Illustration: Kevin Howdeshell/kevincredible.com
Colorado’s own unique, geologically gorgeous contribution to the pantheon of great American rock and roll venues, Red Rocks, is really like no other place on Earth. There is no other concert house where the stars come out above you in tune with the lights in the city below, until they all merge like one giant spinning wheel. No other place where the winnowed waves of stone deliver a sonically perfect stream of sound. Or where guitar legends from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughn have electrified the alpine al fresco; and the Beatles, Clash and U2 have all at one time or another come from across the ocean with a message from the future of music.
I actually missed that U2 show, where they filmed the video for “Under a Blood Red Sky.” I think I had a science final the next day, and a friend took my ticket. I missed an Allman Brothers show where I was going to sit with some friends including the lovely lady who became my wife. It was a two-show stand and I didn’t realize until I got to the gate that my ticket was for the previous night. The wheels of matchmaking took another year to catch up, seating us beside each other at The Rio in Boulder, getting drunk on those famous margaritas before we went dancing to the now late great Lucky Dube (who we later saw again together at Red Rocks) at the Fox.
But I did get to see that Stevie Ray Vaughn show, where the man just tipped his wide-brimmed hat down towards his Stratocaster and tore the place apart. It’s one of the aces in my little hand of best shows ever, along with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the Damn the Torpedoes tour when I was maybe 10-years-old, John Denver, Jimmy Cliff, Neil Young, and on two separate occasions, The Clash.
I especially remember when a friend made t-shirts for the Grateful Dead’s three-show marathon in 1987, with a cartoon Jerry Garcia holding hands with a Fantasia wizard Mickey Mouse, and the lyrics “Going where those chilly winds don’t blow,” printed on the back. When a gust of Rocky Mountain weather blew in on opening night, the band opened with Cold, Rain & Snow, and the whole week just kind of floated off into the atmosphere after that.
Being at Red Rocks is one of the best ways to obviously remind yourself why you live in the West. Along with Denver’s perfectly planned city parks, its stunning skyline, special seasons and heartbreaking sunsets, I do believe that Morrison, Colorado’s little stone stage really is intertwined with the cultural history of Elwayville. To attend a show—or several shows there—is like some sort of civic duty. To fall in love with the way some other body is dancing, or with a passing smile on those long wide steps, and to feel the evening and the music releasing the grip beneath your feet as you sway up into the sky, is a sense of perfectly centered disorientation that I think is incumbent upon all of us.
Since summer is coming, you’ve got to make plans to get there. Whether it’s to celebrate the end of a multi-day hike, a drive into the mountains or just a long workweek, you have to include at least one evening at Red Rocks. With a limited show list at press time, I made a quick summary of some of my favorite Red Rocks acts, and what are, or at least should be, some great upcoming nights at “The Rocks.”
Past Show: Neil Young
Neil Young is one of a very select few people in music who can single handedly take over an entire stage for an entire night. From guitar to piano to wailing dog harmonica, Young opened this legendary solo set with an as yet unreleased ‘Keep on Rocking in the Free World,’ and the entire audience was singing along by the second chorus.
On Tap: Ray LaMontagne, June 17
LaMontagne already has his own deep following that sees him as America’s newest musical prophet. With his eerily soulful singing, great songwriting and deadpan between songs delivery, seeing him in this setting just about guarantees a once-in-a-lifetime night.
Past Show: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
That Tom Petty show was the first real rock concert I ever saw, and also the scene of an artist beginning to put his imprint on the next three decades of American music, with albums such as Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises, Into the Great Wide Open and Full Moon Fever to his now extensive credit. I was nine or ten, with my jaw on the ground at the first show, overwhelmed by rock and roll and absolutely and forever hooked.
On Tap: The Avett Brothers, w/Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, July 9
The Avetts aren’t quite as rocking as Tom Petty—yet!—but they do make honest, sparsely gorgeous Americana that is reminiscent of the Band, and I like to think that they have a long future ahead of them. The talented Grace Potter can take care of the rocking part.
Past Show: John Denver
Seeing John Denver as a kid felt a little bit like a mix of Bob Dylan and Dr. Seuss. It was part of the music we heard on the radio, but trouble-free, and all mixed in with images of sunshine on our shoulders, country roads and featherbeds. It was a family affair. My parents brought a fried chicken dinner and a blanket for all of us to sit on, and I’m glad they did.
On Tap: Big Head Todd and the Monsters, June 11
Colorado’s hometown heroes return for a mix of guitar wizardry and a sing-a-long setlist. Get all “Bittersweet” about the quicksilver substance of summer as you sway back forth to the seaweed dance.
Past Show: The Clash
Both times The Clash hit Red Rocks, this little cowtown boiled over with its own strange brand of uprooted urban angst. Joe Strummer had to keep toweling his spit off he microphone, everyone cheered with a one-finger salute, guys with Mohawks were the coolest kids in town for a couple days, and a girl I knew from school hooked up with the guitarist who replaced Mick Jones on the second tour at the Colfax IHOP.
Wishlist #1: Green Day
These guys are one of the only high profile bands with anything to really say right now. I know they played “The Comfort Dental Amphitheatre” (some things you just can’t make up) last year. But if they ever played Red Rocks I missed it. It would be nice to have some of their energy pulsing through the suburban streets.
Past Show: The Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead’s rolling caravan of hippies, wanderers and Garcia guitar aficionados was custom made for Red Rocks. Landscapers, lawyers and freaks all got their groove on equally at the last of the famed Morrison shows, forever happy over three days of timeless moments. But as the song goes, “nothing’s going to bring him back.” It was goodbye to an era, and a big thanks that we got to experience it.
Wishlist #2: My Morning Jacket
For my money, My Morning Jacket are the only band worthy of carrying the Dead’s superfreak cape these days, with blistering solos, real lyrics and a penchant for funk that blows all of those other jam bands back up to their fairgrounds and mountain fests. Since I missed the psychedelic throb of the 2008 shows, I keep hoping that these guys will please come back.
Going to polish off my dancing sneakers now, and check the Red Rocks website to see if any of the “wishlist” bands have magically appeared on the schedule. I’m sure there will be lots of other shows that I’ll want to add to the must-see list. I’ll be the guy in the tie-dyed #7 shirt!
Peter Kray is an East High School graduate who married a Cherry Creek girl. He keeps a framed copy of John Elway’s Broncos rookie card next to his wedding photo. You can read more of his writing, including excerpts of his upcoming novel, The God of Skiing, at shredwhiteandblue.com.
The Love, Hope, Strength Foundation saved lives thanks to bone marrow donors who registered at festivals and concerts in Colorado last year. And the foundation is hoping to save even more lives this year.
Denver-based Love Hope Strength was co-founded in 2007 by leukemia survivors Mike Peters of the Welsh rock band The Alarm and James Chippendale, president of CSI Entertainment. Foley and other members travel to concerts across the globe— hitting up everything from Michael Franti shows to big festivals like Lolapolooza—to register donors and raise funds and awareness. The group also puts on concerts on mountains like Pikes Peak, Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji.
The process to register to become a marrow donor is so simple that EO editor Doug Schnitzspahn sat down and was registered in five minutes last year. Just fill out a form and swab both cheeks. The foundation will contact you if there is a match, you then learn about the person in need, decide to donate marrow and then get to meet the person whose life you saved after the procedure.