Review: Zac Brown Band, Jack Johnson, Lionel Richie and extreme weather at Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience
The 2018 Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience completely sold out — a first in the music festival’s 23-year history.
The threat of thunderstorms throughout the holiday weekend appears to have kept a number ticketholders from making it to Snowmass Town Park, however, so the crowds were a little thinner than the 10,000-person daily capacity of the venue. Attendance topped out at about 8,000 Friday night, and just over 9,000 both Saturday and Sunday, Jazz Aspen president Jim Horowitz said Monday.
“It’s a milestone, a three-day sellout,” Horowitz said. “We never thought we’d get there, necessarily.”
This year’s Labor Day fest will likely go down in local lore as the year of the lightning storm and the evacuation that cut short music legend Lionel Richie’s long-awaited Aspen debut, and as the year of Michael Franti’s double-rainbow.
But the weather couldn’t steal the whole show. The festival also boasted sets these crowds are unlikely to forget from a Zac Brown Band that is at the height of its powers, from Gary Clark Jr. solidifying his place as his generation’s best bluesman and from Jack Johnson reminding us why Aspen loves him.
Richie fled the stage Friday night after about 45 minutes, abruptly announcing he’d been told he had to halt the performance due to approaching lightning storms.
Lightning had flashed in the distance as Richie, in a sparkling black sequined jacket, rolled through a slick parade of his countless hits. The 69-year-old music legend soldiered through songs like “Easy” and “Dancing on the Ceiling” while battling the thin and chilly air.
“While all of you are freezing to death, I’m gasping for air,” Richie, who peppered his truncated set with good-natured banter about his lack of oxygen, told the crowd. “This is the damnedest audience I’ve ever had.”
He was making his way through a medley of Commodores songs when the evacuation call came.
A freezing rain soon began to fall as lightning flashed overhead. Buses out of Snowmass Town Park were slow to arrive, leaving a cold and wet crowd of thousands waiting in corrals for an hour or longer. Jazz Aspen caught hell on social media for the boondoggle. But on Saturday and Sunday, the exit and bus situation were back to the smooth logistical operation that festival-goers have come to expect from Jazz Aspen and lines moved swiftly.
The weather had been friendlier but no less dramatic for Michael Franti’s buoyant festival-opening performance. The local favorite launched with his optimistic anthems “I’m Alive,” “You’re Number One” and “Sound of Sunshine,” and though ominous storm clouds were gathering overhead, Franti kept repeating “It’s a beautiful day.”
About 20 minutes in, the sky seemingly decided to agree with him. As Franti ran though the crowd on his bare feet and sang, a gorgeous sun shower dropped a bit of rain. A vivid double rainbow then opened up just beyond the festival grounds, as he sang “Just to Say I love You.”
“I like to think that double-rainbow was Aretha Franklin and John McCain looking down on us,” Franti told the festival crowd.
With Richie running late — his plane had been diverted from Aspen to Rifle due to weather, and he started about 30 minutes after than the 8 p.m. scheduled time — Franti played an extra-long opener that went one hour and 45 minutes for his grateful legion of Colorado fans.
We see a lot of Michael Franti around here, and the performance did strike some too-familiar rote notes including some repeated moments, like his “Imagine” sing-along with children on-stage. But somehow Franti never disappoints and always brings something new. This time it was a brand new song with an anti-bullying message, “Flower in the Gun,” co-written with 19-year-old singer-pianist Victoria Canal, who was born without a right arm but is an impressive keys player. Canal, who Franti discovered on Instagram, wowed the audience with her soulful vocals and proved a perfect duet partner for Franti.
Another Aspen favorite, Jack Johnson, brought more feel-good vibes to the stage for his headlining set on Saturday.
Johnson comes as advertised, giving an un-fussy, laid-back, good-time performance wearing thong sandals and a permagrin. His sweet and 4:20-friendly sound is a perfect match for this festival and this crowd, which was putty in his hands as he served up amiable favorites from his catalog including “Better Together,” “Good People,” “Shot Reverse Shot” and “Banana Pancakes” with cover-song interludes.
Johnson’s set included some wild sonic theatrics from his organ player Zach Gill, who also engaged in a beach ball-kicking battle with the crowd.
The high point, though, was when he brought the day’s opening band, Bahamas, back up to join him on “Breakdown” and a tribute to the late Tom Petty with “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” on which he traded verses with Bahamas singer Afie Jurvanen and band mates.
Johnson introduced “Breakdown,” saying “This is a song about when you come to a place like this and you don’t want to leave.”
The feeling was mutual, as his 100-minute set left this crowd wanting more.
An evening set from Fitz and the Tantrums on Saturday was a let-down. The runaway success of the band’s recent mega-hit “Handclap” seems to have thrown off the band’s center of gravity. While Fitz shows here in years past have been weird and wild dance parties driven by organ melodies and Fitz’s unhinged vocals, this one seemed like the band was marking time until it closed out the set with the crowd-pleasers and sing-alongs “Handclap” and “The Walker.”
Early-arriving fans on both Saturday and Sunday were treated to impressive opening shows. The witty tropical-tinged rock of Bahamas on Saturday and the no-frills ripping blues of power trio The Record Company on Sunday won these bands many new fans. Here’s hoping both come back soon to headline Belly Up or the Wheeler.
But the main musical attraction of the weekend was the Zac Brown Band, which rolled into the Labor Day fest in the midst of a massive stadium tour to close out Sunday. The band is at the top of its game, transcending its country-rock roots with a big-tent approach that fills its set lists with idiosyncratic cover songs and a rarefied showmanship.
“I have one of the greatest bands in the world behind me,” Brown told the sold-out crowd after stepping on-stage for an encore. “Let me show them off for a minute.”
Brown and his seven-man crew then launched into an eight-song medley of cover songs showcasing their ability to nail just about any genre. Each band member took the lead and sang a verse on their own song, with far-flung selections from beyond the band’s country-rock wheelhouse. They did Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” and Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” they did The Police’s “Message in a Bottle” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You.” Bass player John Driskell Hopkins rapped Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Brown himself took the lead vocals on AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” before they closed the night with the Beastie Boys’ “Sabatoge.”
The Zac Brown Band doesn’t do ironic country-fied versions of these songs. They approach them earnestly, bringing the band’s stellar skills to hip-hop and metal and funk. Brown knows he’s got a band that can do anything, so he lets them try to pull off everything.
When they played Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” — with Brown on bass and mean-mugging while Hopkins sang vocals — it was as menacing and as metal as the original.
Their straightforward version of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” likewise, was the band’s honest take on a soaring pop number.
This high-wire act actually works. And it may be why the Zac Brown Band has made it into the stratosphere of American pop music, positioning itself as an heir to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Their “Whipping Post” is the closest their covers come their home genre. Seeing organ player Clay Cook and his mates do karaoke Allman Brothers was a thrill worthy of the Southern rock gods.
This stadium-tested Zac Brown Band is an adventurous outfit. Buoyed by their extraordinary musicianship, they can play all those weird covers and traditional country songs from their catalog like “Day That I Die” alongside experimental offerings like their EDM-tinged “Beautiful Drug” and keep the audience rapt across that wide spectrum. And, of course, the opening line mentioning Colorado in “Colder Weather” got one of the biggest roars of the festival.
Brown, it’s worth noting, also offered a baffling and bone-headed moment of media-bashing during the set. In the middle of “Country Fried,” the band’s paean to beer, chicken, veterans and simple American living, he spouted: “I don’t care what the media says, this is the greatest country in the world.”
Brown’s set was preceded by the astounding Gary Clark Jr., torchbearer of the Texas blues tradition. Playing with a three-man band, with a few spouts of rain early-on, Clark showcased a new, unreleased song called “Low Down Rolling,” and played a handful of songs that edge into soul and funk territory. But a Gary Clark show is all about him and his guitars and the moments when he builds a song like “My Baby’s Gone” or “”When My Train Pulls In” or “Bright Lights” to an anarchic crescendo of rip-roaring dirty blues.
Those moments, when he’s built the sonic tension long enough and then lets it explode in a wailing improvisatory solo and then descends smoothly back into the groove of a song with his band, are a miracle to behold live.
He closed the 80-minute set with an apocalyptic cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” With shrieks of feedback and sneering vocals, Clark makes you rethink the nearly 50-year-old anthem. He reframes it as a more pessimistic, darker and fiercely urgent call for unity that’s pitch-perfect for 2018.
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