One sour note in three rockin’ days
SNOWMASS VILLAGE Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival kicked off on a near-perfect note Friday night. After a short, mild rainfall that delayed the start of the music by a few minutes, the precipitation ended and, as though orchestrated, a rainbow – then a double rainbow – appeared over Snowmass Village. Nickel Creek’s set came off under ideal skies, a promising opening to one of the most highly anticipated weekends in Jazz Aspen’s 18-year history. Over the next few days, that promise was fulfilled, as big crowds were treated to high-energy, satisfying sets.If the weather gods were truly coordinating with the festival, the rainbow might have waited until after Nickel Creek’s appearance. Through the first three days of the four-day event, the acoustic combo was the lone disappointment. The group – led by the trio of Chris Thile, and brother-and-sister pickers Sean and Sara Watkins – announced its break-up a full year ago, and it was apparent in their stiff camaraderie that they are playing out the string. Their talent, especially of Thile, whose touch on the mandolin is magical, made for some nice musical moments, but didn’t compensate for the lack of spirit.
Compare that with Friday night headliner Ben Harper, whose brand of bluesy rock was consistently packed with soul. Harper, a potent lap slide player, clearly gained energy from his band, the Innocent Criminals, with members taking their turn in the spotlight.Galactic, the opening act on Saturday, demonstrated its ability to move as a unit by effectively changing stylistic course. The New Orleans instrumental groove band last week released “From the Corner to the Block,” an album packed with guest rappers and DJs. The band brought two of them, Gift of Gab and Boots Riley, along with them, and the synergy between live band and hip-hop vocalists made for a dynamic set.Joss Stone, the lone act of the weekend making a local debut, was a hit with the crowd before she even sang a note. The 20-year-old Brit appeared in a lavender, brown and white mini-dress, with purple streaks in her hair to match, and her band members all wore coordinated shades of purple. When Stone let lose with her big, soulful voice and charming personality, the affection for her was sealed. Headliner John Legend demonstrated that, in the two years since he made his valley debut – a time that has seen him go from able sideman to multiple Grammy-winner – his stage presence has multiplied several times over.
All this felt like prelude to Sunday, whose lineup of favorites – the Allman Brothers Band, Michael Franti & Spearhead and Leftover Salmon – drew a massive crowd.Leftover Salmon proved that a band’s fragility offstage didn’t necessarily translate to onstage malaise. The Colorado group had taken a two-year break before announcing they would do a handful of festival dates this summer. The last of these turned out to be more a celebration than an elegy, as the sextet burned through their fast-paced mix of bluegrass and rock.The politically focused singer Michael Franti seemed in a particularly upbeat mood, using his songs and infectious presence to uplift and unite the crowd. His songs, while illuminating the world’s problems, from war to corruption, emphasized instead the people’s power to do something about those ills.
Finally came the Allman Brothers, whose Southern rock turned out to be the fire-breathing creature the crowd had anticipated. The nearly 40-year-old band has been rejuvenated by the young guitarist Derek Trucks, and the relatively youthful singer-guitarist Warren Haynes, who worked in tandem to dominate the show. Band founder, singer-keyboardist Gregg Allman, got plenty of time at the microphone, and a four-piece percussion segment – with bassist Oteil Burbridge joining in with the band’s three full-time drummers – was a highlight. But it was the dueling guitarists driving the band through staples like “Mountain Jam” and a tasty take on Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me.” And when guest saxophonist Ron Holloway stepped in on the blues classic “The Same Thing,” it became apparent that the Allmans are a band not merely basking in old glory, but still listening, inventing and pushing.The Labor Day Festival was set to conclude Monday with two side projects led respectively by the Allmans guitarists – Haynes’ Gov’t Mule, and the Soul Stew Revival, fronted by Trucks and his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi – and opening act, 26-year-old singer-songwriter Jackie Greene.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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