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Stewy’s Back Sound Judgment: Annual Music Awards Return

Stewart Oksenhorn

Several years ago, I was the undisputed heavyweight king of the local music world. If there was a good show, I was there, or had a damn good reason for not being there. If there was a mediocre show, I was probably there too. I’d go to several shows a night in Aspen. I’d go to downvalley shows and hurry back for a late-night upvalley show. Many a night, the Double Diamond would host nothing but a band, the sound man, a bartender, Double D manager Karen Smith – and me.

And the highlight of my writing year would be at the end of the ski season, when I’d sit down, ponder the performances of the prior 12 months, and weigh the cream – and the crap – of the year: Was Maceo better than the Meters? Who was a more smoking bassist, George Porter or Victor Wooten? Who sucked harder, Chuck Berry or Cowboy Mouth? I’d wrap it all up into one obnoxious, know-it-all extravaganza called the Stewys. (Wishing all the time that my mom had given me a cooler name than Stewy.)

And then, things changed. Marriage. Kid. Old age. Bad back, gout, acid indigestion, and this sore on my lip that is really killing me. And the Stewys, at least as I had known them, were retired. I no longer saw enough shows to give an authoritative account of the year in music in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Then things changed again. After four years of daily struggle, Candice and I finally taught our daughter Olivia the incomparable bliss of a good night’s sleep. We found great baby-sitters, and devised other ways of pawning off our beloved child on someone else for an evening. I started once again to see concerts in acceptable quantities.

At the same time, the number of concerts in Aspen decreased precipitously. Down went the Double Diamond. Down went the Grottos. Gone is Whiskey Rocks. Suddenly, you didn’t have to be such a hard-core concertgoer to keep on top of the popular music scene. Even a semi-responsible 40-year-old dad like me could do it.

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Sure, it’s not the old days. Rather than praying that the band will play through last call, I breathe a sigh of relief when a show ends by 10 p.m. Two or three shows makes a good week, not a good night. Recalling every show over a 12-month period doesn’t require the extraordinary effort of memory it once did. But combine my increasingly frequent concertgoing with the decreasing number of concerts, and the conclusion is indisputable.

Stewy’s back.

The rules are few: All concerts considered must have taken place in the Roaring Fork Valley over the last 12 months. The only shows considered are ones that I personally witnessed. Now pull on your pajamas, take a puff on the peace pipe – I’m a step ahead of y’all – and join me in reflecting on the high points of the last year’s music.

Best Jazz Show: A crowded, distinguished and close field here, I’m happy to report. A tip of the lid to Jazz Aspen (which does, in fact, offer quite a bit of jazz), and the fully resurrected Wheeler Associates. The nominees are: the Wynton Marsalis Quintet and the Branford Marsalis Quartet, which played separate shows at the Wheeler Opera House; Patricia Barber and Brad Mehldau, who played consecutive late-night shows during Jazz Aspen’s June Festival; June Fest headliner Boz Scaggs, and the JAS Academy Allstars, a top-shelf combo including Christian McBride, James Carter and Grady Tate, who played in the ideal jazz venue of the Silvertree Hotel’s Cabaret Room.

And the winner is the Wynton Marsalis Quintet. Trumpeter Marsalis, so often knocked for his traditionalist stance, proved that playing really good music trumps all else. Marsalis was in good spirits, and his recently assembled small combo, especially drummer Ali Jackson and pianist Eric Lewis, smoked.

And more good news on the horizon: Marsalis returns, this time in a quartet, to open Jazz Aspen’s June Festival on June 24.

Danny Gatton Memorial Stewy for Best Guitarist: In 1994, rockabilly player Danny Gatton took the first Stewy for Best Guitarist. A few months later, he took his own life. No connection between the two has been proved, but I decided to name the Stewy in his honor anyway.

The nominees are: Neil Young; Bruce Cockburn, who performed solo at the Wheeler; Garaj Mahal’s Fareed Haque; David Grier of string trio Phillips, Grier & Flinner; and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars.

It’s Cockburn by a nose over old Neil. Backed by his garage-style trio Crazy Horse at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, Mr. Young smoked, laying to waste the idea that he is only the 89th best guitarist in rock history (as Rolling Stone recently had him). But Cockburn does things that Young – and most any other guitarist you name – couldn’t dream of.

Best Singer: The nominees are Emmylou Harris, Del McCoury, all of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Natasha Borzilova of Bering Strait, and Michael Franti of Spearhead.

Some of my favorite voices are represented here. Still, Emmylou Harris is the clear winner. Her voice, accompanied by just a pair of acoustic guitars, was spellbinding throughout her Wheeler gig. Harris’ voice is everything you could ask for: fragile, emotionally deep, versatile and just plain gorgeous. A Stewy for Emmy.

Best Show by a Band From Foreign Soil (Canada excluded): The nominees are reggae singer Alpha Blondy from Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Bering Strait, a band whose members all hail from Obninsk, Russia.

The winner is a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose show at the Wheeler turned the ears and lifted the spirits.

Best Acoustic Show: Nominees in this crowded field – rock may be dying in Aspen, but there’s little shortage of acoustic shows – are Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris and Phillips, Grier & Flinner, who all appeared at the Wheeler, and the Del McCoury Band, who played in the free series on Fanny Hill.

And the winner in a shocking upset is Phillips, Grier & Flinner for their brilliant performance at the Wheeler’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music.

This one requires a bit of explanation. Cockburn’s show was probably a hair better than PG&F’s. But as far as displaying the essence of acoustic music, it’s hard to beat PG&F, whose show featured three stringed instruments, no vocals, and a stunning display not only of individual wizardry, but an amazing group concept and interplay.

Best Song Performance: Of the hundreds of songs I saw, a few stick out clear as day. And that, I figure, says a lot about how good they were. The ones I remember best through the fog of smoke, time and noise are: Neil Young’s “Be the Rain,” the finale from his “Greendale” set; Spearhead’s inspirational show-closer “Never Too Late”; Tom Petty paying tribute to his late Traveling Wilbury buddy George Harrison with a version of “Handle Me with Care”; the Del McCoury Band bringing me to my knees with the gospel gem “Get Down On Your Knees and Pray”; and Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl.”

The best of the best was “Be the Rain,” with Neil shouting through a megaphone, a stage full of costumed dancers, actors, musicians and roadies screaming out the cautionary lyrics, “We’ve got to save Mother Earth.” It was strange and brilliant, rock ‘n’ roll at its finest.

Best Pianist/Keyboardist: We got an incredibly healthy dose of great pianists and keyboardists this year. Among the piano (and keyboard) players who performed in the valley were Brad Mehldau, Patricia Barber, Robert Walter of the Greyboy Allstars, Cyrus Chestnut, Melvin Seals of the Mix, John Gros of Papa Grows Funk, Joey Calderazzo of Branford Marsalis’ Quartet, and Eric Lewis of Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet. (I also heard Yefim Bronfman perform his magic in a Harris Hall recital, but I’m staying away from classical music lest I get myself in over my head here.)

The winner is Brad Mehldau. I was momentarily disheartened when I learned, minutes before show time, that Mehldau would be performing solo, without his long-running rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossey. But my disappointment melted instantly away as Mehldau took songs and stretched them, twisted them and played with them in fascinating, imaginative ways.

Best Show: The big one, the one you’ve been staying awake for. And the nominees are Spearhead, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris and the Greyboy Allstars.

In the toughest call I’ve ever had to make in my life, Spearhead edges out Neil Young for the Best Show Stewy. In terms of performance, there’s not a hair between them. I loved Neil’s show: his rock theater piece “Greendale” was original and inspired; the set of Young classics that followed was mighty sweet icing on an already exceptional cake. Michael Franti and Spearhead are making music for the ages: soulful, rocking, meaningful and moving.

But Spearhead’s was a real dance concert, and I got to dance close and hard with my wife all show long, something we don’t get to do too often. The vibe was amazing. And Franti is the most available performer imaginable while Young pulls his hat down over his face all concert long.

Stewy for Spearhead.

Other miscellaneous awards

Show I Really, REALLY Wish I Hadn’t Missed: My numbers are up, but I still missed a bunch of shows. Among them were Corey Harris, the Seldom Scene, Jerry Douglas, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Chuchito Valdes.

The one I really wish I had seen was the Seldom Scene, who appeared at the Wheeler’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival.

Most Disappointing Show: The nominees are Steve Earle, Ziggy Marley, Bo Diddley and the Wylde Bunch.

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Steve Earle and Ziggy Marley were merely OK, rather than great as I expected. Earle’s solo gig at the Wheeler was played with the singer-songwriter suffering, I heard from reliable sources, from a kidney stone. Marley had the difficult job of following Spearhead, but playing a show under his own name, he missed the energy usually provided by his siblings in the Melody Makers.

I wasn’t expecting too much from hip-hop/funk group the Wylde Bunch, who played a Skico show in the middle of downtown Aspen. But with an enormous stage and light show, I expected at least decent entertainment.

Bo Diddley had his Labor Day Festival set cut short by rain, though he didn’t seem to care. Neither did I. Bo now knows a Stewy.

Best Opening Act: Possum Logic, a jamming, soulful Colorado band who opened for the North Mississippi Allstars at the Wheeler. Great everything, from singing to jamming to energy. Keep an eye on them.

Best Grateful Dead-related experience: The Mix – featuring Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist Melvin Seals and Dark Star Orchestra members John Kadlecik and Kevin Rosen – played a wonderful show of originals and Dead and Garcia Band covers on a sublime closing day on Snowmass Mountain.

Best Interview: Tony Bennett. The superstar was relaxed, sincere and warm in a long, in-person interview.

Best Off- or Back-stage experience: I was frantically dragging Candice around backstage after the Spearhead show, dying to exchange a few words with Michael Franti and give him a big hug. I couldn’t find him anywhere, couldn’t imagine where he might be, and was about to give up. I asked a security guard where I might find the band’s room, and he gave me a helpless look and said, “Band room?”

We turned the corner and boom – there’s Michael and his manager headed in our direction. I waved and smiled as he approached and when we got close enough, he reached out and gave me a big hug, then we talked for a few. Very special moment.

Best Developments: Jazz Aspen’s June Festival moves to Aspen, and the Wheeler Associates continue to step up with some big shows.

Worst Development: Well, that would have to be all the music clubs in Aspen shutting down. Yeah, that’s a pretty bad development. Worst development ever.

Best show of 2004-05: Gazing into my crystal ball, I see the duo of Béla Fleck & Edgar Meyer, in their Harris Hall gig next month, taking top honors. Keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, performing at the Jazz Aspen June Festival, is a likely nominee, as is the act that MM&W opens for, bluesman Buddy Guy, doing a half-electric, half-acoustic set. David Byrne, booked for the Labor Day Festival, is likely to be a good one.

And finally, huge thanks to the people who play music, listen to music, make music happen, and share music and their thoughts on music with me. No, I don’t ever get enough.

Enormous gratitude to Josh Behrman; Nida, Martha and the crew at the Wheeler; Jim, Marc and everyone at Jazz Aspen; David Laughren; Wheeler Associates; Tim Lucca; Steve Standiford; Sandy Munro; and the Aspen Music Festival for bringing the music. Thanks to Rachel, Alan, Steve Johnson, Mike Kapsa and everyone else who can’t stop talking music with me.

Grateful appreciation to everyone at The Aspen Times for helping me cover it all. And enormous thanks to Candice, Olivia, Tony and Chatsi for everything, including giving me reign over the CD player.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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