The best concerts of 2010 in Aspen/Snowmass
December 30, 2010
ASPEN – For my tastes, the notable thing about the best concerts over the past 12 months is how far-flung they have been, in all ways. My favorite nights (or days) of live music weren’t clustered around guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll or big Belly Up shows or Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival.There were shows downstairs at the Little Nell and at Harris Hall and at the Wheeler and on a weird set-up at Snowmass’ Base Village – as well as Belly Up and the Labor Day Festival. (And while this list is limited to concert happenings in this music-filled valley, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the considerable glory of the four days – and 19 acts – I experienced at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June.) The extraordinary moments were spread out among rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, hip-hop, African music, classical and string music.I might congratulate myself on my broad-minded taste, except that I firmly believe my picks here are largely reflections of the opinions I heard from fellow concertgoers. These were the concerts that seemed to satisfy not just me, but tickled the ears of lots of listeners.Let’s revisit, shall we? In chronological order, an even dozen …
Yes, Cee Lo did a version of “Crazy,” the mega-hit he sang as part of Gnarls Barkley, and the crowd went into a frenzy. But the Goodie Mob show was far from a one-hit performance; in fact, Cee Lo might not have been the best or most charismatic rapper on the stage this night. His partner Big Gipp showed massive skills, and the two of them together made for a wonderful presentation of Southern rap.
The kind of unique treat that had the crowd feeling fortunate to have witnessed it. Banjoist Fleck is not only one of the greatest musicians ever, on any instrument, in any genre, but his putting together this group of African musicians – especially the mind-blowing Bassekou Kouyate, who coaxed unbelievable sounds out his tiny instrument, the ngoni – showed that he appreciates phenomenal string music, no matter who’s making it.
A superb ski day. Sunny skies. The first full day of spring. A very ungainly venue that had the stage well above the heads of the audience. And Grace Potter, a singer who has thrown off her folk-rock tendencies and embraced full-on rock ‘n’ roll with a sense of urgency.
What made this a great show is realizing one, how great songs like “Get Out the Map” and “Power of Two” are, and two, how very much they mean to this profoundly devoted audience. Especially in a small setting like Belly Up.
Probably my favorite find of the last few years is this singer-songwriter with an unusual voice and unusual looks, capped by unusually red hair. Dennen’s comfort in his own skin translates to an entire crowd getting loose and bonding with the artist. His songs are catchy, grooving and filled with empathy.
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The tradition of the New Orleans jazz trumpeter, one of the richest in music, lives on with Nicholas Payton. Payton’s quintet was on fire this night, walking not only through New Orleans, but African rhythms, straightahead jazz, balladry and more. The fact that Christian McBride was the substitute bassist for the evening was just throwing fuel on that fire.
Here’s what I expected: to walk out of seeing Grisman’s bluegrass show being impressed – Grisman is, after all, a magician with the mandolin – but not liking it as much as his Dawg music, the jazz/bluegrass/South American blend with which he has made his name. And I was right; the Dawg music is better. But I didn’t expect it to be this close. The man can pick bluegrass.
Violinist Robert McDuffie played the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto, “The American Four Seasons,” and it was everything the classical music world could use more of: accessible, dynamic, unpredictable, rowdy. McDuffie, a former student at the Aspen Music Festival, was touchingly generous toward his fellow musicians, most of them students. When the ensemble rushed the stage, for an encore of a passage from Vivaldi’s original “Four Seasons,” now that was moment.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a concert sustain its energy level from beginning to end like this one, which matched the rising reggae legend Marley with the hard-charging rapper.
Fleck again, playing a different kind of music – chamber music, really – with two more remarkable talents. Fleck is a one-of-a-kind instrumentalist; bassist Meyer is a local hero, who will be rightly applauded for any Aspen appearance. But the buzz on this evening went to Hussain, the Indian-born tabla star who was making his local debut, and was warmly welcomed into the Aspen family.
Many were the time, leading up to the local debut of Wilco, that I called the Chicago band the greatest thing happening today in rock ‘n’ roll. I saturated myself in their albums leading up to the date. This was the big one – and I realized how much I had set myself up for potential disappointment. It wasn’t to be. From the opening riffs of “Wilco (the Song)” – a song which assures that “Wilco will love you, baby” – I was in ecstasy. A perfect blend of grand rock theatrics and thoughtful songwriting, anchored by singer Jeff Tweedy’s casual way with the crowd and guitarist Nels Cline’s shredding way with the six-string. Wish I could do that one again tonight. Or any night.
This concert, though short in duration, was the highlight of the Wheeler’s promising 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival. Bromberg’s performance of the over-the-top performance-piece blues “I Will Never Be Your Fool” was the highlight of the musical year. Watching John Oates’ jaw hit the floor at Bromberg’s virtuosity was a precious moment of seeing one artist blown away by another.
And 12 more reasons to be grateful God gave us ears, instead of two additional noses:Todd Snider (Jan. 7, Belly Up), Punch Brothers (Jan. 16, Wheeler); Ghostland Observatory (Jan. 30, base of Aspen Mountain); Les Claypool (Feb. 12, Belly Up); Dr. Dog (April 19, Belly Up); Pink Martini (June 27, June Festival); Keb’ Mo’ (Aug. 4, Belly Up); Otis Taylor and Jimmy Thackery (both Aug. 27, Big Aspen BBQ Block Party); New Mastersounds (Sept. 3, Labor Day Festival); The Bird and the Bee (Sept. 16, Wheeler); The Flaming Lips (Dec. 27, Belly Up).Regrettably, I missed the following: Tab Benoit, Brandi Carlile, G. Love & Special Sauce, the Meters Experience, the White Buffalo, Guy Clark, Gov’t Mule, Galactic, Portugal. The Man, Drive-By Truckers, the Meat Puppets, Soulive, KRS-One, Robert Randolph, Wolfmother, Ani DiFranco, the Black Crowes, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Carrie Rodriguez, Gregory Alan Isakov, Regina Carter, Trombone Shorty, I gotta stop doing that. Come on back, and I’ll make firstname.lastname@example.org