The Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Fest lowdown
August 30, 2012
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – It used to be so much easier making your way through Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival schedule back when the festival focused on legends of classic rock and popular jam bands. More or less, you knew what to expect. Bob Dylan’s voice would be shot to pieces, but you still needed to see him because he’s Bob Dylan. Widespread Panic – long jams with a Southern accent. Ditto the Allman Brothers, but with more familiar songs, better guitar playing and fewer young drunks in the crowd. Willie Nelson – a battered acoustic guitar, a bandana, “Whiskey River,” “On the Road Again” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”These days – not so easy. Jazz Aspen is casting the net wider, reaching for younger acts, country singers, people who play music with laptops rather than Fender Stratocasters. The questions have become tougher than whether any of Dylan’s songs will bear enough resemblance to the original version so as to be recognizable, and if you’ll be able to see Willie through the haze of (medicinal) marijuana smoke.Sugarland – isn’t that the city you accidentally ended up in while trying to navigate those ridiculous roads around Houston? Mumford & Sons – the band all the kids are crazy about, or the plumbers who will make a late-night emergency call if you beg hard, exaggerate the size of the leak, and pay triple time? Steve Miller – didn’t he become, like, a blues singer or something 20 years ago and won’t play the songs everybody really came to see? Vintage Trouble – good Lord, that sounds like a bad cover band that really shouldn’t be here and we sure don’t want a replay of that recent fiasco by Anthem in Wagner Park.Chill baby. Ol’ Stewy’s here to do the heavy lifting research (aka listening to CDs, cruising the Internet and browsing long-winded, overblown missives from publicists), and clear the fog of misconceptions.Here we go – the Labor Day mainstage acts, in order from potentially legendary to “It can wait till after another two or three episodes of ‘Breaking Bad'” (which, come to think of it, might include every band touring the planet).
I’ve done you the favor of making the pilgrimage to Telluride not once, but twice, to see Mumford & Sons perform at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And the word is good: the band of young, Brit folk-rockers deserve all the praise surrounding their 2010 debut album, “Sigh No More,” and more. The first time I saw them, in the 240-capacity Sheridan Opera House, was most promising. But the following year, playing the mainstage for 10,000 people, was even better. They took the stage with explosive energy and never let down. I actually felt a little sorry for the act that had to follow the Mumfords – a 60-something dude named Robert Plant, who I understand had some success a few decades back.Even if you, like most everyone, has listened to “Sigh No More” dozens of times through, you might hear some unfamiliar songs. Don’t freak; this is a good thing. Mumford & Sons’ second album, “Babel,” is due out Sept. 24. And if you want an appropriate warm-up before Saturday’s show, the first single, “I Will Wait,” is available online. The song shows no significant change in direction.I’ve been picking up on the perception that Mumford & Sons is music aimed toward the kids. But I’d feel comfortable recommending this to listeners of most any age.Bonus fact: The given first name of Winston Marshall, a member of Mumford & Sons, is Country. So can his parents really blame him for becoming a banjo player?
I don’t approve of the company Kid Rock keeps (Sheryl Crow, who has appeared on several of his albums; Pamela Anderson, his former wife; Tommy Lee, who he was accused of assaulting). I appear to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Most to the point, the list of styles of music he plays – mainstream country, metal, thug rap, anthem rock – seems intended mostly to alienate me. (You really want to finish the job, Kid, just add smooth jazz to the list.)And yet. From everything I hear, Kid Rock is super entertaining. Stylistically, he’s trending in my direction; his most recent album, 2010’s “Born Free,” was anthemic heartland rock ‘n’ roll, which is at least better than metal. The songs weren’t bad – I’m tempted to say good – and I listened to it several times with no adverse affects. And I have a real respect for his endurance. When he burst out of the gate, with 1998’s “Devil Without a Cause,” if I had commented on him at all, I’d have said that in five years he’s be a pop music afterthought. And I’d have been wrong.Bonus fact: Real name is Bob Ritchie, just like the local realtor.
Fans of the trombone, be warned: Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews doesn’t play all that much ‘bone; in concert, he actually devotes more time to the trumpet. He also sings and raps, plays funk, r&b, rock and jazz standards from his New Orleans hometown. On his albums, his guests have included Eric Clapton, Warren Haynes, Lenny Kravitz and Kid Rock. Watching his performance this past winter at the Wheeler Opera House, it seemed like Shorty was almost unfairly gifted and charismatic – the audience didn’t stand a chance of resisting him.Bonus fact: Once booked a gig under the name James Andrews. No one came, and he never did that again.Extra bonus fact: Started touring at the age of 7, in a band led by his brother, trumpeter James Andrews.
Yes, Steve Miller is 68; yes, the last time he played here, he took the stage dressed like an accountant on semi-casual Friday; yes, his hits are almost all from the ’70s. And yes, Miller has recently turned toward the blues. (More accurately, this was a return to the blues; his group was initially called the Steve Miller Blues Band.)But Miller has been reinvigorated by the blues; he recently released two blues-oriented albums, his first albums in nearly two decades. His guitar playing is top-notch. His last appearance here, at the 2004 Labor Day Festival, was quite good. And he’s smart enough to fill his set with “Fly Like an Eagle,” “The Joker,” “Jet Airliner,” etc. Keep on rocking me, baby.Bonus fact: Got his first guitar lesson from Les Paul, who was friends with Miller’s father. Paul became Steve’s godfather.
If you need me to tell you about Michael Franti, it’s hopeless. This will be his fourth Labor Day Festival appearance in the past six years; he’s also played Belly Up a few times, the old Double Diamond, outdoors in Snowmass Village, indoors at Snowmass Village. He’ll shout ‘How you feeliiinnn?'” 20 times, he’ll look cool doing it, the audience will be seduced.Bonus fact: Goes barefoot, basically always.
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Sugarland seems intent on confusing people. The group originated in Georgia as a trio, with two of the members named Kristen. Shortly after forming, one of the Kristens (Hall) left – but the one who stayed was Kristian Bush. This didn’t exactly clear up the picture, since Kristian is a male. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles is reportedly pregnant, due in early November, which one hopes won’t affect the show-offy belting that seems to be the essence of the group’s sound.Sugarland regularly wins honors from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. Which makes them the most mainstream country group to have been included on the Bob Dylan tribute album “Chimes of Freedom,” to which they contributed a live, only slightly over-the-top version of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”Bonus fact: Played President Obama’s Inaugural Celebration in 2009.
This rock quartet features a lead singer who was born in Brazil but spent his teenage years in Texas and Mexico; a California native guitarist who was raised in Brazil and lived several years in Japan; a Frenchman who spent years drumming in a band in Mexico; and a Canadian who has lived in Southeast Asia and Brazil. The four came together in Rio de Janeiro and planned to launch the project in England before getting a call from a Florida record label. Eventually they settled in Austin, Texas, where their song “Providence” got heavy airplay.Bonus fact: Their biggest following is in Burlington, Vt.
This foursome formed in Los Angeles in 2010 – meaning it’s not too late to change their name. True, the sound is vintage soul, smoothly sung by lead vocalist Ty Taylor, and with a touch of social consciousness reminiscent of Marvin Gaye. But I hear the name “Vintage Trouble” and I think “bad tribute band that might be OK at a bar mitzvah but not at a festival.”Bonus fact: Have recorded their music in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood, well known for folk-rock (Crosby, Stills & Nash on up to Dawes) but not for old-school firstname.lastname@example.org