Review: Lyle Lovett, Leslie Odom Jr., Lizz Wright at Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience
The Aspen Times
With a booming rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and shouts of “hallelujah,” the traditional Sunday morning gospel concert returned to the Jazz Aspen June Experience after more than a decade off the festival’s schedule.
A mid-morning cold front and scattered rain showers broke up the lawn party outside the Benedict Music Tent. But inside, the rousing free morning performance by New Orleans-based Josh Kagler and Harmonistic Praise Crusade filled about one-third of the tent with dancing revelers.
The gospel set capped three days of concerts that included a stunning local debut by “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. and the crowd-pleasing return of Aspen favorite Lyle Lovett with his Large Band (along with a surprise on-stage appearance by cyclist Lance Armstrong).
A restructured festival schedule — with two concerts Friday, just one Saturday and none Sunday night — kept the tent full throughout the weekend for main-stage acts and packed free lawn shows by rising artists like the drummer Paa Kow. The trimmed main stage schedule also avoided the unfortunate phenomenon of recent years where audiences stayed on the lawn until sundown and left artists like Jon Batiste playing to a nearly empty tent.
‘HAMILTON,’ BROADWAY & BEYOND
Leslie Odom Jr. won over the Jazz Aspen audience before singing a note Friday.
Walking out to the opening piano line of “Wait For It” from the Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton” — in which he originated the role of Aaron Burr and for which he won a Tony — the singer already had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
Odom bracketed his 80-minute set with songs from “Hamilton,” opening with “Wait For It,” closing with a heart-melting “Dear Theodosia” and a show-stopping solo rendition of “The Room Where It Happens” that had his four-piece band blaring. But it was in between these sure-to-please “Hamilton” portions of the night that Odom truly impressed with thoughtfully selected and arranged songs from Broadway (“Without You” from “Rent”) and beyond (“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan).
Odom was joined by a 40-piece orchestra — made up of Aspen Music Festival and School students — for the soaring centerpiece of the show: a five-song tribute to Nat King Cole and a stirring version of “Sarah” from the Broadway musical “The Civil War.”
It’s a testament to Odom’s talent and charisma that he commanded as much attention on songs most in the audience has never heard before — “Sarah,” for one, but also “The Guilty Ones” from “Spring Awakening” — as he did when busting out the “Hamilton” tracks everyone came to hear.
Odom peppered his set with clever banter and self-deprecating jokes — he quipped that he couldn’t breathe in the thin mountain air but didn’t seem to miss a note as a result — and the story of developing “Hamilton” with Lin-Manuel Miranda. As he prepared to leave the Broadway cast two years ago, he explained, he had some choices to make about his future as an artist.
“The guys with the cigars came and said, ‘Hey, kid, what do you want to do now? Movies, what?’” he told the crowd. “And I looked them in the eye and I said ‘I want to play Aspen jazz!’”
This was a joke, of course, but Odom indeed treated this Jazz Aspen set like it was the most important performance of his life.
Odom was preceded on stage by vocalist Lizz Wright, who — after opening with slow and sultry versions of “Barley” and Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” — transfixed the late-arriving crowd with a rocking cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man.” From there, she and her four-man band commanded the audience’s attention with a genre-hopping set that included a funky, Hammond organ-powered spin on “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You,” an old-school boogie-woogie take on “Singing in My Soul” along with slow spiritual folk songs from her new album, “Grace.”
“I’m feeling a bit like a walking jukebox up here,” Wright said of her stylistic grab bag of a set.
LOVETT, HIS LARGE BAND & LANCE
Lyle Lovett sang through a permagrin for nearly all two hours of his Saturday night concert, giving an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance with his stellar 12-piece Large Band.
The band includes a four-piece horn section, pedal steel, cello, fiddle, stand-up and electric bass and more — manned musicians who lived up to their reputations as some of the best on the road today. Lovett can do just about anything with this crew, and appeared to try to fit everything in.
It was an expansive set that made room for stark and folky acoustic songs like “If I Had a Boat” and “North Dakota” along with rollicking swinging Texas country numbers like “The Truck Song” and “Nobody Knows Me,” solo songs by several bandmembers and a surprise appearance by Lovett’s fellow Texan Lance Armstrong, who provided supporting vocals on “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).”
They had silly fun on the opener “Choke My Chicken,” did the playful spoken word piece “Here I Am” and played ripping blues on “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.” Lovett did duet vocals with the legendary Francine Reed on Ella Fitzgerald’s “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and tore through the clap-along gospel of “Church.” The band noodled on an extended jam version of “I’ve Been to Memphis” and even played a bopping country take on Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” offering a comparison to Odom’s traditional jazzy version from Friday night.
The set may have been a bit bloated for casual listeners, but it thrilled the hardcore local fan base Lovett has cultivated over 30-plus years of regular stops here.
Lovett reminisced about those countless Aspen gigs and stops on nearly every stage in town and, with his longtime cello player John Hagen, waxed nostalgic telling the story of the band’s first stop here at the Double Diamond in February 1987, opening for Bonnie Raitt.
“You folks have made us feel at home all these years,” a grateful Lovett told the crowd. “It doesn’t get any better than Aspen, Colorado.”