Winter at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House |

Winter at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyAcoustic quintet the Punch Brothers, with mandolinist Chris Thile, return to the Wheeler Opera House in February.

ASPEN – The Wheeler Opera House’s winter season is, as usual, heavy on folk singers and familiar faces. Which still leaves plenty of room on the calendar for more novel acts, including a most classic rock vocalist, a keyboardist who has seen most everything from his piano bench, a singing-and-dancing Latina icon – and the most entertaining troupe of faux-Russian juggling jokesters on the performance circuit.

The Wheeler, too, does a bit of juggling of its own, as two of its self-produced festivals find new places on the calendar.

Here’s what’s rolling into the Wheeler in the months ahead. Tickets for the shows below go on sale Oct. 25. And definitely expect the Wheeler to make another round of announcements as they add shows to the schedule.

“Race to Nowhere” takes a stand against what has become the institutionalization of the American education system. The documentary, directed by Vicki Abeles, examines with a critical eye the phenomenon of young kids overburdened with homework, the obsession with scores and grades, and burned-out teachers. It also raises the question: Why, with so much emphasis on academic achievement, do so many employers and college professors believe young people arrive on campus and in the work world unequipped for the intellectual challenges there?

A Fine Frenzy is a fresh face, for sure, appearing in her Aspen debut at the Wheeler. The stage name of Alison Sudol, a 25-year-old native of Washington state, A Fine Frenzy performs piano-oriented singer-songwriter material, much of it influenced by the literature of C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll. (The stage name comes from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) Europe seems to be particularly warm to Sudol; her debut album, 2007’s “Once Cell in the Sea,” was a major hit across the continent, and her most recent work, last year’s “Bomb in a Birdcage,” reached the charts in Sweden, Germany and Austria.

They’re not brothers, they’re not from Russia, they wear kilts and their jokes are as corny as they come. But man, can these four Californians juggle stuff. Their latest show has them keeping aloft eggs, musical instruments, a meat cleaver, a block of dry ice – and pretty much whatever else the audience throws at them on any particular night. Having performed since the early 1970s, the Karamazov Brothers are the answer to the trivia question: What act has appeared on “Seinfeld,” collaborated with a group from MIT, and performed with the Grateful Dead?

In 1961, Rita Moreno, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, became the first Latina to earn an Academy Award, taking the Best Supporting Actress honor for her role as Anita in the groundbreaking “West Side Story.” Since then, she has not only become a racial icon, but an all-around cultural one, adding to her mantel an Emmy, a Grammy and, for best featured actress, in “The Ritz,” a Tony – an unprecedented achievement. In 2004, President George W. Bush gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; last year, President Obama gave her the National Medal of Arts. Which doesn’t leave much, except maybe a baseball MVP.

As a college student in small-town Pennsylvania, John Gorka discovered Godfrey Daniels, a venerable coffeehouse with a deep history in the folk scene. It must have seemed like Gorka’s own little patch of heaven, as the New Jersey native listened, rubbed elbows, experimented and eventually started playing his own songs. In 1984, he won the New Folk Award at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival in West Texas, and three years later his recording career began in earnest. From 1990 to 1996, Gorka released an impressive five full-length albums, and cemented his reputation as one of the best acoustic performers of his time. He has slowed down since then, but the last year has seen two new projects: the solo album “So Dark You See,” and “Red Horse,” a collaboration with Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson.

A native of County Clare, Ireland, Maura O’Connell first became known for her interpretations of traditional Irish songs (and for her curly, flaming red hair). But O’Connell has become an innovator, highly influenced by American newgrass, especially banjoist Bela Fleck and dobroist Jerry Douglas, and her music became a cross of Irish and American sounds. Her most recent album, 2009’s all a cappella “Naked With Friends,” featured guests from both sides of the Atlantic, including Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Paul Brady.

The finest training ground for improv comedy, Chicago’s Second City sends its touring company for a return visit to the Wheeler.

Uniquely brilliant. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s take on isicathimiya music combines vocals, foot stomps and choreography in a way that conveys the burden and dreaming of the black experience in South Africa. Joseph Shabalala, who literally dreamed up the Ladysmith sound 50 years ago, still leads the group, but his four sons have begun to take the reins.

After an appearance at Belly Up, a venue that just didn’t feel right for the group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo returns to the Wheeler.

The Punch Brothers aren’t wasting much time getting back to the Wheeler; they first performed there last winter. But the acoustic quintet, led by former Nickel Creek leader Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals, is innovative and virtuosic. Plus, since their last appearance, they have released a new album, “Antifogmatic,” which is looser and rootsier than their debut, “Punch.”

An all-female folk trio, the Wailin’ Jennys have changed their membership since forming in 2002 in Winnipeg. Not that Aspen audiences should notice, as this marks the Jennys’ debut here.

Kathy Mattea had her moments in the spotlight in the late ’80s and early ’90s, none bigger than her number one single, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.” She has since found a comfortable niche outside of mainstream Nashville, with a devoted fan base and critical acclaim for her albums. Her most recent effort, 2008’s “Coal,” was a tribute to the mining culture of her native West Virginia.

Yes, that Jon Anderson, the high-pitched voice from prog-rockers Yes. Here, the synthesizers and rhythmic twists and lyrics about … what, exactly? … are not the main event. It’s just Anderson, his voice and an acoustic guitar.

An Alabama-born keyboardist, Leavell has been a key member of the Allman Brothers, a long-time piece of the Rolling Stones’ touring band, a collaborator with Eric Clapton and George Harrison. He has also released three solo albums, and at the Wheeler it will be a solo performance.

In addition, the Wheeler gives a good shake-up to its festival presentations. Gone is the late May Rooftop Comedy Festival; in its place is the Aspen Laff Fest, which moves to March in hopes of capturing the energy of the old U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. No dates or acts have been announced, though it is pitched as a four-day event.

And 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, which just debuted last month, also moves into March. The event, co-produced by local musician John Oates, had a promising launch, and looks to climb higher when it returns March 31-April 3.

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