Review: June Experience brings live music back to Aspen
Multi-venue festival welcomes exuberant, vaccinated crowds and signals pandemic’s disruptions are ending in Aspen
A vaccine card or proof of a negative COVID-19 test was a ticket to a slice of long-delayed joy and normalcy for music fans in Aspen over the weekend as the Jazz Aspen June Experience brought 16 acts to seven venues downtown.
The shows, marking the milestone of Aspen’s first indoor public concerts and first major festival since before the coronavirus pandemic, featured exuberant performances from leading jazz and pop musicians radiant with the joy of being back on stage and audiences eager to hear them.
“It’s such a miracle what’s happened here, that we’re all together and able to enjoy this music,” Jazz Aspen president and CEO Jim Horowitz said Saturday night before a set by the Family Stone in the VIP tent at Silver Circle Ice Rink.
Walking downtown late Friday and Saturday, you could hear bits of concerts coming from the tent, the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum and from Belly Up Aspen. After more than a year of so much silence and distance, it was a welcome sound.
Funk band Dumpstaphunk led the first big show of the weekend Friday night, headlining the New Orleans Roadshow Revue (and the first Jazz Aspen show at the Hotel Jerome since 1991). The sun wasn’t yet down as the band took the stage and sunlight pouring into the story-high ballroom windows as the crowd — capped at 250 — tentatively left their seats and filled the dance floor, as if collectively regaining the muscle memory of dancing with unmasked strangers at a concert.
For fans of New Orleans funk music, one could not ask for a more ideal return to concert-going, with pianist Jon Cleary singing “When You Get Back” and George Porter Jr. himself playing his iconic bassline on The Meters’ “Sissy Strut” backed by Ivan Neville’s swampy funk band.
With capacities and public health restrictions changing until recently, the festival could not operate with the freewheeling, venue-hopping spirit of its 2019 reboot. (That will return next year, Horowitz said).
Instead, for the 2021 rendition there were no all-access passes — concert-goers could hit as many as three shows in a night on varied tracks. Individual tickets also were made available for most events. Every venue and show, as a result, was a universe unto itself with its own vibe: from the intimate and dim-lit Little Nell to the opulent Jerome ballroom and the table seating atop the Aspen Art Museum to Belly Up, which had the largest capacity at 450 and opened for the first time in 15 months Friday night with two sets from Colorado funk band The Motet.
At the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday night, Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Generation Y played mellow jazz in front of an uplit brick wall to an attentive seated audience in the historic theater. Owens showcased four of his young protégés, all eager to impress in their first road gig since the pandemic struck. The group found a memorable version of “La Puerta,” which Owens opened by playing his drum kit bare-handed, punctuated by hand claps and building momentum until tossing to sax player Alexa Tarantino for a climactic swing.
The festival marked the first post-COVID tour for most artists on the bill. Just about all brought new music to the June Experience, many with recently released songs and albums recorded during the pandemic’s live event shutdown.
“Every artist has new songs,” drummer and bandleader Jamison Ross said Friday night at the Little Nell. “I can’t wait to go to shows and hear my colleagues because everybody has so much to say.”
Ross himself sang new quarantine-penned compositions spanning from sunny uplifting soul tunes to emotionally raw ones. Porter showcased “Crying for Hope,” the title track from his pandemic record and Dumpstaphunk played their new “Where Do We Go From Here.” The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, on Saturday night, debuted several untitled new tracks (including one written just days ago).
Ross, who has made repeat visits to the JAS Café in recent years, manages to top himself every trip back to the mountains. On Friday night, the 33-year-old was operating at a new peak fronting his quartet — his showmanship as a bandleader matching his inventive rhythms, improvisatory skill and caramel-sweet voice.
His jubilation being back on stage, like most artists at the June Experience, was palpable. In an extended improvisational passage, he worked his snares and sang, “I was telling a friend that I’ll never take it for granted again. It was taken away from us for a long time, but now I’m so thankful we have our music again!”
Delvon Lamarr’s Saturday night sets, also at the Nell, saw the organist trading licks gleefully with guitarist Jimmy James and discovering greasy Southern rock flavors inside wild, barely contained instrumental adventures. James brought stratospheric guitar theatrics — playing with his teeth at one point on an extended version of “Tacoma Black Party” — along with some goofball banter and welcome laughs with Lamarr.
Along with the public performances all weekend, this June Experience included private shows for Jazz Aspen’s national council, patrons and VIP donors, who also had access to a tent at the Silver Circle. Introducing the Family Stone’s set there Saturday night, Horowitz thanked the assembled donors for keeping Jazz Aspen afloat through the pandemic and its year-plus without music or ticket revenue.
“There were a lot of reasons to think that none of this would ever happen, even up to a couple months ago,” he told the crowd. “Without you all sticking in, it really couldn’t have happened.”
Monty Alexander, the legendary Jamaican jazz pianist, played three sets Friday night — including one with his rollicking jazz-reggae outfit Harlem Kingston Express and a late show with his trio playing jazz standards from Sinatra to Duke Ellington and a memorable vibraphone-accented version of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django.”
At the late show, Alexander, 77, reminisced about his five-plus decades of live gigs in Aspen — preceding the existence of Jazz Aspen itself, going back to a 1969 stand at Aspen Meadows. Playing to a capacity seated crowd on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum, Alexander told the audience he felt it was important to return for 2021 when Horowitz invited him.
“He asked me to come this year, especially now after all the trouble we’ve had,” Alexander told the audience. “Music is a tonic. I hope this can be a part of the healing.”
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