Next week (June 22 -26), the television and content festival SeriesFest begins in Denver, bringing together not only the best new pilots from established and emerging content creators and a special performance by Grammy and Golden Globe Nominee Sia, but also the North American premiere of BBC America’s new natural history series The Hunt, narrated by British naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
The full lineup of the event is here, but as it takes place at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which is celebrating a 75th anniversary season, it seems a great opportunity to delve into the past of one of the most instantly recognizable and unique performance spaces in the world.
Everyone has played there, from local boy John Denver (who used to jog up and down the aisles before concerts) to John Legend (above). Here’s a double fistful of startling moments from an exceptional venue, and they’re not all musical:
The Fabs gave one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll performances at Red Rocks, on August 26, 1964, and in keeping with the unique nature of the venue itself, it was the only concert in their second U.S. tour that was not sold out. In 2004, Red Rocks hosted a form of re-enaction, bringing in the Beatles tribute band 1964 to play on the 40th anniversary of that first concert.
Sadly, not all concerts go according to plan. When Jethro Tull played there in 1971, around 1,000 ticketless fans arrived, and having been allowed to listen to the concert from outside the venue, proceeded to try and barge their way in, past a police line. As rocks were being thrown, the police brought in tear gas, which then drifted into the open-air auditorium. After this, rowdy rock concerts were banned for five years, although Tull did come back in 2008.
Thanks to a glorious combination of forgiving acoustics and dramatic natural backdrop, Red Rocks is a natural place for artists to record concerts, whether for album or DVD release. Stevie Nicks made a video record of her 1986 tour—featuring her Fleetwood Mac bandmate Mick Fleetwood on drums, and Peter Frampton (who knows a thing or two about live albums) on guitar. Live at Red Rocks was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Performance Music Video in 1987.
The Grateful Dead
Red Rocks has a long tradition of playing host to the kind of bands who like to stretch out a bit while playing, bands who like to serve their music with a healthy dollop of jam. And of course the granddaddies of this sort of thing are the Grateful Dead, who played their first concert there in 1978… which eventually finished some time around 1982.
One of the most famous live video recordings to take place at the venue is U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky. Recorded on their 1983 War tour, it captured the band as an incandescent live attraction, showcasing both the supple power of the musicians, and Bono’s natural tendency to climb on things and wave flags. This performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is one of the biggest factors in breaking the band across America. And, this concert actually has its own tribute band. Denver-based Under a Blood Red Sky do a pretty good U2, and before you ask, yes, they’ve played at Red Rocks too.
Another notable live album, albeit mostly unmusical and half recorded somewhere else, Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy began, like many comedy albums, in a small club—San Francisco’s The Boarding House. But in the opening seconds of side two, he starts imagining making more money at larger shows, deciding to try and make $2 million in a single performance. Then, on the words “This is what I’m shooting for; one show, goodbye,” he suddenly appears in front of a far larger audience. That bit? That was recorded at Red Rocks. In 2015, the album was considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” enough to included in the National Recording Registry.
As if the rocks themselves weren’t dramatic enough, Daft Punk brought their shiny metal helmets, their preposterously attractive disco-house, their colossal bass rig and (most importantly) their four-story tall giant light pyramid to Denver in 2007. This tour effectively cemented EDM as the party soundtrack for an entire generation and raised expectations of the kind of light show fans should expect at any decent rave.
Speaking of jam-bands, Blues Traveler may have the coveted and long-running Fourth of July residency, which started in 1993 and continues until, well this year at the very least, but it’s noodling prog dads Widespread Panic who have the record for the most sold-out performances, with a more-than-respectable 48 shows.
Mumford and Sons
And what better place for a hale and hearty hoedown with Britain’s finest purveyors of bassdrum bluegrass? Many’s the Mumford concert that began like a concert recital and ended like the last round of a boxing match, if you could hold a boxing match in the middle of a revivalist meeting on the day of the Rapture. Their video for “I Will Wait” captured this rather well.
At the end of the day, this might be the most Red Rocks performance of them all. A blues jam from a venerated blues-rocker, with more than a healthy nod towards both British and American rock traditions (it’s a Muddy Waters song that was given a huge boot up the rear end by Led Zeppelin on their 1969 debut album), performed in diamond-sharp clarity in front of a stunning backdrop that is clearly visible because it is still daytime. Which does rather beg the question, when did he start playing? The night before?Read More