Music lovers without an ear for the classical sound rarely get to experience one of the region’s most enjoyable venues. For them and anyone else who’d like to come, Music in the Mountains will open up the Festival Tent at Durango Mountain Resort this weekend for two concerts in a more contemporary vein.
“I feel like I should have a tuxedo,” said A.J. Croce on Wednesday of his classical music festival debut from his San Diego home.
Croce will be the first of two special guest performers when he takes the stage tonight at DMR. On Saturday, Music in the Mountains welcomes banjo virtuoso Alison Brown and her namesake quartet.
Croce is the son of singer-songwriter Jim Croce, who died in a 1973 plane crash when A.J. was two weeks shy of his second birthday. It’s also 40 years since the release of two of his dad’s biggest albums, “Life & Times” and “I Got A Name.” For that reason, A.J. said he’s going to break from the norm and pepper in a few of the old man’s hits during his set.
“I’ll play a few songs of my dad’s because I just like to. As an adult, I’m not intimidated by it like I was when I was younger,” Croce said. “I never saw him play, but it was on the radio so much as a kid, that’s how I learned to play music. But it was also Ray Charles records and a lot of soul music, then the ’70s FM radio stuff like ELO, Bowie and the Stones.”
Croce resembles his father physically and vocally, but where Jim was rarely seen without a guitar, A.J.’s best instrument is the piano (though he often plays the guitar out of necessity). He usually plays solo gigs with an occasional duo but also has a full band when it’s called for. Tonight, it’s called for.
“They asked for a band, so I’m looking forward to the band performance,” Croce said. “Everyone sings, and it’s diverse – by nature this set will encompass 20 years of my music, something from every record.”
Croce’s current record, “Twelve Tales,” isn’t really a record at all, at least not yet. It’s a yearlong project in which he’s releasing a song a month for a year. For the project, Croce approached six accomplished producers, and each puts his or her unique stamp on a pair of songs.
“It’s been pretty consuming for the last year, but it’s been a really cool thing. It’s like putting out six 45s,” Croce said, referring to the single-length records that were once a staple in the pop-music industry.
Croce’s guest producers are heavy hitters, indeed: “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who worked for 50 years with Johnny Cash as well as Jerry Lee Lewis and others; New Orleans’ funk legend Allen Toussaint, whose production credits include Dr. John and Paul McCartney); Kevin Killen (Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel); Joe Henry, who has produced for Toussaint and Solomon Burke, among others; and Mitchell Froom (Randy Newman, Crowded House).
“Musically, it’s been amazing to put my stuff in the hands of great producers,” Croce said. “Everything sounds different than the way I envisioned it when I wrote it, and that’s the beauty of it. If I wanted to get exactly what my vision was out of the project, I would’ve produced it myself.”
As for the rest of the weekend, the radar of Durango’s bluegrass crowd should have picked up on the Alison Brown Quartet by now. The Grammy-winner is a co-founder of Compass Records, which represents almost 300 bluegrass, folk, world music and Americana artists. She’s also one of the finest banjo players working today.
Sunday will see the return of Music in the Mountains to the most base of its roots. The “Dramatic Passage” program consists of just two pieces, but the first is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, arguably among the most recognized melodies in the history of music. The evening will conclude with a return performance by festival favorite David Korevaar, who will take the lead on George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra.