A John Oates homecoming at the Wheeler Opera House
Rock Hall of Famer and longtime Woody Creeker returns for show with Guthrie Trapp
What: An Evening of Songs and Stories
Who: John Oates featuring Guthrie Trapp
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 29
How much: $35-$75
Tickets: Wheeler box office; AspenShowTix.com
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and longtime Woody Creeker John Oates is back home for the holidays, headlining the historic Wheeler Opera House for his first show there since 2015.
Oates, who lived here full time for about 25 years before moving to Nashville, and who played the Wheeler regularly, is planning a stripped-down, songs-and-stories set with Nashville-based guitarist Guthrie Trapp on Wednesday.
From August through December, Oates did a massive post-vaccine national arena tour with Darryl Hall, playing their hit parade of soul and pop classics.
“It’s a big production, video screens and the whole bit,” Oates said last week in the basement offices at the Wheeler, noting the “minor miracle” of playing 23 large-scale shows during the pandemic. “We were really thrilled about that. And after I got done, I just wanted to do the exact opposite. I wanted to go from the big production with all the people, the bells and whistles and the trucks and the buses, and I wanted to go to the most organic, straightforward way of performing. Just sitting there with a guitar and singing with no amps, no equipment, nothing.”
He was doing just that in his living room in Nashville with Trapp soon after the Hall and Oates tour wrapped.
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“We said, ‘Why can’t we just do this? Let’s bring the living room to the world,’” Oates recalled.
They did a few small shows in Nashville and then booked a run of Colorado shows around the holidays.
“Any excuse I have to come back here I’ll take,” Oates said. “Every time I come back, I realize how much Woody Creek is still our home.”
Oates and his wife, Aimee, had their Woody Creek house on the market for several years as they settled in Nashville. They pulled it during the winter before the pandemic. Oates said he is relieved they did, because it allowed them to spend long stretches here during the year-plus that the live music industry shut down and, he said, reconnect with the Aspen community.
Oates is also working on reestablishing the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival, which he founded and hosted at the Wheeler from 2010 to 2012 and brought together artists and legends like Allen Toussaint and David Bromberg with Sam Bush, Keb Mo and Shawn Colvin. In March, he spearheaded the virtual Oates Song Fest 7908 through Nugs.tv — a fundraiser for Feeding America that landed everybody from Bob Weir to Dave Grohl to Jewel (and Darryl Hall, naturally). It lit a fire under Oates to bring it back to Aspen.
Oates said he and Wheeler director Lisa Rigsby Peterson had been eyeing this winter for the launch but backed off. They’re now looking at early 2023.
“Now we have enough time, really. It’s just a matter of logistics,” he said. “I’ve put the word out subtly to a lot of my friends and musicians. Everyone who did it in the past jumped on board immediately.”
Aspen, of course, has changed mightily since Oates first rolled into town in the late 1960s on a Temple University student trip, hitchhiking from Denver and staying in a hippie dorm house near Lift 1A and skiing 10 inches of fresh powder on his first morning.
“We were like, ‘OK, this is a miracle,’” Oates recalled.
He still loves the place and believes it has retained its “central character,” as he’s seen the surfaces evolve.
“There’s certain things about Aspen that never change,” he said.
For decades, living here on and off since the late 1970s and settling in Woody Creek in the early 1990s, Oates was a telemark skier whose tie to Aspen was the backcountry and the steeps. Now 73, he’s given it up for the sake of avoiding injury (“I want to go out walking,” he laughed.) These days he’s a Nordic skier only.
“It’s the best exercise ever, and I’m not going to run into a tree,” he said. “That’s my mode right now.”
He’s also in the midst of a fertile creative period. Along with touring with Darryl Hall, Oates hit his stride in his solo career about a decade ago, when he started the Good Road to Follow project, digging into Americana and a pop music history. It led him to tours with the Good Road Band — which included Trapp — and the well-received 2018 album “Arkansas.”
Following that route, Oates and Trapp are aiming to create a “musical time trip” at the Wheeler, with interpretations of songs from the beginnings of American pop music of the 1920s and 1930s through blues and soul all the way into the Hall and Oates era.
“Approaching these songs has really made me a better player,” Oates said. “I really had to drill down and go to the woodshed to do a bunch of and learn some of these songs.”
The long, forced break from touring due to public health restrictions also fueled Oates creatively, he said.
Among the projects that arose over that year was collaborating remotely with Colorado filmmaker E.J. Forrester to write five songs for the forthcoming independent film, “Halfway to Somewhere,” written by former Aspenite Patrick Hasburgh, best know for writing and directing “Aspen Extreme.”
“He asked me if I’d write a song, I wrote one song, and he said, ‘You want to write another one?’” Oates said. “And it ended up being a major project.”
The time off the road also got him doing yoga, hiking around Nashville, writing, listening to music he hadn’t connected with in decades, doing Zoom collaborations and launching what ended up being the Oates Song Fest.
“I don’t think I ever spent a year off from the time I started as a professional musician in 1971,” he said. “So, it was daunting at first and weird, like, ‘I’m just gonna stay home?’ And then I embraced it.”