Working through the Jazz Aspen Labor Day lineup
August 26, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Oh, the misconceptions and shortage of information that abound out there. You’d think with this Internet contraption and the Google, the facts would be readily at hand. But as music fans about Aspen discuss the upcoming Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, you still hear such comments as:”Aren’t there only two of Steely Dan’s original members left?””Lenny Kravitz – sweet, I’ve been waiting years to see him.””So, they added an electronics stand to go with the food booths? Good, ’cause I might need new earbuds for my iPod.””Labor Day Festival – time to wheel out the dinosaurs to play ancient hits so 60-year-olds have an excuse to break out the ripped T-shirt and pretend it’s the ’70s, while their kids have another excuse to cringe at their parents.””Nah, I’ll blow off Spearhead this time. You know he’ll be back in Aspen next month.”Good thing ol’ Stewy’s here to set you straight, maneuver you around the junk, and steer you to the good stuff. I’ve been communing with Wikipedia and the crystal ball, listening to CDs and p.r. pros, trying to make sense of these three days of conscious funk, classic rock, alt-country and regular country, vintage soul, reggae, mash-up, dubstep and Mexi-coustic.Regarding the aforementioned misguided comments: a., this year’s lineup is noticeably short on aged classic rockers; b., among the semi-aged classic rockers not on the lineup is Lenny Kravitz, who was originally scheduled to perform, but canceled in April; and c., it’s not an electronics booth, it’s the Electronica Stage, a new side stage featuring electronica acts.Following are the mainstage acts, listed in order from potentially fantastic to “Maybe that Lynyrd Skynyrd booking wasn’t so bad after all.”
Let’s be clear: Steely Dan is not Lynyrd Skynyrd, who headlined last year’s Labor Day Festival. Yes, both had their biggest hits back when the main radio competition was The Captain & Tennille. But when Steely Dan released their comeback album, “Two Against Nature,” in 2000, it was a welcomed return and earned a handful of Grammys; when Skynyrd had their comeback, with 1991’s “Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991,” the reaction was, “Didn’t they die in a plane crash?”In fact, two key members of Skynyrd did die in a 1977 crash, and when the band appeared at the Labor Day Fest last year, exactly one member from the heyday was in the group.True, Steely Dan has just one more original member than that. But Steely Dan has always been basically two guys – singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist-bassist Walter Becker – with musicians shuffled in as necessary. Which wasn’t so difficult, given that the group took a touring hiatus that lasted from 1974-1993. Since taking to the road again, they have toured every few years, to mostly positive reviews.On their current Shuffle Diplomacy Twenty Eleven tour, Fagen and Becker are backed by the Miles High Big Band, which includes a four-piece horn section, and the Embassy Brats, a trio of female singers.
Based on stylistic history alone, you’ve got to be interested in Rodrigo y Gabriela. The Mexican-born duo of Rodrigo Snchez and Gabriela Quintero met while playing in a metal band, got a break while playing on street corners in Dublin, contributed to a tribute album covering the music from “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” helped write and record the score to the most recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack, have played jazz and classical festivals, cover Metallica and Led Zeppelin – and somehow wound up like a revved-up, highly talented flamenco act, playing nothing but two acoustic guitars.
Personally, I’m in virgin territory here, recommending a band that falls into the commercial country category. But the Zac Brown Band – apart from putting seven No. 1 singles on the country charts, which, to me, is like seven strikes against – has done un-mainstream-country things like touring in a van for years, throwing reggae and calypso sounds into their mix, being influenced by the Allman Brothers Band, and covering Rage Against the Machine and Ryan Adams. I’m crawling out on a limb (and setting myself up for the fall) and saying I’m looking forward to this.
Thievery Corporation, the duo of D.C. DJs Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, have become fixtures at Belly Up Aspen, selling out show after show there with exotic, multi-national spin on club music. But I have a music-savvy friend who swears that Thievery Corp.’s music is better built for the festival setting, where the crowds and the vibe are bigger.
Two years ago, Michael Fitzpatrick was an L.A. music producer who had given up on his own music, when a church organ fell into his possession. The new instrument inspired a song, “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” and a band, Fitz & the Tantrums, both cut from the old soul mold. The band, fronted by the dynamic vocal duo of Fitz and Noelle Scaggs, made a memorable local debut in June at Belly Up.
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A low-key guy who sings low-key alt-country, Bingham rose to some prominence when his song “The Weary Kind” became the center of the soundtrack for the film “Crazy Heart,” and earned an Oscar. His 2010 album “Junky Star” shows that weariness comes naturally to Bingham; songs like “Yesterday’s Blues” and “Depression” sound like he’s scraping the bare earth.
Of course I’m a Franti fan. It’s hard not to be, given his charisma and socially conscious vibe. But Franti plays here with the frequency of fireworks over Aspen Mountain, including Labor Day appearances in 2009 and 2007. (He performs this year as a replacement for Kravitz.)On the other hand: this is his only Colorado gig of 2011, and his last Labor Day show was as good as I’ve seen him.
Girl Talk is Greg Gillis and a laptop. That’s it. But the laptop is loaded with samples of hip-hop, rock, disco, soul, metal, punk and more, and Gillis, a 29-year-old former biomedical engineering student, is clever enough to mash those samples up into a seamless dance party that includes a horde of fans onstage, crowded around Gillis. Witnessing Girl Talk’s 2008 Belly Up show, the music had little effect on me – though I could understand the attraction for a 17-year-old looking to groove.
The Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival takes place Friday through Sunday, Sept. 2-4, at Snowmass Town Park. Go to http://www.jazzaspensnowmass.org for ticket information.