A homecoming for Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Oates at The Wheeler
John Oates is finally returning to the Aspen stage after a three-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday at 7:30 p.m. the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and part of the duo Hall & Oates will present “An Evening of Songs and Stories with John Oates featuring Guthrie Trapp” at The Wheeler Opera House.
I recently talked to Oates, who splits his time between his homes in Woody Creek and Nashville, about his return to The Wheeler with guitar phenom Guthrie Trapp, his love of American music and why he still considers Aspen a magical place.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
The Aspen Times: You and Guthrie Trapp have done short versions of this tour over the last couple of years, but this is the first time you will perform it in Aspen. What took you so long?
John Oates: Well, we’ve been trying to do it for two years now. This is the third time’s a charm show because it was canceled twice, once in 2020 and 2021 during COVID. So we’ve been planning this show for so long and we’re really excited about it.
AT: You and Guthrie met 20 years ago at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. What was it about him that caught your attention?
JO: At the end of Telluride, there is a big jam session when everyone gets on stage and plays together. He was on one side of stage, I was on the other, and he was ripping these solos that were seriously super badass. I was just so impressed with his playing. It was so fluid and so natural and there was just something about him that appealed to me just in terms of musicianship. And then we got together, and we began to play a little bit, and we realized that even though he’s considerably younger than me, we had a lot of the same influences growing up with his family who were kind of folk and bluegrass people. And I had a lot of the same influences as a kid growing up. And so we bonded.
AT: Who do you credit for introducing to you to Americana roots music?
JO: It was a friend of mine. A kid that I was in school with in junior high whose older brother went away to college in North Carolina. And when he came back on Christmas break, he brought all these folk albums, because it was the ’60s when the folk revival was starting to happen and all these great roots, not only blues but also Appalachian and other performers were being rediscovered and introduced to the colleges, especially in the Northeast. I had never heard some of this music. I just absorbed them. I went crazy and tried to learn everything I could about everyone from the real traditional players like Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson to the more contemporary, Joan Baez and Dylan. It was an eye-opening thing for me because the only thing I had heard prior to that was rock ‘n’ roll. That’s how it all started for me.
AT: So, you’ve always had a wide range of musical influences?
JO: Of course, while I was doing that, I was playing R&B and loving all that was coming out of Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Motown. That’s who I am. I say roots music, but to be honest with you, it’s all roots music, it’s all American. It’s all Americana. Because really, without the roots, blues, and the rural music of the South, rock ‘n’ roll never would have evolved.
AT: Tell me a little bit about the show, what can the audience expect on Friday night?
JO: Guthrie’s forte is the fact that he’s an incredible musician and a flashy and exciting guitar player. All the original songs are mine. It’s kind of like a musical time trip. We start with some of the early kind of roots music that influenced both of us. I try to tie together the fact that there is this rich tapestry of American popular music and let people know that hit records didn’t start with rock ‘n’ roll. I think it’s eye opening for certain people. And we tell stories. We talk a lot to the audience. It’s a very intimate thing.
AT: Why was the intimacy aspect of these shows important to you?
JO: When we started this a few years ago, I had just come off a big tour with Hall & Oates with the big trucks and buses and video screens, playing stadiums and arenas, and I really wanted to just do something different. Guthrie and I were sitting in the living room, and we just started playing two acoustic guitars. And we looked at each other and went, ‘Man, this is so cool.’ The concept was let’s bring the living room to the stage. And that’s what we try to do. We try to create that atmosphere. It’s a very authentic, organic, musical performance. There’s no artifice involved. It’s just guitars, voice, songs and stories.
AT: Will you have any other musical guests?
JO: Yes, we are bringing a percussionist, a valley resident named John Michel, who I’ve been playing with since the 1990s here in the valley, and in various bands. He’s an old friend.
AT: Will you be playing mostly newer material?
JO: I do a lot of my original material. I have a whole series of streaming digitally streaming singles that have been coming out. You know, songwriters always want to play their new stuff. And of course I’ll get to some of the old Hall & Oates songs. I don’t like to deny my past, but I don’t want to live there, either. But at the same time, you know, the audience has a certain expectation.
Over the years, the response that I’ve gotten from the audience has been, “Man, you don’t even have to play any of those old songs, we love what you’re doing now and the direction you’re going,” which is great. It’s extremely satisfying to hear things like that.
AT: The Wheeler is obviously someplace you are very familiar with. Does this show feel like a homecoming?
JO: You’re exactly right. It is like a homecoming and especially now, after not being able to play there for several years because of the pandemic. I’m going to know half the people there and it really is going to feel like a giant living room. It really is one of the greatest acoustic venues in America, and I’ve played them all.
AT: In your 2017 memoir “Change of Seasons,” you wrote extensively about how you were reborn in Aspen. Although it’s changed a lot since you first came here, why do you think people are still drawn to this valley?
JO: Well, you know, the Ute Indians knew something. They chose this place hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and there’s a reason for it. There are certain places on Earth that are just different. There’s something about the energy, something about the type of people who want to be here. They’re always interesting and they always have something going on.
Aspen has a colorful checkered history as well. I was here in the ’70s and ’80s, and it was wild. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. And even though times have changed, the town has evolved and not everyone agrees with the direction that it’s gone, the only thing you can count on in life is change.
I just love being here and my wife and I are going to be spending more and more time here as time goes on.
What: An Evening of Songs and Stories
with John Oates featuring Guthrie Trapp
Where: The Wheeler Opera House, Aspen
When: Friday 7:30 p.m.
More info: https://wheeleroperahouse.com/event/an-evening-of-songs-and-stories%e2%80%a8with-john-oates-featuring-guthrie-trapp/