Stevie Wonder charms, inspires while others rock this year’s Jazz Aspen Labor Day festival
It didn’t take long for Stevie Wonder to charm the sold-out crowd Sunday night at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience.
“My son celebrated his 15th birthday on Sept. 2,” Wonder said not long after taking the stage at about 8 p.m. “So let’s all sing him ‘Happy Birthday.’”
So we did. All 10,500 of us.
It was a fun moment and emblematic of the playful spirit, master showmanship and positive vibrations Wonder brought to Snowmass Town Park on a crisp, fall night in the Rockies.
Oh yeah, and the music was pretty great, too.
Wonder’s loose but powerful multipiece band complete with horns and backup singers hit all the right notes of jazz, blues, funk, soul and pop necessary to make his iconic music come alive.
“This was the most joyous show I ever saw in 26 years here,” said Jim Horowitz, the founder and president of Jazz Aspen Snowmass. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
The 66-year-old’s set leaned heavily on his classic ’70s catalog, especially 1973’s “Innervisions” and “Songs in the Key of Life” from 1976. Wonder celebrated the latter, which won a Grammy almost exactly 40 years ago, last year with an extensive tour, though the Jazz Aspen date is one of only nine he’s played this year.
“Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and a stellar “Living for the City” came courtesy of those two classics. In addition, Wonder wore his influences on his sleeve Sunday, with a moving, sing-along cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and pieces of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
He also turned in an odd mini-DJ set under the name “DJ Tick Tick Boom,” which included snippets of songs from Parliament, Michael Jackson, the Eagles, Prince and David Bowie. It was not the first time the names of those last two artists, who died earlier this year, would be invoked during the weekend shows.
Wonder ended with an extended, rousing version of the classic “Superstition” before wishing the crowd love, truth and earnest hope for a better world.
“Make it happen better than before,” he said. “I love you.”
Synth-pop superstars Duran Duran went on before Wonder, and if you grew up in the ’80s, you likely experienced more joy singing along to those then-ubiquitous classics than you did singing to Wonder’s.
Or as ageless Duran Duran singer Simon LeBon put it while introducing one tune: “This song is from 1982. That was a good year for us.”
Still, the band was tight and having fun as it bopped through ’80s megahits like “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “The Reflex,” “Wild Boys” and “Girls on Film.” Versions of “Come Undone” and “Rio” also got the crowd singing, as did an encore version of “Save a Prayer,” which was covered by Eagles of Death Metal after terrorists attacked its Paris concert in November.
Duran Duran also gave a nod to its influences, with a cover of a piece of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and a surprising, anthemic version of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “White Lines.”
The Killers, a band that owes a debt to Duran Duran, headlined Saturday’s concerts to a crowd of about 8,800. Accompanied by a flamboyant light show, the group’s keyboard-driven brand of alterna-pop inspired much hand-waving and head-nodding among the crowd but in the end felt flat, overwrought and uninspired.
Ditto for Thievery Corporation, which preceded The Killers on Saturday. Unlike the headliners, though, Thievery’s mix of funk, dancehall and rap didn’t appear to inspire much movement at all in the crowd.
Saturday’s real highlight occurred before many festivalgoers arrived. That’s when Black Pistol Fire took the stage at 3 p.m. sharp and blew away the competition before it even had a chance to perform.
Kevin McKeown’s thunderous, Jack White-like guitar chords were impossible to ignore, as were the bare-chested, Animal-like beats pounded out by drummer Eric Owen.
“It’s a little early for heavy metal,” said a woman serving drinks behind one of the bars, and she may have been right. But this band demanded attention, and the energy it displayed was infectious and joyful, too.
The two-man Austin, Texas, band unabashedly follows the lead of The White Stripes and The Black Keys but is by no means an imitator. McKeown’s herky-jerky guitar style drew him right up to the edge of the stage and, at times, propelled him into the crowd in celebration of a rock ’n’ roll, ecstatic experience.
Highlights included his Pete Townshend-like scissor kicks off the top of Owen’s bass drum and impressive blues-inspired mashups that often saw the drummer playing bass with his left hand on a keyboard and playing drums with his right hand and feet. All hail rock ’n’ roll, indeed.
San Francisco rockers Train kicked off the festival Friday night with an enjoyable, competent set of pop rock. Hits like “Meet Virginia” and “Drops of Jupiter” inspired exuberance among many in the crowd who appeared to know every word of the band’s 20-year catalog.
But to these un-Train-ed ears, the band really seemed to spark when it tackled the cover songs on its set list. That included the opener, Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” and a killer version of the Bowie-Queen classic “Under Pressure.”
However, the highlight of the set — and one of the highlights of the entire weekend — was the band’s encore take on the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” While it was a nearly note-for-note cover of a song that’s been played to death over the past 40 years, the performance was nonetheless passionate and compelling and certain to put a smile on any classic-rock fan’s face.
By the way, Sunday’s attendance of 10,500 was the largest ever in the history of the three-day version of the Labor Day Experience, Horowitz said. The only larger crowd occurred when The Allman Brothers Band played in 2007 during the four-day incarnation of the event, he said.
Otherwise, the 2016 Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day shows averaged 10 percent larger crowds than the previous three-day sellout in 2014, which featured One Republic and Earth, Wind and Fire, Horowitz said.
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