Mile High Music Fest | 07.19 & 07.20

Words by: Tim Dwenger | Images by: Pamela Martinez, Jay Scherer & Tony Stack

Mile High Music Festival :: 07.19.08 & 07.20.08 :: Dick's Sporting Good Park :: Commerce City, CO

Mile High Music Festival 2008 by P. Martinez
The Denver Metro area is lucky to have two of the best venues in the U.S. but, until recently, the area has been sorely lacking a high profile music festival. Now, in the last year, two have sprouted up. First it was Monolith, housed in the magical confines of Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and now the Mile High Music Festival in the slightly less magical confines of Dick's Sporting Goods Park. It's been a long time coming, and, in all honesty, it was a little messy as the details were still being ironed out. But, in the end, when the gates opened on Saturday morning it was clear that the Mile High Music Festival was the real deal.

Saturday 07.19.08

As we walked through the gates around noon with temperatures approaching 100, the day seemed to be just kicking to life as Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers led things off on the Bullsnake Stage. As I strolled through a sea of vendors, ATMs and porta-potties, the sounds of Kellogg's recent crowd pleaser "4th of July" rang out to the delight of the couple thousand fist pumping folks who had flocked to his early set. The band was clearly out to prove themselves, and pulled out all the stops with a fully choreographed a cappella version of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" midway through their set. That cover, coupled with multi-instrumentalist Keith Karlson busting out a Keytar and playing it with his teeth and behind his head ala Jimi Hendrix, sold more than a few of the early birds on this Massachusetts band.

From Kellogg's set, I bolted to the shade of the Bison Tent to catch Austin's bad boy troubadour Bob Schneider electrify the sweaty crowd. Though he started out slowly with the slightly mellow "Gold In The Sunset" from his 2004 album I'm Good Now, it wasn't long before he turned things up with the hilarious "Looking At The People" and audience participation gem "Tarantula." The later had Schneider leading the whole tent in a massive and deafening sing-a-long as Mike Gordon watched from backstage. When all was said and done and Schneider had flicked his last pick out into the crowd, it was clear that we had witnessed a true showman who thrives on a good audience, and that's just what the Mile High City gave him. It was going to be a tall task to outdo Schneider for best set of the weekend but there were plenty of heavy hitters left who were up to the challenge.

Mike Gordon :: Mile High Music Festival by T. Stack
As a large line waited patiently for their turn to get a picture with Schneider, Mike Gordon emerged in yellow pants with his new band to get set up for their set. They kicked off their hour long engagement with an uneven "Another Door" from Gordon's upcoming album, The Green Sparrow, before sucking the crowd in with a rousing rendition of The Beatles' "She Said She Said." Throughout the set, the musical chemistry between Gordon and guitarist Scott Murawski was evident as they sparred back and forth and generally led the jams that dominated the set. Unfortunately, while this is a talented group there were only a few moments where the crowd seemed lost in the music. As they left the stage in the fog of a shrill feedback jam it was clear that this band needs some more shows under their belt.

As the throng of Phish Heads dissipated, we ventured back out into the sun to catch a true legend, Steve Winwood. Since he joined the Spencer Davis Group at the age of 15, Winwood has been a hugely influential figure in the music world. The greatest hits set was highlighted by stellar versions of "Can't Find My Way Home," "Higher Love," "Low Spark of The High Heeled Boys" and the encore "Gimme Some Lovin'." Though he stuck to the Hammond B-3 for most of the set, he did show off his guitar skills on a blistering "Dear Mr. Fantasy" that proved to everyone that at 60 he's still got it in spades.

As the last notes of Winwood's set faded, the unmistakable sound of Rob Derhak's bass reverberated through throngs of fans as moe. took the stage. Though the crowd took a while to filter over their way, moe. hit it full speed ahead with "Crab Eyes," and from all reports didn't slow down. I only managed to catch about twenty minutes or so of their set from the relative coolness of the VIP tent before making the trek back to the Bison Tent for Britt Daniel and Spoon.

Tom Petty :: Mile High by T. Stack
As usual, Spoon was on top of their game, and though the volume was a little low at the beginning of their set things soon turned around as they slid into "Cherry Bomb" from 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. As Daniel herky-jerked his way around the stage drummer Jim Eno kept the always-tight band together through heavyweight tracks like "The Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine," "I Turn My Camera On" and "Rhythm and Soul." As I texted a friend midway through their set, this is a band that makes me believe in rock 'n' roll.

As you know if you've seen them in the last couple of years, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are playing very well these days. Their headlining set was no exception, as he pulled out the hits, from "Free Fallin'" to "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Petty even delved back into his catalog and busted out the Traveling Wilburys' gem "End of The Line" midway through the set. While a great set, the brightest musical moment of the evening came when Petty invited tourmate Steve Winwood to the stage and his band gave "Can't Find My Way Home," and "Gimme Some Lovin'" the royal treatment. Winwood engaged in a guitar battle with Mike Campbell that proved that he can hold his own with the best of 'em. I've got to admit I was a little disappointed that he chose to repeat two songs he played in his own set, but really, who can blame the guy when he's got the opportunity to showcase them in front of 40,000-plus fans. As Petty wound his set up with "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "Refugee," the massive light rig that dominated the stage sent pulses of seizure inducing light into the night and the crowd sang along with every word. It was what a classic rock show should be, and despite wrapping up about fifteen minutes early, Petty drove it home in the encore when he went out with a blaze of glory to the 1977 classic "American Girl."

As the crowd pulled themselves together, gathered blankets and headed for the miles of traffic that was sure to await them on the narrow streets surrounding the festival, we headed back to the Bison Tent for a dose of the Rebel Alliance Jam. Led by Michael Kang on his electric mandolin, and anchored by Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) on drums, the rotating cast of characters included Chris Chew (NMA), Scott Murawski, Mike Gordon, Brett Dennen and JJ Grey among others. They kicked things off with a strong "Come Together" before running through "Some Kind of Wonderful." Overall, the jams sounded much better than I expected, and it was Dennen who stole the show with an energetic take on Bob Marley's "Stir It Up." As the hands of the clock slid well past midnight and the jam showed no signs of letting up, we headed for home, knowing that Sunday would bring more heat, more dancing and, best of all, more music.

Sunday

The New Mastersounds :: Mile High by P. Martinez
Sunday morning sun dawned on another scorcher and when we finally did roll in Syracuse troubadour Martin Sexton was putting on his one man show over at the Bullsnake Stage. Sexton's blend of infectious sing-a-longs and soulful pop is a perfect fit for a hot summer afternoon and exactly what I needed to ease me into the day. While his "Freedom Of The Road" and its "westerly direction" hit the spot it was "Happy," from his most recent Seeds release, that put a bounce in my step as I set off in search of some deep funk.

As we staked our spot right in front of the stage about five minutes before The New Mastersounds were scheduled to go on, we saw four very familiar looking faces sprinting across the field outside the tent with guitar cases in tow. It seems an accident on I-70 and horrendous traffic outside the festival had thrown a monkey wrench into the band's day. As they quickly tuned, drummer Simon Allen entertained the crowd with a brief story about the day they'd had and ended by saying something along the lines of, "We were stuck in all that traffic out there and Eddie was on his cell phone when all of a sudden there were sirens, the traffic parted, and we were surrounded by police cars who escorted us right onto the grounds. I guess your country takes funk VERY seriously." With that the band launched into an absolutely smoking set that even featured a few numbers where guitarist Eddie Roberts sang lead vocals. Though the lyrics weren't too complex, it added a new element to the show when Roberts took the mic and got the crowd to join in on the chorus. Despite the hot, still air under the tent, the band had fans of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages dancing throughout the set. They surely won over some new people and showered love on Colorado as they waved goodbye.

John Mayer :: Mile High by P. Martinez
As we recovered from the dance party, Leftover Salmon took over the stage. Despite teasing us several times with little jams, Vince Herman and company started their little FESTIVAAAAAAAL! about fifteen minutes late. When they finally put pick to string, Herman wished everyone in the crowd "Happy Birthday" and broke into a rousing "Zombie Jamboree," which led into "Ants In My Pants" and made me wish there weren't so many acts to see in one day. I did manage to pull myself away to head next door to catch Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and I was glad I did.

It's been said that there is something about a girl with a guitar, and in some cases it's true, but imagine if you will, a tall, sexy woman in a stylish dress singing soulfully and absolutely shredding a Gibson Flying V. "Damn!" is all one can really say. As Potter switched from organ to guitar, sometimes during the same song, and confidently strutted her stuff, the Nocturnals stayed right with her at every turn. Her sultry delivery and the high energy of "Stop The Bus" got the crowd moving but the biggest reaction came when she posed the question, "Who wants to shake their sweet booty? Will ya shake it for me?" This girl has got the musical talent to go places, and it doesn't hurt that she knows to capitalize on being a woman, too.

We left the Nocturnals show before they wrapped it up because John Mayer took the stage about 25 minutes early and the sound started to bleed into the Elk Tent. We negotiated the crowd and managed to find a friend's tarp in time to see Mayer introduce the "Crossroads Blues." Though he is truly a fine guitarist, the set didn't do much for me and I decided to hightail it to the other end of the festival grounds to catch The Black Crowes' twilight set.

Luther Dickinson - The Black Crowes :: Mile High by P. Martinez
We shortly got a taste of good ol' Southern rock 'n' roll. It's been several years since I've seen the Crowes and I loved the flavor that Luther Dickinson is adding to their sound. Skinny little Chris Robinson was in great form and his voice was strong as he pranced around the stage acting every bit the consummate rock frontman that he is. The evening clouds created a perfect backdrop to songs like "Goodbye Daughters of The Revolution," "Jealous Again" and "Oh Josephine," while the setting sun bathed the stage in a soft light. A few songs before we left to catch the Dave Matthews Band, Crowes drummer Steve Gorman emerged with a bass drum strapped to his chest that bore a huge photo of George W. Bush on a Looney Tunes like background. As Gorman happily pounded the beat out on Bush's face, many photos were snapped and knowing glances exchanged. While they have never been my favorite, I've got to say that The Black Crowes turned in one of the better performances of the weekend. I only wish I had stayed to see it to the end.

We said goodbye and joined the sea of humanity migrating toward the main stage and the "climax" of the festival in time to catch Dave Matthews' flashy entrance. A massive curtain of orange LED lights hung low from the light rig and obscured the band from view until the powerful opening to "Don't Drink the Water" exploded from the speakers and the curtain began to rise. Like Petty's set the night before, it was a top notch lightshow with huge video projections that made every attempt to make the massive show seem intimate (and only slightly missed their mark).

Dave Matthews :: Mile High by J. Scherer
Throughout the show, Jeff Coffin sat in for the injured Leroi Moore, and though Coffin is an amazing musician and his work in the Flecktones is nothing short of superb, I felt something was missing. To Coffin's credit, he didn't try to play like Moore but I missed the familiar horn lines and Moore's dark presence onstage. Also joining the band was Matthews' longtime friend Tim Reynolds, whose highly polished guitar sound didn't mesh well with the raw, rootsy sound that turned me and many others onto this band.

As far as the set goes, the band did pull together two massive combinations that should have sent my head spinning but just didn't. The first – "Two Step," "Proudest Monkey" and "Satellite" - was a nice trip down memory lane but I just didn't feel the soul in these songs that I was expecting. Later in the set, the band played three of their best jam vehicles – "Jimi Thing," "#41" and "Tripping Billies" - back to back but again just didn't yield the transcendence I was hoping for. I did find myself grinning when the band broke into a stellar cover of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" with Matthews channeling Gabriel perfectly. Maybe I've outgrown the band or maybe they've outgrown me, either way it was by no means a bad show and, in fact, it was, production wise, one of the best I've seen, hands down.

Overall, despite the slight let down of the final set of the weekend, the festival was a huge success both musical and logistically. Sure, there were kinks to be worked out but it was a great first effort and a wonderful addition to a city already rich with musical possibilities.

Continue reading for more pictures from Colorado's Mile High Music Festival...


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