What the funk?! | AspenTimes.com

What the funk?!

Stewart Oksenhorn
Reggae singer Matisyahu closes the Labor Day Festival with a performance Monday, Sept. 4. (Danny Clinch)

As a Jew, I’m not the go-to guy on insider Christmas info; most of what I know about the birthday of Our Lord, the Savior Jesus Christ, I got from the Heatmeiser in “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” and “A John Waters Christmas,” a CD collection that includes “Here Comes Fatty Claus.” To tell the truth, I’m not that hot on the Jewish holidays either, and usually get busted eating potato latkes when I should be fasting. I’m screwed up when it comes to Thanksgiving, always expecting people to bring me presents. (My twisted take is partially excusable; I was born on Thanksgiving.) I leave New Year’s Eve to the amateurs, dread Presidents Day weekend with all those damn tourists, and support a constitutional amendment outlawing Valentine’s Day.Come Labor Day, however, I am the Man! Starting late August, people travel from the four corners of the globe (all right, usually they send e-mails), seeking my guidance and advice (not to mention spare tickets). For they know that, in working their way through the maze of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival, with its multiple days, many acts and numerous stages, none beats the sage Stewy for insight and knowledge. I have pointed out the wisdom of embracing John Fogerty, arriving early to see Robert Randolph, and avoiding Sheryl Crow like the proverbial plague.And so, this year, I say unto you all …What the funk??!!I suspect Jazz Aspen is trying to put old Stewy out of the prognostication business. All four headliners for the upcoming Labor Day Festival (Friday through Monday, Sept. 1-4, in Snowmass Town Park) are making their Jazz Aspen debuts; three are making their first local appearance. These are not the sort of artists (Sting, Paul Simon, the Black Crowes) that have been rumored to be coming for years; this year’s lineup seems to have been pulled out of a hat, one that was discarded and pulled out of the Rio Grande River, somewhere between Alamosa and El Paso. Not only do I not know squat about the artists coming, I don’t know a damn thing about the entire genres they represent. Hip-hop? Mainstream country? A friggin’ Eagle? It says a lot that the act I find closest to my realm is a reggae-rappin’ Hasidic Jew.So let’s be clear. I’m rolling the dice here, listing the acts in the order of importance. You find a better inside source, you be sure to let me know about it.The one prediction I’m standing by: The best show of the Labor Day weekend isn’t going to be at the Labor Day Festival. For the one sure thing, check out Gov’t Mule, Sunday, Sept. 3, at Belly Up. And no, I don’t have a miracle ticket. (But I will trade one for guidance on the proper pronunciation of “Kanye.”)Onward, through the fog …

As I was informed by some website, late-night talk-show host Carson Daly proclaimed Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae singer, “the most exciting thing happening in music today.” And if there’s two things I trust absolutely, it’s whatever the Internet tells me and Carson Daly’s musical taste.Matisyahu has true crossover appeal. His performance last winter at Belly Up rocked both the reggae die-hards and my next-door neighbor, a Hasidic rabbi with no knowledge of reggae who already has his tickets for the Labor Day gig. (Next thing you know, my walls are going to be shaking with Bob Marley tunes.) Matisyahu’s recent album, “Youth,” is a fine blend of the spirituality of roots reggae and the sounds of the modern, rap-influenced style. I’m sure my mother would approve.As it says in the Bible, the first shall be last. And Matisyahu, a man who probably knows his scripture better than I do, closes the festival.

In his local debut two years ago, my Essex County, N.J., homey Robert Randolph, playing an early-day set, smoked the day’s headliners, Lucinda Williams and Cake. OK, Williams had an off-day, and Cake provoked fights with the audience. Still, Randolph was smoking.One consistent knock on the 28-year-old Randolph – who was named three years ago No. 97 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best guitarists ever – is that his sets are the same night after night. That shouldn’t be the case this time through. Randolph’s new album, “Colorblind,” arrives (finally!) Sept. 26, and, apart from a cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright” with an Eric Clapton cameo, it is a step away from the sacred steel gospel style in which pedal steel player Randolph has specialized. This is a rockin’ mutha that should put Randolph over the top.3. Polyphonic Spree, Monday, Sept. 4, 2 p.m.If nothing else, this should be different. Led by Tim DeLaughter, the Dallas-based Polyphonic Spree features an 11-voice rock chorus, plus such non-rock instruments as viola, French horn and harp. The congregation takes the stage wearing long, brightly colored robes, looking more like an airport cult than a rock band.More important, the Spree uses those tools to make a sunny, dramatic and original sound, part indie rock and part choral orchestra. And the band should be well-rested and ready to rock. They have been off for most of the year, working on an EP (“Wait,” to be released via Internet next month, featuring covers of Nirvana and Psychedelic Furs), and the politically charged, full-length CD, “The Fragile Army,” set for release next year.

It’s not that I have anything against hip-hop (other than the few handfuls of hip-hop artists I’ve seen, the only one that really impressed me as a live act was Jurassic 5, who happen to have a gig at Belly Up, Sept. 8.) It’s that, before Belly Up at least, hip-hop had made precious little penetration into the valley, leaving me relatively ignorant on the whole movement.One of those who has made an imprint, fortunately, is Kanye West. West’s two Grammy-winning albums, “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration,” are abrasive as, I suppose, hip-hop should be, but also musically interesting and also quite funny. Count me interested.5. Raul Midón, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2 p.m.My question about Raul Midón isn’t about his talent. On last year’s “State of Mind,” the blind singer and guitarist plays hopeful, jazz-inflected music that recalls his hero, Stevie Wonder, in the vocals, and Richie Havens on guitar. (Wonder even makes an appearance, adding harmonica to “Expressions of Love.”)The question is whether Midón’s intimately scaled music is better suited to a smaller venue. Midón plays by his lonesome. Can an artist performing solo fill the big open spaces of the Labor Day venue?

Well, yes, a musician performing solo can be appropriate to a festival setting. But Keller Williams isn’t exactly a solo musician. Williams is a one-man jam band, playing and recording numerous instruments live onstage, then looping them to create something approximating a full-band sound. There’s a touch of gimmickry to it, but Williams overcomes that with tremendous guitar skills, as well as a loopy sense of humor and wordplay in his song-writing.Williams performed his solo show last year in Snowmass, and it would have been a treat to hear him in a different setting this time. Williams toured with Keller & the Keels, a bluegrassy acoustic trio that released the CD, “Grass.” In October at the Vegoose festival, he joins frequent collaborators String Cheese Incident for a Keller Williams Incident. But listeners who have never experienced what Williams can do by himself should probably be introduced with a solo show, his usual way of performing.

Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi burst out of Boston on 1998’s “Just Won’t Burn,” a mostly satisfying blues and R&B workout that echoed Bonnie Raitt a bit too loudly. “Wait for Me,” from 2002, was a small step forward, and I figured Tedeschi had shown all she had. Marrying the much younger, fellow guitar ace Derek Trucks was about the biggest surprise I thought she was capable of.So last year’s “Hope and Desire” was an unexpected treat. Tedeschi had turned toward soul with an album that covered Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and, most monumentally, Donny Hathaway’s “Magnificent Sanctuary Band.” Tedeschi, a more than competent guitarist, focused on her singing, and scored a winner. The hope and desire is that the material makes its way to the stage and sounds as good without the album’s guest performers.

On the positive side, Don Henley was the least lightweight of the Eagles, as he proved by singing lead on the band’s best songs, “Desperado” and “Hotel California.” His solo output, especially 1989’s “The End of the Innocence,” reached for emotional heft. And Henley has raised his voice often for social causes, especially regarding the environment. Then there’s the cranky side of Henley, which shows up in song (“Dirty Laundry,” “Get Over It”), album covers (check out the sneer on his 2000 solo album, “Inside Job”), and in interviews. (A newspaper story not long ago had Henley bashing the hell out of Aspen for falling from the heights of the ’70s, when he first arrived here as a part-time resident.) There’s the hypocritical side: How much affection can you muster for a musician who sings of principles, then goes and makes bland music with his old band for no apparent reason besides money? And of course, as the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” opined so eloquently, “I hate the f—king Eagles, man.” This from a man who has figured out how to live a life of bowling, White Russians and no job.But I’ll expect Henley to put on a at least as good a show as the man he replaced in the lineup, John Mellencamp. One middle-of-the-road aging rocker for another, the way I see it.

Like Los Lonely Boys (see below), Del Castillo is a Texas roots-rock band that draws on Tex and Mex influences, features a set of brothers, and delivers a message of brotherhood. Separating the two, Del Castillo has a more acoustic sound – brothers Mark and Rick del Castillo both play Spanish-style guitar – and sings more in Spanish.Del Castillo ranks ahead of Los Boys on two counts: Their most recent CD – titled “Brotherhood,” naturally – is slightly more distinguished than Los Lonely Boys’ new one, “Sacred.” And Willie Nelson seems to have switched allegiance: Nelson, who appeared on Los Lonely Boys’ first album, contributes to “Brotherhood” but doesn’t show up on “Sacred.”

Los Lonely Boys, comprising three sons of conjunto musician Enrique Garza, blend some Stevie Ray Vaughan-style Texas guitar, Los Lobos-style barrio rock and feel-good pop lyrics, all in the accent of their native San Angelo, in west Texas. It’s a style they call “Texican,” and on their new album “Sacred” the formula makes you beg for some lyrical depth. But there’s no disputing the enthusiasm they bring to the playing and harmony singing.

LeAnn Rimes burst onto the scene as a 13-year-old Patsy Cline ringer, singing the hit “Blue,” the opening, title track from her debut CD, with old-school country purity. That’s the good news. The bad news is that beyond “Blue,” the album devolves into schmaltzy countryish pop. As has her career: Rimes’ next six albums each received one-star reviews from the Rolling Stone Album Guide. And her official publicity website features a gallery of glamour-type photos, with viewer comments on them.****And away from the main stage:Aphrodesia, a colorful band that emulates the Afrobeat of the late Fela Kuti, returns for its second straight appearance as a Labor Day side-stage act. The California group plays Sept. 4 in the JAS Music Tent.Also returning from last year is Oteil Burbridge. Six years ago, Burbridge performed on the main stage, with his main band, the Allman Brothers. This time around, the bassist brings his funk-jazz-soul group, Oteil & the Peacemakers, to play Sunday, Sept. 3, in the JAS Music Tent, and that night in the Snowmass Block Party series. Before he joined the Allmans, Burbridge was a foundation of the lesser-known, but equally impressive Aquarium Rescue Unit.New Monsoon, a San Francisco septet that brings together African, bluegrass, Cuban and rock instruments for extended jamming, plays Friday, Sept. 1, on the Village Stage, and in the Block Party that night.Gnappy appears Saturday, Sept. 2, in the JAS Music Tent and at the Block Party. The quartet is from Texas, but features no brothers or Latino influences; on the new album “Unloaded,” the shootout a fine brand of groove jazz.Last, don’t miss Street Drums Corps, a hard-core drum trio from southern California. In fact, they’ll be hard to miss; Sept. 4 will have them strolling the grounds with their theatrical percussion show.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com