The Stewy awards: a six-string celebration |

The Stewy awards: a six-string celebration

Trey Anastasio

What kind of musical year was it for Stewy?It was a guitar kind of year, no doubt. Of the four shows (all local, between last mid-April and this mid-April) that will stay with me as long as I have a memory, the big name in all of them was the guitarist. Now you might think that every year is a big guitar year, the six-string being the dominant instrument in rock ‘n’ roll. But no. To my surprise, the winner of the Stewy award for best show has gone to acts led by singers, a banjoist, a mandolinist, with nary a guitar-slinger in there. Go figure.It was a year where the highlights were nicely spread out among venues and presenters. While Belly Up continues to expand, in number of shows and the names playing those gigs, and earns a huge share of attention in the process, and Jazz Aspen Snowmass remains a high-profile presenter, the Wheeler Opera House, Mountain Groove and the town of Snowmass Village all showed vitality in their offerings. The aforementioned quartet of shows came courtesy of a combination of those five organizations. Even the Aspen Music Festival gets a nod in the superlative shows cited below. (The Music Fest is usually an outsider to the Stewys, not because Stewy doesn’t love the AMF – he does – or classical music – he does – but because he has a trepidation in holding himself out as an expert on classical music.) It was a friendly sort of year. The Wheeler, with its new leg-friendly seats and audience- and user-friendly director Gram Slaton, is shaking off its stuffy image. Belly Up adds courteousness to the long list of attributes – outstanding sound, knockout lineup, no smoking – that have put it in the major leagues of music clubs.It was a year with one glaring disappointment, Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival. Hip-hopper Kanye West was an intriguing name, but his performance was indifferent; LeAnn Rimes put on a decent show, but the country-pop singer just isn’t an act that’s going to get the local audience riled up.One thing you can say, apropos of West and Rimes, is that it was a year of new names. Those two joined a long list – Elvis Costello, Yo La Tengo, Gomez, Ben Kweller, Jamie Cullum and the Wood Brothers among them – who made impressive local debuts these last 12 months.More than ever, it was an overwhelming year. The number of concerts taking place in Aspen and Snowmass – let alone Carbondale and Glenwood Springs – is truly a challenge to me, as a writer and attendee. But it sure beats the opposite problem.

And it was a satisfying year. On to the best and most notable of it.Stage announcement of the year: As Colorado acoustic jammers Yonder Mountain String Band were about to launch a two-night run at the Wheeler last April, the Wheeler’s Gram Slaton and Mountain Groove’s Josh Behrman took the stage together to lay down the law for the young, out-of-town crowd that packed the venerable, old Opera House. And the law was that this audience was welcome, that dancing would be encouraged. It was music to the ears, before the music even started.(P.S. – Slaton and Behrman would have to return at the set break to stress that the hospitality did not extend to lighting up bowls in the Wheeler. Which the crowd seemed to accept.)Doubleheader of the year: The evening of July 22, I put my marriage in jeopardy by informing my wife, Candice, that we would be leaving the Aspen Music Festival recital by Edgar Meyer early, so that we could see Allen Toussaint headline Jazz Aspen’s CrescentCitySwing benefit. Understand, this was no reflection on Meyer, whose performance – on solo bass, dammit! – was jaw-dropping. Had I missed my mark on Toussaint, I’d have been in the domestic doghouse. Fortunately, Toussaint lived up to his status as a New Orleans piano legend, getting the floor shaking with versions of Big Easy and R&B classics – a good number of them written by him.Most pleasant moment: On Feb. 8, I attended the early show at Belly Up by Béla Fleck & the Flecktones – a more than pleasant thing in itself, seeing the miraculous jazz/funk/bluegrass quartet in such a small setting. I saw the whole thrilling show, stayed for the encore, and walked the few blocks home. When I walked in the door, the big grin on my face grew to epic proportions as I looked at the chronometer: 9:05 p.m. What a sweet thing to be able to see a show in its entirety, and get home in time to read, relax and get a good night’s sleep.More early shows, please Mr. Goldberg?Additional note on the Flecktones show: It takes the award for most impressive work of the year on the part of a sound-design team. To hear every note of Fleck’s banjo, clear as crystal, in a club setting – magnificent. Kudos to Ralph, the Belly Up’s sound guy.

Most notable personal achievement: After 43 years, I learned to hula-hoop, at the Labor Day Festival, thanks to Betty Hoops. Another 43 years of everyday practice and I might be as good as my 7-year-old daughter, Oliva, who took second place in the hooping contest at the Carbonadle Mountain Fair.Best backstage comment: Jennifer Hartswick, trumpeter in Trey Anastasio’s band, approached me after the concert, with a look of recognition in her eyes. “Are you the guy who was dancing around in the photographer’s pit while taking pictures?”

Me (slightly cautious): “Yes.”JH (smiling): “We love that.”Me (to myself): “Yeah, well so did I.”Danny Gatton Memorial Award for Best Guitarist: Danny Gatton, the brilliant Washington, D.C.-area rockabilly player, earned the first Stewy for Best Guitarist, circa 1994. A year later, he was dead, by his own hand.The nominees are … Hang on here. I can’t reveal the best guitarist, because that would spoil the Best Show award. See below for more on the Gatton Memorial Award.

Best instrumentalist who doesn’t play guitar: The nominees are: banjoist Béla Fleck; bassist Edgar Meyer; pianist Brad Mehldau (who co-fronted a quartet, with Pat Metheny, March 16, at the Wheeler); harmonica player John Popper (with his John Popper Project April 1 at Belly Up); dobroist Jerry Douglas (leading his Jerry Douglas Band Aug. 26 at Belly Up).And the winner is Brad Mehldau, a 36-year-old who is not only one of the best jazz players of his generation, but an all-time great.Most memorable song performance: At the end of each year, I reflect back to which individual songs stand out. Whichever ones I can actually remember clearly, out of the thousands I heard, I figure are worthy of a nomination.

The nominees are: “Mr. Tough,” by Yo La Tengo (Oct. 11, Belly Up); encore of “Gotta Jibboo”/”First Tube,” by Trey Anastasio (June 25, Jazz Aspen June Festival); “Big Chief,” by Allen Toussaint (Jazz Aspen’s CrescentCitySwing, July 22); solo version of “Little Martha,” by Jerry Douglas (Aug. 26, Belly Up); a cover of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved,” by his son, Stephen Marley (April 8, Belly Up).The winner is former Phish man Anastasio, who closed his local debut as a solo act with 20 minutes or so of rare jamming.Joel Stonington’s Favorite Show: Jurassic 5 (Sept. 10, Belly Up). (Joel Stonington covers music, and real news, for The Aspen Times.)Joel Stonington’s Least Favorite Show: Built to Spill (July 12, Belly Up).The one thing that needs to be changed, and that right fast: Snowmass has stepped up to become a major concert presenter, and how happy we all are about that. Now it’s time for one relatively tiny step: Do something to replace that drab, gray, muddy stage cover that spoils the otherwise gorgeous Fanny Hill setting (and really doesn’t do much for my photos of the bands to boot. Tapestries would be cheap and effective.)Show by artist who could pass for a bluegrass band: The nominees are Béla Fleck & the Flecktones (early show, Feb. 8, Belly Up); David Grisman Quintet (Aug. 6, Belly Up); Nickel Creek (Aug. 9, Fanny Hill); Jerry Douglas Band (Aug. 26, Belly Up).The winner is Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, who made innovative, technically mind-boggling music – without forgetting that performing is about letting the audience have fun.Best shot at redemption: Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival. Credit given for stretching out into hip-hop and country. But Kanye West seemed like he couldn’t wait to leave our lily-white valley. This year’s lineup – the Allman Brothers and two of its offshoots, Ben Harper and Nickel Creek, plus a new face in young Brit soul singer Joss Stone, and a headliner still to be named – has fans already forgetting about last year.

Most overdue debut: Gomez, a British band that plays a skewed version of bluesy American jam-band music, hit big with their first album, “Bring It On,” in 1998, winning Britain’s Mercury Prize. Since then their CDs have been consistently good, though, commercially, they haven’t lived up to their promise. Which seemed like a good thing for Aspenites, who could hope to see them in a local club. Oddly, it never happened at the old Double Diamond, and it seemed like maybe the band had fallen off the map for local programmers and listeners. But Belly Up finally brought them in for an October date, and the lads, especially lead singer Ben Ottewell, proved themselves a strong act. Strong enough that when they returned for a February gig, as part of the poorly organized Ski Tour, Belly Up was packed.Show I REALLY wish I hadn’t missed: I missed some shows. OK, I missed lots of shows. That happens when you have a 7-year-old and hit every single one of your news deadlines, and shows happen as often as they do around here.I missed bands I love: Blues Traveler, Grace Potter, North Mississippi Allstars (two nights), the Drew Emmitt Band, Keb’ Mo’, Robert Earl Keen, the Greyboy Allstars, Sam Bush, Liquid Soul, Cracker, the Radiators, Galactic and Sonya Kitchell. I missed acts I’ve never seen before and really want to see before I expire: Aimee Mann, Chris Isaak, the Isley Brothers, Brazilian Girls, the Stringdusters, Dan Hicks, Piers Faccini, the Avett Brothers.I missed a rock ‘n’ roll legend, Joe Cocker. I missed acts from Africa (Ladysmith Black Mambazo), Jamaica (Buju Banton), England (Jamie Cullum, Pato Banton, Seal), Australia (Cat Empire), and Texas (Alejandro Escovedo, Robert Earl Keen).

I missed folkies (Kathy Mattea, Chris Hillman, Tom Rush), hip-hoppers (Jurassic 5, Common, both Method Man and Redman) and jazzers (John Pizzarelli, Jane Monheit). I missed something which I’m not really sure what it is, called the Mutaytor. I missed a Golden Globe nominee, Jeff Daniels.And those are just the ones I really wanted to see, putting aside the dozens I just wanted to see, or was merely curious about.But the one I really wish I had seen was Martin Sexton (Feb. 9, Belly Up). Joel and Nate, the Aspen Times’ resident “Martians” – as I call Sexton-lovers – said the show was not his best. But I’ve been hearing about his legendary shows for years, and have yet to see him.The guy I just don’t get: In his Chili Pepper & Brew Fest gig (June 10, Fanny Hill), young blues hotshot Jonny Lang demonstrated one gear – shred all the time, on guitar and vocals. No nuance, no variety of emotion. And people ate it up. But not me. To confirm my assessment, I stooped to listen to Lang’s 2006 CD, “Turn Around.” More of the same sameness.The guy who needs to come back to Aspen: Bruce Hornsby – eight years and counting since he showed up here.Show of the Year: And the nominees are Gov’t Mule (Sept. 3, Belly Up); Trey Anastasio (June 25, Jazz Aspen June Festival); Metheny Mehldau (March 16, Wheeler); and Soulive (Aug. 3, Fanny Hill). All led, more or less, by guitarists (though pianist Brad Mehldau was even more impressive than Pat Metheny in the Metheny Mehldau quartet). And recall: Anastasio was a replacement for another hot guitarist, John Mayer, who canceled.The winner, after much contemplation and gnashing of teeth, is Trey Anastasio, who couldn’t have been in better spirits or finer musical shape. Give the man a Danny Gatton Memorial Award to go with it.

(Note: It’s the second year in a row the winner of the big Stewy has come from the June Festival. Last year’s imaginary trophy went to David Byrne.)Leading candidate for the 2008 Best Show of the Year Stewy: Interesting bout coming up between the Allman Brothers Band (Sept. 2, Labor Day Festival), and Dickey Betts (July 28, Belly Up), the ousted Allman Bro’ whose last Belly Up appearance is said by some to be the best show in the club’s two-plus year history. Also running: Drive-By Truckers (May 11, Belly Up); Steve Winwood (June 23, June Festival); and two shows on June 8, opening night at the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest, David Grisman Quintet and the Del McCoury Band. A million thanks, at least, to the people who put on the music and help me cover it and enjoy it: Jim, Mark, Joe, Andrea at Jazz Aspen; Michael, Ralph, Kim, Lance and everyone at Belly Up; Steve Standiford of Steve’s Guitars; Janice and everyone at the Aspen Music Festival; Gram and the Wheeler crew; Aspen Times compadres Steve, Joel, Nate, Jeanne, Bob, Rick, Paul and Jordan; Alan, Rachel, Mitch, the Miracle Man and anyone else who takes the time to talk music. Special thanks to Josh Behrman.

And, for things nonmusical, huge thanks to Candice, Olivia, Tony and Fluffy.Photos by Stewart Oksenhorn; e-mail address is

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