Aspen Times Weekly: A Welcoming New Wheeler | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: A Welcoming New Wheeler

South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo returns to the Wheeler Opera House in March.

The latest renovation of the Wheeler Opera House is all about comfort. That charmingly old-fashioned balcony, dating back to 1889, that caused even 7-year-olds to complain about the lack of leg-room, and the seats that didn't quite face the stage are being replaced. The new seats will be wider, higher and, most noteworthy, at a greater distance from the seat in front of it. "We will be cheering the hearts and knees of our guests," Gram Slaton, the Wheeler's executive director, quipped in a press release.

The Wheeler also seems to have comfort foremost in mind with the first round of acts it has announced for the upcoming winter season. Several of the artists are Wheeler regulars with a solid track record; some are even Aspen residents. Virtually all of them are on the seasoned side age-wise, and thus are not likely to be testing the decibel limits of the new construction.

"It's people who have sold out in the past," Slaton said in an interview. "So it's a good way to present the new Wheeler."

The remodel will be introduced Dec. 21 with composer and part-time Aspenite Burt Bacharach. The 85-year-old, whose career dates back to New York City's Brill Building in the 1950s, has used his signature melodic style to tally more than 70 Top 40 hits, including such pop classics as "I Say a Little Prayer," "(They Long to Be) Close to You," "That's What Friends Are For" and "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." Bacharach's songs have been covered by British pop star Dusty Springfield, country singer Marty Robbins, '80s New Wave band Naked Eyes, rocker Rod Stewart, and the Beatles, who scored a hit with "Baby, It's You," from the band's debut album "Please Please Me." Dionne Warwick recorded 38 singles with Bacharach and his longtime lyricist Hal David. More recent collaborators include Rufus Wainwright, Dr. Dre, and Elvis Costello, with whom Bacharach recorded the 1998 album "Painted From Memory." Bacharach, who last performed at the Wheeler in 2007, will appear with a full band and multiple singers.

The Crystal Palace Revue, featuring actors from Aspen's defunct Crystal Palace Dinner Theatre, brings its original satirical song-and-dance show to the Wheeler for two shows on Christmas Day, Dec. 25. The Crystal Palace Revue, which has played numerous sold-out shows since the dinner theater closed in 2008, skipped performing last year at the Wheeler. The shows will include a champagne toast.

The Wheeler continues its tradition of a rocking New Year's Eve with the local debut of the Louisiana swamp-rock band the Delta Saints. The evening includes an open bar, party favors and a champagne toast.

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On Feb. 1, Dr. Ralph Stanley, the 86-year-old singer and banjoist whose career began in the 1940s, performs with his long-running Clinch Mountain Boys. The Virginia native performed from 1946-'66 with his brother Carter in the landmark bluegrass combo the Stanley Brothers, and experienced a career resurgence in 2000, when he recorded the Appalachian song "O Death" for the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Stanley's upcoming shows are being billed as a farewell tour.

Judy Collins, known for her interpretations of songs by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim, returns to the Wheeler for a Valentine's Day show, Feb. 14, after a 2012 performance. Collins' most recent album, 2011's "Bohemian," was a recollection of the southern California music scene of the 1960s and featured four of Collins' own compositions.

Texas singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, who recently bought a home in Aspen and has become a regular performer at the Wheeler, returns to play with his band on Feb. 15. Walker is best known for writing "Mr. Bojangles," and for his recordings of "L.A. Freeway" and "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African band formed by singer Joseph Shabalala in 1964, makes its return to the Wheeler on March 11. The group, which sings in the a cappella style known as isicathimya, gained international prominence by contributing to Paul Simon's landmark 1986 album "Graceland." Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which has won three Grammy Awards, is still led by Shabalala, and features four of his sons along with several cousins.

The renovation of the Wheeler balcony will not result in any loss of seating. Part of the renovation includes the replacement of the old film projector booth — known as "the Whale" — with a smaller, digital projection system. The Wheeler will be used for Aspen Film's Academy Screenings, Dec. 23-Jan. 2, featuring screenings of films considered contenders for Academy Awards. The program will be announced in mid-November.

Also coming to Aspen:

• Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's winter season opens with the traditional performances of "The Nutcracker" on Dec. 14-15, with two performances each day. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company will perform Feb. 14-15, with a program including Cayetano Soto's "Beautiful Mistake," Norbert de la Cruz's "Fold by Fold," and the world premiere of a commissioned work by Nicolo Fonte. The program will have an encore on March 29. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet will also present the all-male parody company, Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, on March 16. All dance performances are at the Aspen District Theatre.

• Jazz Aspen Snowmass' JAS Café, in the Little Nell hotel, opens for the season Dec. 20-21 with Colorado-based vocalist Stacey Kent, whose new album, "The Changing Lights," focuses on Brazilian styles. The Gypsy Allstars, a spin-off of the Gipsy Kings led by drummer Cedric Leonardi, plays its show Return to Rajasthan, which traces the gypsy culture to India, Dec. 28-30.

Wycliffe Gordon, trombonist with various Wynton Marsalis projects, does his tribute to Louis Armstrong, Hello Pops! on Jan. 10-11. Singer Kathy Kosins is set for Jan. 30-31, with Brazilian-born singer-pianist Eliane Elias returning Feb. 14-16.

Jazz-pop fusion band Spyro Gyra plays Feb. 20-22. The duo of singer Cyrille Aimee and guitarist Diego Figueiredo returns March 7-8. The seven-piece swing band Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers performs March 21-22. The series closes with the return of Cuban-born percussionist-singer Pedrito Martinez.

• Winter highlights at Belly Up include blues icon B.B. King (Nov. 27); electronica act EOTO (Dec. 6); folk-blues trio the Wood Brothers (Dec. 8); DJ/producer Steve Aoki (Dec. 21); the Flaming Lips (Dec. 30-31); the area debut of rock band the National (Jan. 3); Dweezil Zappa's Zappa Plays Zappa (Feb. 13); and alternative rock band the Pixies, with Best Coast opening (Feb. 14).