Review: Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival doesn’t miss a beat
September 11, 2009
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – So how do you make music fans forget that Jazz Aspen Snowmass cut a day from its Labor Day Festival? How about cracking the whip and telling the acts who fill the now three-day festival that they’re all going to have to pitch in extra, and raise their onstage game a notch?
Perhaps the literal whip wasn’t necessary. But it was hard not to notice the A-level effort turned in by several of the Labor Day acts.
Start with Friday night’s headliner, Michael Franti. The singer-activist easily claims status as a local favorite, having appeared also at the 2007 Labor Day Festival, with a few Belly Up appearances since then. But Franti rode into town on the tail of his first Top 40 song, “Say Hey (I Love You),” from last year’s reggae-heavy “All Rebel Rockers.” On the other end of the spectrum, he had a serious health scare last month, in the form of a burst appendix. The twin experiences seem to have raised his energy level from huge to enormous. Another boost was the addition to his band of Jamaican singer Cherine Anderson, who added a few Marley songs (Bob’s and Damian’s) to the set.
Another source of Franti’s energy is that his fan-base umbrella continues to widen. Prior to the show, he met with a group of children from Aspen’s Buddy Program, whom he had invited backstage, and who would later join him onstage. The Little Buddies flocked to Franti, and I can assure you from what my wife tells me (repeatedly, and with conviction), his charms have a noticeable attraction for grown women as well.
Elvis Costello, in a Saturday set, seemed to arrive with some extra oomph as well. Backed by his three-piece band, the Imposters – which featured two thirds of his best-known band, the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve – Costello seemed to rise as an instrumentalist, playing surprisingly aggressive, expansive and frequent solos. The show concentrated heavily on Costello’s ’70s hits, and while it’s hard to complain with a setlist that included “Alison,” “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “Watching the Detectives,” “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Costello has written plenty of solid songs of more recent vintage, and it would have been nice to hear some surprises.
In any event, it was superior to Costello’s last Jazz Aspen appearance, at the 2006 June Festival, when he was joined by New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint. That performance was marred somewhat by an awkward sound.
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The festival-closing set by the Allman Brothers Band neatly paralleled Costello’s performance. It was better than the Allmans’ last appearance, at the 2007 Labor Day Festival; in particular, singer-keyboardist Gregg Allman was in noticeably better shape this time through. It was a guitar extravaganza, as Derek Trucks continues to make a case for being one of rock’s elite players (a status that fellow Allman guitarist Warren Haynes has achieved, and maintains). The trading of solos in a long version of “Black Hearted Woman” was breath-taking, a demonstration that Trucks and Haynes are two distinct, and wonderfully complementary players.
The Allmans, too, relied too heavily on old glory in their song selections. In their 40th anniversary tour, they are focusing on tunes originally played by the late Duane Allman, the band’s founding slide guitarist.
Old familiar tunes is what everybody expected from the Doobie Brothers on Sunday evening, and that is what they got. The only surprise was probably that they still play them well, with founding singer-guitarist Patrick Simmons in especially good form.
The Black Eyed Peas, headlining on Saturday, demonstrated why they are currently on top of the charts. They are the quintessential modern pop sensation, long on looks, production and artificiality. It’s not exactly a music act, when you consider that the biggest applause came from a recorded segment that included hits by Journey. Not my cup of tea – but I do have some admiration for the effort, and the effect on hordes of 14-year-old girls.
In opening sets, Umphrey’s McGee and the Drive-By Truckers were both impressive. The former, a Chicago band that mixes jamming with prog-rock, had moments of precise, exhilarating jams. The latter provided one of the festival’s best moments, when Patterson Hood delivered his funny, impassioned, off-color rap about how rock ‘n’ roll saved his life.
Which brings us to the one act who didn’t deliver in the effort department. Citizen Cope, the festival’s opening act, is charismatic, cool-looking, a good singer and songwriter. It seems it would have been so easy to rally the crowd with the slightest shake of his hips, shout-out to the people. But he didn’t.
All three acts in the Outside Music Lounge – zydeco legend Buckwheat Zydeco, groove group Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, and, in their local debut, soul band the Pimps of Joytime – gave festivarians good reason to wander away from the mainstage.