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Surprises markLabor Day Fest

Stewart Oksenhorn

It would be appropriate, in a way, if Lucinda Williams, singer of tales of tortured romance, ended her Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival closing set tonight with a sappy, happy love song. Say, Steve Miller’s “True Fine Love.”After all, a festival of the unexpected should finish on an unexpected note.The first, and biggest, surprise of the 10th annual Labor Day Festival was the enormous turnout on Friday night. The bill featured three names – Jack Johnson, G. Love and Donavon Frankenreiter, all in their late 20s to early 30s – that were likely all but unknown to Jazz Aspen’s presumed core crowd of aging rockers. But Johnson and Frankenreiter – buddies since their teens, who play a similar brand of surf-inspired, mellow, acoustic rock – and Love, whose band Special Sauce specializes in a blend of folk-blues and hip-hop sometimes termed “rag mop,” drew a Jazz Aspen record crowd of 11,000. The threesome easily outdrew such major names as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Steve Winwood, and even younger jam bands like Big Head Todd & the Monsters and Blues Traveler, from past Labor Day Festivals. Topping the surprise, the record crowd assembled on Friday night, typically the festival’s slowest.

“We thought it would be big – but not that big,” said Jim Horowitz, Jazz Aspen’s founder and executive producer, noting that the attendance topped the next biggest Friday night crowd by some 7,000. “It was completely out of the realm of what we thought possible. Till it happened.”Proving that Jazz Aspen was indeed caught off guard, waits of 45 minutes were reported Friday night to get into the festival grounds in Snowmass Village.Rains that lasted improbably long – 4 hours, 20 minutes according to Horowitz – caused Saturday evening’s surprise. David Byrne, former Talking Heads frontman, was slated to perform his new show, My Backwards Life, backed by a string section. The violins and cellos seemed a certain casualty of the weather, then, after a 45-minute delay, any appearance at all by Byrne seemed iffy. But Byrne and a stripped-down combo, all dressed in matching striped overalls, took the stage for an abbreviated set of classic Talking Heads material that satisfied the crowd.

Sixty-year-old Steve Miller, more than 20 years removed from his hit-making days, offered a potent set of his distinctive songs, plus blues and jazz. Fans of his spacey “Fly Like an Eagle” were in for an unexpected treat when the song was stretched out to include jazzy saxophone parts by special guest John Handy and even a midsong rap. Further surprising was how much fresher and potent Miller was than Sheryl Crow, whose headlining set the previous night was bland and clichéd by comparison.Even Lyle Lovett, whose tightly constructed shows generally leave little room for surprises, offered an unexpected dimension. After a pleasing set that focused on songs from his latest album, last year’s “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” Lovett brought out a 35-voice choir. The choir helped close the show with a pair of gospel numbers, including the typically wry “I’m Going to Wait,” a song about not wanting to go to heaven – just yet.Horowitz estimated attendance for Saturday at above 9,000, and Sunday at around 9,000, comfortably putting the festival on pace for record attendance.

The Labor Day Festival closes today with Robert Randolph & the Family Band at 2 p.m., Cake at 4:15 p.m., and Lucinda Williams at 6:30 p.m.


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