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7908 The Aspen Songwriter's Festival: Great Expectations from Aspen's Great Indoors

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Lights, Here Comes ActionLights, Here Comes ActionASPEN, CO - Friday: Abundant sunshine. Saturday: A good amount of sunshine. Sunday: Bright sunshine, pleasant. The local papers have run out of adjectives to describe the flawless fall temperatures; it’s so ridiculously beautiful in Aspen these days, we might start calling it Pleasantville. Or Oz. And so, it’s a true testament to the abundance of 7908 The Aspen Songwriter’s Festival that festival-goers left the plentiful fall colors of the great outdoors to step into the darker, cooler confines of the Wheeler Opera House.

Happily, there was plentiful scenery and ever-changing colors across the Wheeler stage, as well. The Aspen Songwriter’s Festival, John Oates’ labor of love and dedication, kicked off Thursday afternoon with some excellent complimentary beer from Aspen Brewing Company, followed by festival opener, musical super-talent and comedic genius Mike Rayburn.

The stage lights turned to green, as Wheeler Master of Ceremonies Gram Slaton introduced the musician: “he’s the original tight pair of pants, ready to rip!” Rayburn is a one-man heckler, who’s sold out Carnegie Hall and venues across the nation with a mix of music, mockery and tremendous talent. “I make fun of songs that other people have written”, said the artist, before launching into uncanny impersonations of his fellow musicians: Dan Fogelberg does AC/DC, Johnny Cash does Justin Timberlake, general boy-band bashing and, in a brave and exceptional entertainment moment, with pants rolled up and channeling Angus Young, Rayburn did AC/DC doing Dan Fogelberg.
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Throughout the festival, the artists touched on the craft of songwriting and the inspiration behind their songs. “Music is always asking us questions”, said Rayburn; “now why is that?” The New Voices Songwriters Circle featured a round robin of songs about just about anything, from some of today’s rising, and hovering, singer-songwriter talents. Nathan McEuen played a song about being out working and wanting to be back home, with the one who makes you feel whole; Reed Waddle, with a terrific sound - a little Amos Lee, a little Brett Dennen - sang about visiting Colorado from the Florida Panhandle and marveling at the “Velveteen Skies”; Mason Reed sang about driving 37,000 miles in a 12 month period, with a smile. ‘I’ve been driving a lot this year,” said the artist from Tucson, Arizona. Jill Andrews sang about relationships and the people who break them up, and the new people who come into the mix to start new relationships: “That’s what my songs are about…they’re about globs of people”, she declared, to a room full of laughter

Master songwriter Jeff Barry, who’s penned many a perennial pop song, from "Tell Laura I Love Her" to "River Deep, Mountain High", wrote his first little diddy at 8 years old. “Fortunately, my mom wrote it down,” he told the audience, with a chuckle. Barry shared the secret to a really good lyric in his Saturday afternoon songwriting workshop. “People need to relate to it. If it moves you, it’s gonna move someone else. We’re writing to the common brain and the common emotion and you need to make ‘em feel something, by the end. If you leave ‘em like you found ‘em, you blew it!”
MIke Rayburn Plays HimselfMIke Rayburn Plays Himself
Mountain man and roving troubadour Sam Bush joined many of the performers onstage, as did John Oates, a role model and inspiration for several of the weekend’s featured performers. North Carolina’s Tift Merritt charmed audiences with her affinity for the Wheeler’s piano, while her haunting melodies stilled the audience. Merritt’s music has something for the searching soul, with sad, stark lyics and moving, authentic observations on life, love and everything in-between – stuff we can all relate to and so, respond to.
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The lights changed to blue and Allen Toussaint brought his sweet southern twang before the piano. The songwriting genius delighted the audience by interpreting some of his better-known songs, made famous by other artists over the years. Piano wizard Jed “11 Fingers” Leiber and soulful songwriter Jimmy Wayne were two festival highlights. The tale of Wayne’s childhood read like a B-side country song: broken home, mobile home, homeless and on the streets as a teenager. He managed to change his life and chart his future, and is now taking Nashville by storm. His hit, “Where You’re Going”, moved the audience to tears, showcasing some of the finest in relateable songwriting.

As the weekend rolled on, so did the word on the street. Fans and dedicated music lovers steadily trickled in, trading brilliant sunshine for shining moments and sparkling chandeliers. A hot scrumptious Sunday Brunch in the lobby was a lovely way to kick off Festival Sunday, followed by the outrageously talented antics of Garfunkel and Oates - a tall blond, a short brunette – putting Sex and the City-style observations to music and lyrics and a standing ovation, from the duly impressed audience. The stage then turned to purple, as Jimmy Wayne joined John Oates for a tremendous mix of soulful new lyrics and modern interpretations of pop classics. Jed Leiber, Sam Bush, Wayne and Oates then called it a festival, with an all-star rendition of Man-Eater, 2010 style: plus chandelier, minus disco ball; roller skates optional.

For a complete listing of this year’s lineup, visit www.wheeleroperahouse.com or find 7908 The Aspen Songwriter’s Festival on Facebook. Support for 7908 The Aspen Songwriter’s Festival and for an encore presentation, next year, is encouraged! Write a letter to the paper, tell a friend and let the City of Aspen know what you think!