Aspen Songwriters Festival Part II

By City of Aspen
February 2, 2011
John Oates playing a private show in Telluride last year.
Troy Hooper

“Some people would say it’s crazy to produce a second festival six months after the first one,” said Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gram Slaton, “but when you’re as excited as we were by the results of the first one, you just jump right on it.”

The festival Slaton is referring to is the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival, and the “we” is the Wheeler with producing partner (and rock legend) John Oates.

Almost a half-year to the day from its initial outing the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival returns to the mountain town with an entirely new slate of songwriters, covering the gamut of musical Americana — from the essential roots of the American Blues tradition to the latest generation of the Nashville tradition to some of the best new writing in the indie-alternative world. Acoustic in nature, the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival remains committed to creating the shortest distance between the writer’s voice and the audience’s ear. The festival features eleven live events, opening on Wednesday, March 30, and concluding Saturday, April 2.

This is the third collaboration between longtime Aspen-area resident John Oates and the Wheeler. In early 2009 they partnered on a three-part singer-songwriter series called “The Stories Behind The Songs.”

“The series had a lot of promise and enthusiasm, and just seemed to command a larger concept,” said Slaton.

When in 2010 the City of Aspen started looking for new ideas to create destination product, an expansion of that series into what is now the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival seems like a natural. The first festival took place in September 2010, and easily lived up to its promise with known entities like Sam Bush, Allen Toussaint, David Bromberg, and Tift Merritt all aboard for the initial outing.

“But just as importantly, if not more so,” said Slaton, “was the enthusiasm that the audiences had for our new, unknown artists. Making a festival like this is all about mixing the new talent in with the proven names, and what we always hope to get – and in fact got back quite strongly – was that wonderful joy you hear from an audience when they discover an artist that you know they are going to claim as their very own. There’s a noise the audience makes that’s unlike any other in our business, not unlike love at first sight – or, in our arena, sound.”

Building on the success of the first festival, the second 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival will again feature known and proven names alongside new artists. “We’re matching up acts that we think will play together well, and we expect a lot of cross-pollination as the festival gets underway and all these strangers become friends. Audiences for this year’s 7908 Festival can expect a lot of surprises – as can John and I. You just never know who is going to end up playing on who’s set. And that’s what a festival should be," Slaton said.

The 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival starts with a name that has long been away from the Wheeler stage, paired with one of the brightest talents from the first 7908. SHAWN COLVIN opens the festival on Wednesday, March 30 at 7:30pm. In the nineteen years since Colvin first exploded upon the scene, she has won three Grammys (with Shawn Colvin Live up for a fourth), released eight albums, toured the globe countless times, and created a remarkable body of work. This marks the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s first return to the Wheeler after a decade and a half away. Colvin performed in Telluride over the winter holidays with her friend John Oates, and Oates expects to be a featured part of her performance in Aspen. Also on the bill: 7908 Standout New Artist for 2010 MICHAEL SMITH.

“He simply bowled us over with his virtuosity, unique style, and sophistication of his writing,” said Slaton. The Edwards CO-based Smith is the only songwriter from the first 7908 Festival to be invited back to perform. “We want to show the audience why they should trust us with these new talents,” said Slaton. Individual tickets are $37.50.

Wednesday will also feature a late show, as another Austin favorite, THE BAND OF HEATHENS, makes its Wheeler debut. Formed in 2006, they became a band totally by accident. Songwriters Colin Brooks, Gordy Quist, and Ed Jurdi were all doing regular sets at Momo's in Austin when they began sitting in with each other, eventually making the whole thing one big show that they called the Good Time Supper Club, which was essentially three singer/songwriters in the round backed by a solid rhythm section of John Chipman on drums and Seth Whitney on bass. What started out as a spontaneous side project soon became a full-fledged rock & roll band. The group's first two albums were both live affairs, 2006's "" Live from Momo's and 2007's Live at Antone's (which was also released on DVD), while their third, simply called "" The Band of Heathens, was released in 2008. THE BAND OF HEATHENS will be performing a special acoustic set, in keeping with the tradition of the 7908 Festival, starting at 9:15 p.m.. Individual tickets are $25.

Thursday, March 31 features three shows, starting with JAMES OTTO, SARAH BUXTON, and BRETT ELDREDGE at 6 p.m.. Part of Nashville’s MuzikMafia, JAMES OTTO has hit it big in the charts since 2007, and is still on a steady rise to being a monster solo artist with hits like “Just Got Started Lovin’ You.” Cohort SARAH BUXTON’s “Stupid Boy” was a hit for Keith Urban, and she’s followed it up with works for Dierks Bentley. Newcomer BRETT ELDREDGE came out of nowhere in 2010 to be identified as one of the fastest-rising writers in town. “This is our Nashville Songwriters Circle for 2011,” said Slaton. “Each of these writers is considered the cream of the crop, the top 1 percent of writers making it in the cutthroat world of Country music. Here’s a real opportunity to catch some of the best music being put down anywhere, by the people who wrote it, played the way they heard it – absolutely the purest essence of 7908.” Individual tickets are $18.00.

It’s a real cross-blending of generations as Wednesday’s second show, ELIZABETH COOK and KIM CARNES, introduces two enormous talents to Aspen audiences. ELIZABETH COOK’s CD Welder was noted by Rolling Stone as one of the 30 best albums of 2010, finally yielding props for this Florida native after a decade of threading through the Nashville songwriter maze. Now with a Sirius XM show and an international reputation as a hot live act, she has definitely arrived. Who better to pair her with than two-time Grammy award-winner KIM CARNES, whose #1 songs include “The Heart Won’t Lie” and “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer,” and whose songs have been covered by Nashville royalty such as Sawyer Brown, Tim McGraw, Tanya Tucker, and literally dozens more. “Kim Carnes is best known to general audiences as the voice behind the monster 1981 hit ‘Bette Davis Eyes,’” said Slaton, “but the irony is that she didn’t even write that song. Instead, it gave her a platform to launch a three-decade career as one of Nashville’s most sought-after writers. And Cook’s just now really breaking out of the pack in a similar way. The paths for these two never crossed before being booked for 7908, and now they’re busy new friends, putting together what promises to be a dynamite event.” The show is at 7:30pm, and individual tickets are $18.00.

At 9 p.m., one of Aspen’s favorite traditional tunesmiths, KEB MO, finally makes it back to the Wheeler stage after far too long away. Fort Worth’s native son has been reviving the Texas blues for the last quarter century, and with 7908 he gets to reveal a whole different side of himself as legendary mandolinist SAM BUSH jumps in as a special guest performer. “This is one of those unique collaborations that Oates and I wanted to make the trademark of the 7908 Festival,” said Slaton. “Nobody plays country blues better than Keb Mo, but imagine the special depth Keb’s music will take with Sam introducing that bluegrass thread through it. This peels the blues back to its oldest, barest roots, in a show that you won’t catch anywhere except on the Wheeler stage.” Individual tickets are $37.50.

Friday, April 1, takes in two further branches of the blues stream, with a diversion right into the heart of the Indie-Alt scene of the past decade. At 6 p.m., RUTHIE FOSTER kicks off the evening with her own soulful take on songwriting. Her killer tunesmithing and vocal chops stole the stage from both Jorma Kaukonen and Robbin Ford at the Wheeler’s 2009 “Guitar Blues” evening, and her huge voice was found to be one of the most expressive ever from our stage. A past Grammy-nominated artist, in 2010 Foster took home the Female Artist of the Year award at the Blues Music Awards. Also on the bill: Colorado native Andy Hackbarth, who has been nominated for Denver’s Songwriter of the Year award, and was a finalist in the Billboard Songwriting Competition. Individual tickets are $20.

At 7:45 p.m., an Indie-Alt double concert puts 7908 square into the 21st Century with MILES ZUNIGA and MAT KEARNEY. Miles Zuniga founded Austin’s Indie-Pop sensation Fastball (“The Way,” “Out Of My Head” and the platinum-selling All The Pain Money Can Buy). Mat Kearney (”Nothing Left To Lose,” “Undeniable,” “Closer To Love”) fused Indie with Nashville. “This could be the place where 7908 all comes together,” said Slaton. “Music lovers will be able to track all the trails of Americana right into the present music scene, with two of the best songwriting practitioners of the past ten-plus years. And these two writers have never met before, so there will be creative sparks all over the place.” Individual tickets are $20.

Closing up Friday is the first-ever appearance of blues legend JOHN HAMMOND. Son of the man who discovered everyone from Billie Holliday to Bruce Springsteen, Hammond was practically born singing and performing, and for almost half a century has been acknowledged by musicians across the globe as one of the world’s greatest bluesmen, singing and playing with an authenticity that only a handful of other “blue-eyed sons” can claim. Called “a virtuoso... a conjurer ... a modernist” by no less an authority than T-Bone Burnett, Hammond has played with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to Tom Waits and The Band, but he can hold his own with just six strings and a microphone. Hammond takes the stage at 9:15pm, and individual tickets are $35. Also on the bill is Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon, who has co-written songs for "" \o "Tim McGraw" Tim McGraw, "" \o "Wynonna Judd" Wynonna Judd, and "" \o "Alabama (band)" Alabama, as well as three #1 Country hits: " "" \o "Cowboy Take Me Away" Cowboy Take Me Away" by the "" \o "Dixie Chicks" Dixie Chicks, " "" \o "Born to Fly (song)" Born to Fly" by HYPERLINK "" \o "Sara Evans" Sara Evans, and " "" \o "Bless the Broken Road" Bless the Broken Road" by HYPERLINK "" \o "Rascal Flatts" Rascal Flatts. Individual tickets are $37.50.

Saturday, April 2, swings 7908 into the English New Wave before bringing it back home with some of the happiest music being recorded today. At 6:15 p.m., CY CURNIN plays a special solo performance. Known for evocative lyrics and distinctive vocals, he developed a solid reputation in modern rock circles as the lead singer of The Fixx, and Cy will be forever tied to the top Ten hit “One Thing Leads To Another,” as well as “Saved By Zero,” “Are We Ourselves,” and “Secret Separation.” But he’s not content to be a 1980s wonder, and continues writing and performing with guitarist Nick Harper (son of English folkie Roy Harper) as well as his old bandmates. More than anything, though, Curnin is a brilliant storyteller and musical adventurer who brings his audiences inside the music, which is another hallmark of the 7908 Festival. Individual tickets are $20.

And speaking of the English New Wave, was there a British group that defined the sound of the 1980s better than Squeeze? As half of the songwriting duo, GLENN TILBROOK scooped the charts with “Tempted,” “Cool For Cats,” “Black Coffee In Bed,” “Pulling Mussels (From A Shell),” and “Up The Junction.” And he’s still a prolific writer, crafting pop songs with his own band and friends like Johnny Depp. “Expect the unexpected” is the going phrase for a Tilbrook show, where the line between performer and audience is regularly blurred to perfection. GLENN TILBROOK’s first-ever performance at the Wheeler is at 7:45 p.m.; individual tickets are $25.

And closing out the second 7908 Festival with a bang is a double-bill of two of the sunniest songwriters working today: DONAVON FRANKENREITER and MATT NATHANSON. Sometimes surfer, sometimes songwriter, all-time happy guy, Frankenreiter is one of the most upbeat performers ever, and he shares the stage with his good friend Nathanson, whose platinum-selling “Come On, Get Higher” is indicative of how this promises to be a majorly transcendent match-up. “You can expect to see John Oates mixing it up with these two,” said Slaton, “as he and Donavon have been working and touring a lot through the last year, and Nathanson is Donavon’s hand-picked choice to share the bill. Also on the program: Mexican songwriting sensation Ximena Sariñana, who has also been touring with Donavon Frankenreiter and at the tender age of 22 was a two-time nominee for the 2008 Latin Grammy Awards. Showtime is 9:15 p.m., and individual tickets are $35.

“We’re once again pricing the 7908 Festival very low because we want to make it accessible to every person and household,” said Slaton. “We’re still just getting started, and we want to lower any thresholds to getting people out to discover how absolutely unique and amazing the 7908 experience is.” Full festival passes are $189, or 35 percent off the single ticket price for all eleven shows. New this year are day passes, which take a full 25% off the price of that day’s shows. Day passes for Wednesday are $50; for Thursday, $57.50; for Friday, $60; and for Saturday, $65. All passes and individual tickets will go on sale at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 18, at the Wheeler’s Aspen Show Tickets box office (970-920-5770 locally, 866-449-0464 out of area, or online at

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