard-rock, extended-jam filter. But the quartet, led by the praiseworthy singer-guitarist Warren Haynes, has added a big ol’ bag of reggae to its mix. Last year’s show at Belly Up included not only a long cover of Bob Marley’s Lively Up Yourself,” but also Jamaican flourishes on much of their own material. This fall, Gov’t Mule will release the EP “Mighty High,” a full-on reggae recording including dub remixes of several songs.
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Galactic, too, has undergone a stylistic makeover, from New Orleans groove-jazz band to hip-hop outfit. “From the Corner to the Block,” released last week, has the instrumental quintet joined by a roster of rappers and MCs, including Chali 2Na from Jurassic 5, and Juvenile, who shares a New Orleans address with Galactic. The Snowmass show features two guests who appear on the CD: Boots Riley from the Coup, and Gift of Gab from Blackalicious.
Harper, a passionate singer and blistering musician on a variety of guitars – especially the lap slide – had a minor lapse in productivity a few years ago. That slide is over. Last year, he released the ambitious two-CD set “Both Sides of the Gun” – but apparently he had some bullets left. This week sees the release of “Lifeline,” the most acoustic, bluesy and rootsy album he has made in more than a decade.8. Nickel Creek, Friday, Aug. 31, at 6 p.m.Since they were little kids playing bluegrass in a San Diego pizza parlor, Nickel Creek has picked up enough fans to make them one of the most successful acoustic combos of all time. So it seemed a nice touch to give plenty of notice of their impending hiatus. But 15 months of advance warning has to be a record. This time a year ago, the trio decided it would pursue separate projects; meanwhile, they’re still touring, with dates through late November.Guitarist Sean Watkins has said he wants to score for films. Fiddler Sara Watkins aims to release her first solo album later this year. And mandolin monster Chris Thile got a jump on his post-Nickel Creek era by releasing the bluegrassy “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground” last year, and touring with the group that made the album as the Tensions Mountain Boys. He also has a classical-leaning album due out next year with bassist Edgar Meyer.
Over several albums, Sacramento’s Jackie Greene was proving himself a noteworthy singer-songwriter. Last year’s “American Myth” made my top-10 list and drew comparisons to Bob Dylan. None of which prepared fans for his next step – into the realm of the Grateful Dead, as a member of former Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil & Friends. The 26-year-old Greene’s handful of shows with Lesh have drawn positive comments, and Greene, who plays guitar and keyboards, is signed up as a “Friend” – a spot previously held by Warren Haynes, Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring, and Phish’s Trey Anastasio – through the fall tour.Funny, he doesn’t look like an aging hippie.
The Labor Day Festival audience might be the last ones to hear the live strains of “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.” Colorado’s Leftover Salmon, which invented that unique blend of bluegrass, zydeco, rock and more, went on hiatus in early 2005, after 17 years of hard touring. This summer the band, still led by string champion Drew Emmitt and guitarist Vince Herman, emerged for a handful of festival dates. But in a recent interview, Herman said that while the reunion shows had gone well, Salmon’s future was uncertain, and the end might be as near as next week. It would bring a close to an important chapter in Colorado music history. Leftover Salmon, which was born on the stage of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, played a significant role in making bluegrass an indispensable component of the jam-band world. The band was always linked to the Roaring Fork Valley, having played gigs here from the Carbondale Mountain Fair to the Wheeler Opera House to the old Double Diamond.11. John Legend, Saturday, Sept. 1, at 7 p.m.After working as a pianist and producer for the likes of Alicia Keys and Kanye West, John Legend surfaced as an R&B singer with 2005’s Grammy-winning “Get Lifted.” He proved no fluke as last year’s “Once Again” earned a few more trophies. But the Grammy voters are an easier-to-please lot than I am. His first Aspen appearance, two years ago at an Après-X concert, didn’t captivate me. He seemed like more of a studio guy.On the other hand, Legend is an obviously talented guy, with a lot of skills – hip-hop and soul-pop, keys and vocals – in his arsenal.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org