Words & Images by: Tim Dwenger
Monolith Festival :: 09.14.07 & 09.15.07 :: Red Rocks :: Morrison, CO
Like a foal, 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 lineup 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.
| Monolith Festival 2007|
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 than the sparse crowd could 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 of it, especially early in the afternoon.
As Ghostland headed for the wings, we set out in search of the 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 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 the packed crowd in front of the stage. Reminiscent of early Arcade Fire shows, these kids lurched and danced around for the duration of their 40 minute set. Lead singer Wesley Miles poured himself into his vocals, barely holding still for a second of his performance. A string section made up of a violin and cello dressed up many of the hooky rock tunes in 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 before and were thrilled to get to play at Red Rocks. 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 drive and charisma to get there. An opening slot on the Editors current tour on both sides of the pond will surely give them the exposure that they badly deserve.
| Tom Smith - The Editors :: Monolith 07|
Emerging from the underground club land, we found ourselves directly in front of the New Belgium Stage. At the top of the amphitheatre, in the shadow of Ship Rock, this stage hosted some of the most talked about performances of the weekend. As we approached, Editors were taking the stage to show the Colorado crowd what their brand of Brit pop is all about. With Joy Division and Interpol influences saturating their music, frontman Tom Smith bared his soul 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 drove home every note of their dark pop songs and left the audience begging for more.
Unfortunately, I felt compelled to head for the main stage about two thirds of the way through the Editors' set because Portland's maritime songsmiths, The Decemberists, were about to take the stage. I was again shocked by the virtually empty amphitheatre 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 in Denver back in April and gave us a show to remember. Yet they seemed to lack much of that luster on the big stage at Red Rocks. Maybe Meloy was disheartened by the empty seats or they just had an off night, but about halfway through their set things started to really disintegrate. There were a couple of sound glitches that seemed to take more wind out of the band's 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 whoever 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 amphitheatre 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 a couple of minutes to see if the sound man could get things figured out, I abandoned The Decemberists and bolted up the stairs to see the band that was blowing them off the stage.
| John McCrea - CAKE|
BRMC was enveloped in thick smoke as bright red lights pulsed through the artificial clouds 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 their sheer power. 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 in the past, and the funky pair of white rimmed shades John McCrea was sporting made it look like he was up to the job. But, it just wasn't to be this time around. That being said, they put on a good show and treated the dwindling audience to "Sheep Go To Heaven," "The Distance" and "Short Skirt Long Jacket" before closing Monolith's first day.
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 the previous day.
Margot and the Nuclear So and So's were serenading the crowd with their nine-person blend of indie folk and rock as we got settled. Though they didn't pack quite the same punch as their small club gigs, it was great to see them get the opportunity to play the main stage. While the repetitive meowing that dominates "Paper Kitten Nightmare" might frighten off some would be fans, this is a band doing something original and slowly fighting their way up through the ranks.
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. 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 catalog and new tunes that he will be releasing at the end of October on a solo album called Who Goes There. The highlight of his 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."
| Britt Daniel - Spoon|
When we surfaced from the underground this time we were met by New Jersey hip-hop act 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 lily-white Colorado crowd bouncing up and down to '90s 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 lineup of Art Brut, Spoon and The Flaming Lips.
Art Brut has come a long way quickly and the credit largely goes to frontman Eddie Argos. His charismatic persona fronting a powerful rock & 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 Argos sang about "Moving To L.A." and having a "Good Weekend." Art Brut is "top of the pops." At least according to Argos they are.
The rock attack continued with Spoon. Their sparse, angular sound contrasted well with the beautiful setting, and frontman Britt Daniel went so far as to say, "I'm not really an outdoors person, but this is amazing." Spoon's stellar set 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 precise interaction of the four-piece 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. The Flaming Lips' two huge nets filled with green balloons and a giant half circle light rig that had been lying in wait all day 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 amphitheatre to await 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.
| The Flaming Lips :: Monolith 2007|
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 longwinded commentaries between songs broke up the show and 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 during the At War with the Mystics' 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 but it definitely delivered a fantastic lineup and some topnotch 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.
JamBase | Colorado
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