Like a foal sired by a great stallion, The Monolith Festival at Red Rocks staggered a bit as it struggled to stand on its own legs in its inaugural year. There were a few relatively minor hiccups as the first ever multi-stage festival at the epic venue failed to draw the anticipated crowds despite a fantastic line-up of both established and up and coming acts. However, by most accounts, those who did make it to Morrison, CO for the two day event were thrilled with their experience.
As I walked into the top of the Amphitheater on Friday afternoon I was a little surprised to see the crowd confined to the first 20 rows or so. As Ghostland Observatory’s massive beats reverberated through the venue, I couldn’t help but feel that the band needed more that the sparse crowd just couldn’t give them. They are a band that thrives on energy and sadly on Friday at Red Rocks, the main stage just didn’t have much, especially this early in the afternoon.
As Ghostland headed for the wings of the stage we set out in search of the seemingly elusive festival energy that I knew had to exist. After catching a bit of Denver’s own Cat-A-Tac on the intimate WOXY.com Stage, we knew we had figured out where it was hiding. The huge stage, crammed into a small room in the bowels of the Red Rocks Visitor’s Center, made for a very intimate club-like performance space.
Ra Ra Riot followed Cat-A-Tac and proceeded to wow crowd that had packed in front of the stage. With energy reminiscent of early Arcade Fire shows, these kids lurched and danced around the stage for the duration of their 40 minute set. Lead singer, Wesley Miles, poured himself into his vocals barely holding still for a second of the performance. A string section made up of a Violin and a Cello dressed up many of the hooky rock tunes that are the staples of Ra Ra Riot’s limited catalogue.
In a brief conversation with animated bassist Mathieu Santos after the set, he revealed that the band had never ventured as far West as Colorado and they were thrilled to get to play at Red Rocks on their first visit. There is no doubt that despite the tragic death of drummer John Pike earlier this year, Ra Ra Riot is making a play for the big time with the energy and charisma to get there. An opening slot on Editors current tour on both sides of the pond will surely give them some of the exposure that they badly deserve.
Emerging from the underground club land Monolith had created in the Visitor’s Center we found ourselves directly in front of the New Belgium Stage. At the top of the Amphitheatre, in the shadow of Ship Rock, the stage played host to some of the most talked about performances of the weekend. As we approached, Ra Ra Riot’s tour mates Editors were taking the stage to show the Colorado crowd what their brand of Brit Pop is all about. With influences from Joy Division and Interpol saturating their music, front man Ed Lay bared his soul on stage and the band careened through hits like “Blood,” “Munich,” and “All Sparks,” from their first album The Back Room while introducing many in the crowd to songs from their new record An End Has It’s Start. Though their recorded material doesn’t thrill me, in the live setting Editors drive home every note of their dark pop songs and leave the audience begging for more.
Unfortunately, I made for the main stage about two thirds of the way through the set because Portland’s maritime songsmiths, The Decemberists, were about to take the stage. I was again shocked by the virtually empty amphitheater but chalked it up to a Friday night show at the end of the outdoor concert season. When Colin Meloy and company took the stage and opened with “Shiny” there seemed to be something missing almost immediately. This is the band that took control of The Fillmore here in Denver back in April and gave us a show to remember and yet they seemed to lack much of that luster on the big stage of Red Rocks. Maybe Meloy was disheartened by the empty seats, or maybe they just had an off night, but about half way through their set things started to really disintegrate. There were a couple of sound glitches that seemed to take more wind out of the bands sails and then came the only real glaring misstep of the weekend.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club opened their set on The New Belgium Stage and who ever was running the sound clearly didn’t give a damn about who was on the main stage. A wall of sound blasted from the top of the Amphiteater as soon as BRMC took the stage and it was evident that Meloy heard it clear as day as he did a double take and seemed significantly flustered. After waiting for a couple of minutes to see if the sound men could get things figured out, I abandoned the Decemberists and bolted up the stairs to the New Belgium Stage to see the band that was blowing them off the stage.
BRMC was enveloped in a thick smoke and bright red lights pulsed through the cloud making for an ominous vision as heavy blues laden rock blared from the speakers. While I am not too familiar with their songs, I was impressed by the sheer power with which they came across. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Decemberists but this made me wish BRMC were on the main stage.
CAKE closed out the evening on the main stage in typical fashion for the day. The energy just wasn’t there. CAKE has truly impressed me live, and the funky pair of white rimmed shades John McRea was sporting made it look like he was up to the job, but it just wasn’t to be this time around. They put on a good set and treated the dwindling audience to “Sheep Go To Heaven,” “The Distance” and “Short Skirt Long Jacket” before closing out the first day of the first ever Monolith.
As we headed for the parking lot one thing kept crossing my mind, “it can only get better from here.” Fortunately I was right. When we rolled in on Saturday afternoon, the benches were more crowded and there was considerably more energy than there had been the previous day.
Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s were serenading the crowd with their 9 person blend of indie folk and rock as we got settled. Though they didn’t pack quite the same punch as they have when I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them in small clubs it was great to see them get the opportunity to play the main stage at Red Rocks. While the repetitive meowing that dominates “Paper Kitten Nightmare” might frighten off some would be fans, this is a band that is doing something original and fighting their way up through the ranks slowly.
As the sun was ducking behind the Front Range and Red Rocks was cooling down, we headed back to the WOXY.com Stage to catch a solo performance by Ian Ball of Gomez fame. Though I didn’t really know what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised. He played a mix of originals and covers that touched on songs from his Gomez catalogue and new tunes that he will be releasing at the end of October on a solo album called Who Goes There. The highlight of the short set was a stripped down take on Supertramp’s “Take a Look At My Girlfriend,” which Ball said “reminds me of going on holiday with my parents when I was growing up.”
When we surfaced from the underground this time we were met by New Jersey Hip-Hop from the mighty Lords of the Underground on The New Belgium Stage. They praised Red Rocks and sent a special shout-out to the Denver Broncos in honor of the two players who died in the last year. The Lords then proceed to break out the jams as MCs Mr. Funke and DoItAll Dupré traded vocals and DJ Lord Jazz worked the turntables. They had the lilly white Colorado crowd bouncing up and down to 90’s anthem “Here Come The Lords,” and tracks off their recent release House of Lords including “I Love Hip Hop.”
For better or worse the rest of my day was spent at the main stage for the power house line-up of Art Brut, Spoon and The Flaming Lips. Art Brut has come a long way quickly and front man Eddie Argos is largely to credit. His charismatic persona fronting a powerful rock and roll band calls to mind Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. By the end of the set Art Brut had scored a “Direct Hit” on the crowd as they Argos sang about “Moving To L.A.” and having a “Good Weekend.” Art Brut is “top of the pops.” Or least they are according to Argos.
The rock attack continued with Spoon taking the stage next. Their sparse angular sound contrasted well with the beautiful setting and front man Britt Daniel even went so far as to say “I’m not really an outdoors person, but this is amazing,” before resuming a stellar set that included “The Way We Get By,” “I Turn My Camera On,” and “Don’t Make Me A Target.” Daniel seemed at home on the huge stage and that, coupled with the precision with which the four piece interacted, revealed the secret to their recent surge in popularity.
Finally, it was Saturday night and the band that everyone had been talking about all weekend was about to take the stage. Flaming Lips accessories like two huge nets filled with green balloons and a giant half circle light rig had been lying in wait all day and they were finally being rolled into place. The rig was set up behind a colorful array of equipment and instruments and the balloons were hauled up to the top of the amphitheater where they awaited Wayne Coyne’s grand entry in the famed bubble. Due to the steepness of the benches at Red Rocks, Coyne was only able to roll into row 1 or 2 in the bubble before heading back to the stage as the green balloons were bouncing through the crowd on their way to the stage themselves.
While The Flaming Lips set was what most people will remember about the first Monolith, Coyne did wax a tad preachy in his effort to get the crowd to understand the significance of their power to change our country. While an important message, his long winded commentaries between songs broke up the show left some fans wishing for more music and less rhetoric. Despite this, the Lips delivered a very solid performance that was highlighted by confetti cannons, rainbows, and a rousing sing-a-long of the War With The Mytics hit, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” As the festival drew to a close, Coyne and company brought tears to the eyes of some very passionate music fans with their classic “Do You Realize?”
What we all realized as the lights came up and we headed for the exits was that Monolith was a success. It may not have packed Red Rocks to the proverbial rafters, but it definitely delivered a fantastic line-up and some top notch performances. While it is a young festival with some kinks to be worked out, it has set the bar for next year and one can only hope that they can compete with the level of talent that was offered on the festivals five stages the first time around.