Review: A winning weekend for Jazz Aspen Snowmass
September 5, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Going into its Labor Day Festival, Jazz Aspen Snowmass looked as if it were engaging in some risky behavior. A featured act whose primary influences are flamenco and metal, a Friday night devoted to electronic-oriented music, a band Saturday whose heyday came some two decades before Friday night’s target audience was even born, and a country act as the festival closer all seemed like, if not long shots, then at least a roll of the dice.
In retrospect, after a three-day festival that earned high marks in attendance, performances and overall festival vibe, Jazz Aspen seems to have known how strong a hand it had. Of course the crowd would be wowed by Rodrigo y Gabriela, a Mexican instrumental duo that plays on nylon-string guitars. Sure, some older listeners would be lost when it came to mash-up laptopper Girl Talk on Friday night – but it was a calculated gamble that was worth reaching out to the several thousand kids who turned the festival grounds into a rave scene. (And besides, for the more tradition-minded, the opening act, Thievery Corporation, demonstrated an excellent example of what might be called adult electronica.) Steely Dan, Jazz Aspen seemed to know, was not your run-of-the-mill ’70s oldies act but an inspired band playing its material in a way that retains its freshness.
And the Zac Brown Band was not just another country act but one that happens to be the hottest thing in country music, a recent winner of the Grammy for New Artist, and a crowd-pleasing group with hints of the Allman Brothers, Bob Marley, Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor that pulled in an audience of 11,000 fans – in other words, a sure thing.
Friday night’s opener, Thievery Corporation, does everything it can to broaden its appeal. The group is led by a DJ (actually two, though one was absent this weekend), but also features a band and a fleet of singers. The singers – one from Iran, another from Argentina, a pair of brothers from reggae-land and a rapper – come on one after another, changing the cultural flavor with each entrance. The good gimmick turned into a solid, entertaining dance groove.
Girl Talk, who headlined Friday, offered a similar nod to all kinds of listeners. But his mash-up style – splicing a few seconds of Black Sabbath over a hip-hop beat, smushing together a few bars of Jay-Z and Cheap Trick, a bit of John Lennon with Britney Spears – was clearly something the kids could grasp and their parents could not. Put this 47-year-old in the latter group. Perhaps I suffer from a deficit of short attention span, but when I hear a great song, I don’t want it to get cut off after four seconds.
Steely Dan’s set on Saturday night was long on the band’s ’70s and ’80s hits: “Aja,” “Peg,” “Josie,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Reelin’ in the Years.” Still, it never felt like a greatest-hits show, as Donald Fagen was too eccentric in his performance style (head generally whipped back, wicked grin aimed at the sky), Walter Becker’s impromptu rap (about Aspen, drugs and wealth) too edgy and unexpected, the material too unique and hip, and the band too jamming to feel like a mere reliving of the glory days. This diehard fan could have used a few lesser-known selections (specifically, “Dr. Wu,” “Midnight Cruiser” and “Deacon Blues”) to round out the setlist.
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The artistic peak of the weekend was Rodrigo y Gabriela, whose approach to guitar music was singular, ferocious, technically superb and unexpectedly accessible. Opening act Ryan Bingham, rather than the low-key alt-country guy from his recent album “Junky Star,” was a fired-up guy who led a ripping country-blues band. The Congress, a Denver jam band, tore up the side stage on Saturday.
When the Zac Brown Band came out for its festival-closing set on Sunday, the energy matched anything I can recall in Jazz Aspen history. The band proved deserving of the anticipation, rolling out one crowd-friendly hit after another. “Colder Weather,” a sweet, yearning ballad set in Colorado, was a highlight.
All in all, an aces weekend for Jazz Aspen.