Aspen’s ‘best’ in live music: 2015
December 24, 2015
Tis the season for arbitrary "best of" lists. Well, maybe not arbitrary, but at least subjective, which this list of five stand-out 2015 Aspen concerts certainly is.
They were my favorites of the year, which included many high points on local stages — from the frigid nights pogo-ing in the snow at the X Games music festival with Snoop Dogg, Skrillex, Chromeo and Wiz Khalifa to a cozy June night at Belly Up with legends Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White playing old-time Americana. There was Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings' show-stopper at Mammoth Fest and Sharon Isbin showcasing her classical guitar mastery in her 25th year at the Aspen Music Festival and School. John Scofield and Gov't Mule teamed up memorably for a February show at Belly Up. I walked away from shows by Odesza and Of Montreal and TV on the Radio saying something like "Best show ever!" So, yes, it was a very good year for local live music fans. These are five shows I won't soon forget.
Belly Up, April 21
Nearly two months before his debut album, "Coming Home," took the world by storm, Leon Bridges came to town and stole the show as the opening act for Lord Huron. The 25-year-old Bridges (who earlier this month was nominated for a best R&B album Grammy and played "Saturday Night Live") had the Belly Up crowd wrapped around his finger by the end of his short set, channeling Sam Cooke in his smooth-as-silk voice and reviving the spirit of old-school doo-wop and soul. He wore a suit, brought a killer backing band and back-up dancers, and turned back the clock while bringing a youthful 21st century verve to the style.
Bridges is an entertainer for the ages. It's a feather in Belly Up's cap to have brought him here just before his superstar status took hold. Here's hoping he comes back as a headliner sometime soon.
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Rodrigo y Gabriela
JAS June Experience, June 28
It may have been a nightmare for festival security and the stage crew, but Rodrigo y Gabriela's JAS June show brought a thrilling controlled chaos to the Benedict Music Tent.
The crowd rushed the stage a half-hour into the guitar duo's exhilarating headlining set. Then the genre-defying guitar duo invited the throng to join them onstage, and they played out the night with a crowd of 80-plus fans dancing behind them. The show had a feral energy to it, a rarity in the often sedate confines of the Benedict. The 90-minute set rarely lost momentum and showcased the intricate finger work of the classical virtuosos and their heavy-metal flare in equal doses: the night included fog machines and a flamenco-tinged cover of Metallica's "Master of Puppets."
Aspen Ideas Fest, July 3
Not long after he was named Stephen Colbert's "Late Show" bandleader, Jon Batiste was on stage at the Doerr-Hosier Center singing and playing jazz standards on the piano and talking music with Walter Isaacson.
Between songs, the New Orleans-bred Batiste told the story of how he met Colbert (it was through Ideas Fest 2014, turns out). But the high point came at the end of the show, when Batiste broke out his melodica and hopped into the crowd playing "When the Saints Go Marching In," got everybody marching second-line style and gave a preview of the free-roaming stage presence he's since made a staple of "The Late Show."
An Independence Day "Star-Spangled Banner" duet with Wynton Marsalis the next day, and pair's conversation about race, jazz and America was one for the ages as well.
Iron & Wine
Belly Up, Aug. 11
A guy, a guitar, no set list and the quietest crowd I've ever encountered at Belly Up. Iron & Wine's solo show was an extraordinary thing to behold.
He began by asking, with a smirk, "Are you guys ready to get mellow?" Then he pulled songs from the spectrum of his catalog – somber songs like "Prison on Route 41" and "Sodom, South Georgia." He covered Bonnie Raitt's "Any Day Woman," and closed with a nearly a capella "Flightless Bird, American Mouth." For all 90-odd minutes of it, Sam Beam held the sold-out crowd in a reverent trance of pin-drop silence, while standing alone on stage, taking requests and playing his stripped-bare folk.
JAS Labor Day Experience, Sept. 6
Lenny Kravitz gave one of the jazziest performances seen on Jazz Aspen Snowmass' Labor Day stage in years, playing long and loose takes on a handful of his songs and showcasing a powerhouse 10-person band.
He got things started with rip-roaring, straightforward versions of "Frankenstein," "American Woman" and "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over" and then tore into an epic, improvisation-fueled take on "Always on the Run." Going well over 20 minutes, it incorporated extended solos from his band members. Kravitz stood back, danced and marveled as trumpeter Ludavic Louis took over with a soaring, altitude-defying, free-jazz improv. He gave "Let Love Rule" a similar long-form treatment.
The adventurous, maybe unexpected approach kept the audience rapt. I heard from some disappointed fans afterward who didn't go for Kravitz's jazz-jam approach, and thought it was too much — but, for meironwijune, seeing this rock star push the creative envelope and do more than karaoke out his hits was enthralling.
Next week: Andrew looks back at the year's best in Aspen theater.
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