Mack Bailey, Belly Up speak to the power of music
At times, Aspen can seem like the crossroads of the world. No doubt it seems that way to singer-songwriter Mack Bailey.The first music to make the native North Carolinian’s ears stand up and take notice was the folk songs of Aspenite John Denver. It was Denver’s early hits, like “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders” that made Bailey, as a 10-year-old, pick up the guitar.Some 15 years later, in 1985, Bailey was first brought to Aspen by his friend and fellow East Coast musician, Kenn Roberts, for a ski trip. Roberts was a member of the Hard Travelers, a band that had just reunited after several years on the sidelines. On the Snowmass Village mall, Roberts asked Bailey if he liked the band. Sure, answered Bailey, a bit suspicious of the question. Roberts stuck out his thumb, which had been injured in a skiing accident. Bailey took over as the guitarist for the Hard Travelers, and remains a part of the group today.Last January, Bailey was drafted to become the tenor in the long-running, internationally recognized folk trio the Limeliters. The Limeliters trace their roots to the Aspen of the late ’50s, where original tenor Glenn Yarbrough and founding and current member Alex Hassilev owned the Limelite lodge and sang in the lodge’s club.
“I guess all roads do at least go through Aspen,” said the 44-year-old Bailey.Bailey has been a frequent musical presence here. Last fall, he appeared with the Fabulous Limeliters at the Wheeler Opera House. Each year since John Denver’s 1997 death, Bailey has been among the friends and bandmates of the late singer who gather at the Wheeler to pay tribute to Denver in performances that raise money for Challenge Aspen. Bailey has also performed locally with the Hard Travelers and with his own band, in an opening gig for Yarbrough on Snowmass’ Fanny Hill.This week, local audiences will get a different side of Bailey. He appears as a solo act on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at Main Street Bakery, and Friday, Feb. 11, at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale.While his career is split between the Hard Travelers, the Limeliters, solo recordings and performances, as well as his day job as a music therapist for ailing children and Alzheimer’s patients, Bailey says his primary inspiration comes from one source: John Denver. Bailey recalls hearing Denver in 1969, and being inspired to learn every song on every new album.”It was something about his sound that was so pure, so honest,” said Bailey. “The thing that really drove me to him was how he did a whole lot, but didn’t do anything fancy. Just adding a note, a different chord. He made the guitar sound like the instrument I wanted to play. Every new song back in those years had something new.”Bailey has accomplished much since those days of driving his mother crazy, repeatedly playing the same songs ad nauseam. He’s got five solo CDs to his credit and a duo CD with singer Mollie Weaver. Bailey has sung the national anthem multiple times at both Baltimore Orioles and Washington Capitals games. And just a few weeks before Denver’s death, Bailey traded verses with his hero on “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy” (a song written, of course, by Aspenite John Sommers). But the original influence hasn’t faded.”I’ve definitely built on what I learned from him,” said Bailey, who has also recorded three tributes CD of Denver’s music and has toured with the Musical Tribute to John Denver show. “I’ve learned more and more that the music speaks for itself; you don’t have to be afraid to let the music bring out emotions. And to write words that mean something. Don’t put words together just for a catchy phrase.”
Bailey seems to have also been influenced by Denver’s ideal of using music to do good in the world. Bailey is involved with a variety of medical and environmental causes. But he says he doesn’t need to focus his attention on making music for good ends. The music takes care of that on its own.”I realize the power music has,” he said. “If I’m feeling as low as I can get, and I play music and it lifts me 6 feet off the ground, other people have got to feel that way too. If I’m giving back, that’s fine. But music is a powerful thing, and I feel blessed to have it in my life.”So now Aspen can wear its crown as Ski Country’s king of nightlife without having to blush. The late-night component of last weekend’s X Games rocked the town, hard. A crowd estimated at perhaps 10,000 (my rational mind says no way) turned up to see hip-hop band The Roots in Wagner Park Saturday night; a more modest several thousand turned out for Ozomatli the night before. Bars ran out of beer.
Sure, the X Games can be seen as an imported, one-weekend-only event put on primarily by ESPN and thus having little to do with Aspen’s ability to rage without outside assistance. But that overlooks the really big news of last weekend – yes, bigger even than what may have been the biggest concert ever in Aspen.With the Belly Up, which miraculously opened on time for the X Games, Aspen not only has the live-music club it has been lacking for a year and a half, it may have one of the finest music venues of its kind – anywhere. Of course, music venues are built over time. More important for a club’s reputation than the sound system or the dance floor are the acts and crowds, the memories accumulated over years. The Double Diamond wasn’t beloved because of the plush accommodations, but because people saw the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, the Funky Meters, Sonia Dada, Barenaked Ladies and Jimmy Cliff there.The Belly Up, however, has every possible thing going for it. The sound and lights are mind-boggling; the hardwood decor is visually appealing without being fancy; the dance floor is bigger and lower than in the Double D days. Owner Michael Goldberg’s connections in various realms are impressive. In Steve Weiss, the Belly Up has a veteran talent buyer. Before coming to Aspen, Weiss had spent seven years as concert promoter for the Historic Theater Group in Minneapolis, an outfit that ran three good-size theaters – the 2,600-seat Orpheum, the 2,100-seat State and the 1,000-seat Pantages – and reached out to promote shows in Wisconsin and Iowa.Lady luck also seems to be on the side of the Belly Up. When the operators were dreaming about who they’d like to see on the stage, two of the first names they hit on were G. Love & Special Sauce and The Roots. The club’s opening weekend featured a private party headlined by The Roots, and a benefit concert, open to the public, with music by G. Love & Special Sauce.The Belly Up becomes stand-up central for the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Wednesday through Saturday, Feb. 9-12. And the club should be rolling out its late-February through March calendar – typically, the high season for Rocky Mountain touring – any moment now.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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