Inside The 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival

By Jamie Miller April 6th, 2011

The biggest powder day of the decade, and recent memory, greeted Aspen on a Monday afternoon. By Wednesday, locals were ready for a serious round of sunshine and an exuberant bout of live music. Enter perfect spring skies and the 2nd Annual 7908, The Aspen Songwriter’s Festival, hosted and produced by John Oates and the Historic Wheeler Opera House.

Opening night featured a late show with Band of Heathens, and some undulating front-row dancers, moved to their feet from the very first beat. Traditionally a seated venue, the Wheeler welcomed standing revelers, from first night to the last, wherever they sprung up.

“This is the most amazing venue – they should have one of these in every city,” said the closing duo, Donovan Frankenreiter and Matt Nathanson, entertaining a sold-out house with as much humor as music. The two had never met, yet their on-stage chemistry enchanted many, leading to audience sing-alongs and spontaneous dance parties across crowd.

“What key’s this in, Matt?” asked Frankenreiter, getting ready to play a song he’d just learned.

“The Key of Passion, Donovan; you know it. You own that key, man,” replied Nathanson, matter-of-factly. Nathanson carved a new niche for himself as full-blown entertainer, mixing laughter with lyrics and the thundering sound of applause.

Indeed, the festival paired many artists together, who’d never played together, and the improvisational nature of each show resulted in some phenomenal live performances. Florida honky-tonk native Elizabeth Cook strummed alongside California to Nashville’s Kim Carnes. “My mama was a hillbilly singer from West Virginia – 5 million people, 5 last names,” said Cook, engaging the audience with her deep southern twang and her playful wit. “I love Kim Carnes. When I was young, I used to sing myself hoarse, trying to sound like her. I used to ask myself, ‘how can I sing like Kim Carnes?’”

“Just gargle with razor blades,” replied Carnes, to the audience’s delight.

Carnes performed “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer”, one of her famous hits from Kenny Rogers’ Gideon album, which she also wrote; in the blue-green lights bouncing off the chandeliers, the sound of her voice and the simplicity of those heartfelt lyrics still worked their magic, some 30 years later.

Miles Zuniga of Fastball professed admiration for Aspen: “This is the only place I’ve ever been where oxygen is a drug,” he said, laughing, with a nod to both the 7908 the festival, and Aspen’s precise elevation above sea level. Zuniga further charmed the audience with humble comments about playing alongside a crowd favorite, Mat Kearney. The two sat side-by-side for the first time and while Kearney was the professed draw, Zuniga drew his own line in the sand, earning new-found fans throughout the crowd.

Nashville was a common throughline throughout the roster. Colorado native Andy Hackbarth found his way to Nashville before heading back to the Denver area, and played a deep, soulful blend of words and music just before Ruthie Foster. Foster’s ten-gallon smile and genuine talent filled the stage and she was one of the few artists to sing alone. “How y’all doin??” she called out, greeting the crowd. “Well, you got up this mornin’, might as well have some fun!”

Foster’s a fan of Hackbarth, Cook’s a fan of Kim Carnes, and Kim Carnes is a big fan of Keb’ Mo’, another California native who’s recently moved to Nashville.

“Keb’ Mo’’s version of ‘The Times They Are a Changin’ is staggeringly, hauntingly, perfectly beautiful, “ she said, eagerly talking about the man and his music. She sat in the balcony, spellbound, smiling and nodding throughout his show: an always peaceful, clever and melodic blend of blues, folk and unmistakable sincerity. Everyone loves a Keb’ Mo’ show.

In turn, Keb’ Mo’ was excited to Shawn Colvin, and Sam Bush, sitting in throughout the weekend, was in awe of both Keb’ Mo’ and the opportunity to play alongside him.

Collaboration, impromptu writing sessions and taking in the splendor of fellow songwriters seemed first and foremost on the performers’ agenda. And for the crowd, the Nashville Songwriter’s Circle, featuring James Otto, Sarah Buxton and Brett Eldrege, proved to be one of the festival’s most moving events.

“I hate country music,” said an Aspen local, perturbed, wiping her eyes in the bathroom; “It always makes me cry. I’m angry! Sarah Buxton took it right out of me.”

Buxton performed her smash single, “Stupid Boy”, made ultra-famous by Keith Urban. “Keith Urban heard the song and said, ‘That’s a hit!’” recalled Buxton, onstage. “Keith Urban singing my song…that was the best thing that could’ve happened to this 25-year old!”

Cy Curnin of The Fixx, Miles Zuniga and Glenn Tilbrook were also performing on behalf of Love, Hope, Strength, an international, music-centric charity dedicated to saving lives, one concert at a time. Through treks and live rock concerts atop the world’s tallest peaks, Love Hope Strength raises money and provides through existing advances in cancer care.

Glenn Tilbrook sat down at the piano and started to sing. His signature voice reminded the crowd of just how much they loved Squeeze.

Tilbrook grinned at the audience, scooted closer to the keys and said, “Now I think you might know this one…”

Hearing him sing “Tempted”, solo, acoustic, reminded them of just how much they loved music.

(Miles Zuniga and Mat Kearney)

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