Review: Heightened attention pays off in Aspen Songwriters Festival
ASPEN – It was clear at Saturday night’s concert at 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, that David Bromberg didn’t know all the tunes being played by his partners for the evening, John Oates and Sam Bush. Bromberg often spent the first half of the song listening, then the second half finding a place for his acoustic guitar in the tune.Intentional or not, the incomplete preparation worked well. A masterful musician, Bromberg was consistently able to contribute folk-blues licks between Oates’ soul vocals and Bush’s bluegrass-leaning mandolin. And the spontaneous approach also spotlighted a distinguishing characteristic of the 7908 festival, which made its debut over four days last weekend at the Wheeler Opera House. With the musicians yanked out of their usual performance mode – no one played in full bands, and often the artists shared the stage with other singers or with unannounced guests – they had to pay heightened attention to what was going on around them. And the way musicians pay attention is by focusing in on each individual song – which, of course, was the stated purpose of the festival. With performances generally stripped down to an acoustic guitar and voice, and with musicians on-stage listening to the work of other musicians, the songs themselves took on sharp definition.The Bird and the Bee, a Los Angeles duo making its Aspen debut on the festival’s opening night, won over the audience through a unique sound – a combination of piano jazz and modern electro-pop – and the theatrical charm of lead singer Inara George. With spare instrumentation – Greg Kurstin played piano and programmed electronic sounds, while George occasionally chipped in with electric bass – the focus inevitably fell on the songs. Among the best was the melancholy, deeply felt “I’m a Broken Heart,” which cast a light on how affecting a beautiful melody could be. The duo switched emotional gears, dramatically, with “Diamond Dave,” a lavish tribute to Van Halen’s David Lee Roth. The twosome then paid tribute to another singer – John Oates, who was 7908’s host and co-producer – by inviting him on-stage for a wonderful segment of Hall & Oates’ hits, “She’s Gone” and “I Can’t Go For That” (both of which are on the Bird and the Bee’s recent full-album tribute to Hall & Oates).The Saturday concert by Allen Toussaint shed a different kind of light on songwriting. The New Orleans icon, best known as a writer and producer, sat alone at the piano and told stories of how other artists – the Pointer Sisters, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Rolling Stones, Al Hirt, the Yardbirds – scored hits with his tunes, before launching into his own versions of the songs, heavy on the New Orleans boogie-woogie. If the performance lacked some oomph, that was solved, momentarily, when Oates and Bush joined Toussaint for a medley of Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman” and “Working in the Coal Mine,” which combined three different styles of music with no hitches.The timing of the show by Garfunkel & Oates was odd – an early Sunday afternoon start for a comedy duo whose act is often based on raunchy subject matter. But the female duo was well-received as the sexually explicit “I Don’t Understand Job” and the socially incorrect “Pregnant Women Are Smug” were more smart than smutty.The festival ended with Nashville singer-songwriter Jimmy Wayne showing impressive charisma and musical skills, and also demonstrating the process that turns real-life stories into songs. “Stay Gone” was preceded by a long but illuminating tale about his sister’s marital problems, and Wayne’s own trailer-trash past. Joining Wayne for the closing concert was Oates, who was a master of preparation for the festival. He learned 18 songs so that he could collaborate with everyone from Toussaint to Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler to guitar virtuoso/comedian Mike Rayburn. Picking one song that stood out over the four days and 11 main-stage concerts turned out to be surprisingly easy. Bromberg may not have known all the chords to all of the songs Oates and Bush sang, but he sure knew how to play his own “I Will Never Be Your Fool.” The long, humorous blues performance piece, with over-the-top emotional delivery, had the audience – as well as Bush and Oates – in email@example.com
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