Monolith | 09.13 & 09.14 | Red Rocks

Words by: Tim Dwenger | Images by: Tim Dwenger & Mitch Kline

Monolith Festival :: 09.13.08 & 09.14.08 :: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: Morrison, CO

Monolith 2008 by Dwenger
September in Colorado is one of the most beautiful months. The temperatures cool down a bit, the leaves begin to change and Monolith takes over Red Rocks. Though only in its second year, this festival is quickly becoming a part of the fall fabric in the Rockies. One part SXSW and one part Austin City Limits; it is nice not to have to travel to Austin to get the best of both worlds in the most beautiful venue on the planet.

This year, the festival kicked off a few days early with a couple of tree planting ceremonies that were aimed at greening the festival and the city. The second of these ceremonies took place at The Cerebral Palsy School of Colorado and it was a very special event. While the Monolith tree planting team donated their time and effort by planting twelve trees around the property, emotional indie rockers Cloud Cult gave a special performance in the school's gymnasium. They played to three exuberant crowds of children ranging in age from probably six to eleven years old and it was amazing how the kids reacted to the band. At moments they sat in rapt silence and at others they were screaming like the Jonas Brothers were on stage. It was clear that the band enjoyed it as much or more than the students because they couldn't peel the smiles off their faces for the duration of the performance. The songs they ran through didn't carry quite the impact of their full live performance but the renditions of "No One Said It Would Be Easy," "Pretty Voice," "The Story of the Grandson of Jesus" and "Everyone Here is a Cloud," were nothing short of amazing as Craig Minowa worked the crowd of youngsters like a seasoned elementary school teacher.

The following night, Minowa and his Cloud Cult bandmates were again involved with the festivities, putting on a full performance at the Bluebird Theater as part of the VIP party that officially kicked off the festival. Following an impressive performance by Denver natives Young Coyotes and a less than acceptable showing from The Dutchess and The Duke who "forgot their pick-ups," Cloud Cult completely redeemed the evening, putting on an awe inspiring performance that redefined what a concert should be. With outrageous energy, samples, strings, harmonies, and of course, two live painters, Cloud Cult commanded attention from everyone in the house and held us spellbound until the very last note faded away and we were thanked for our kind attention. As if we had a choice.

Saturday, September 13

Cameron McGill - Monolith 2008 by Dwenger
As Saturday morning dawned the clubs and school gymnasiums gave way to the majesty of the outdoors and Red Rocks itself for the first day of Monolith's sophomore year. As we staked out space in the amphitheatre, the post-punk sound of Foals filled the air and while it was enticing, the belly of the beast beckoned as The Morning Benders were about to take the Gigbot Stage in the bowels of the Red Rocks Visitors Center. Though the Benders fell a little flat and didn't live up to their album, it was great to be back in the little indie rock club that Monolith creates at Red Rocks. With two stages, an oxygen bar and two "normal" bars, it's the stuff that hipsters dream of: back-to-back cutting edge bands all day and never more than about 400 people in the crowd. How could it get any better?

While many stayed put after The Morning Benders to hold down good real estate for Blitzen Trapper, up and coming Americana troubadour Cameron McGill was calling and heeding that call was not a mistake. McGill wowed the attentive crowd with selections that ran the gamut from loping ballad to rollicking rock song, all the while reminding me of the likes of Jackie Greene and John Hiatt. Definitely a rising force in the Americana wing of the house, McGill's set was an early highlight of the weekend.

One thing about this festival needs to be revealed up front: this is not a flat, meander from stage to stage kind of affair; it is a festival built for a mountain goat and that oxygen bar was no accident. If you are bound and determined to see all the bands on your list, there are going to be some serious stair climbs involved and time between the end of Cameron McGill's set and the beginning of Cut Copy was a test of stamina and leg power as I hit the main stage for about ten minutes of Superdrag before climbing back to the top of the amphitheatre to hear indie singer-songwriter John Vanderslice sing his bird slaying ballad "Up Above The Sea" before descending back into the catacombs for a taste of Sub Pop artists Blitzen Trapper. Though I was only able to wedge my way into the packed room for three or four songs, it peaked my interest in their unique mix of indie rock and jammy Americana. With a new album on the horizon the band previewed the acoustically-based title track "Furr," which showcased their songwriting, tight harmonies and ability to take today's music back to an easier time. An intriguing taste of a band we'll be hearing much more from in the coming years.

Holy Fuck - Monolith 2008 by Dwenger
After ripping myself away from Blitzen Trapper in favor of more stairs I made my way back to the main stage for the Aussie superstars Cut Copy. Someone once described them as INXS meets Daft Punk and honestly, it's not far from the truth. Their set attracted one of the biggest crowds of the weekend and had people dancing their asses off in broad daylight. Despite the energy that the band was pumping off the stage, one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was about to start in the bright sun of the New Belgium Stage at the top of the amphitheatre where Holy Fuck was taking the stage.

Having never been exposed to their music, it was a completely revolutionary experience. Like Medeski Martin & Wood throwing their Atari into a blender, this band simply blew away the rest of the field with their wildly musical electronic compositions. As the sun set over the foothills, the pulsating crowd never stopped moving as Holy Fuck pumped out song after song, only barely pausing to swap in new samplers and keyboards between songs. In a nod of respect from stage host Chuck Roy, they were given one of the only encores of the weekend and didn't let anyone down. Hands down the best set of the festival!

The next hour or so allowed some time to get collected, refuel a bit and prepare for the marathon of stairs the evening was going to bring. A little oxygen and a stop for some food did the trick and it was back to the clubland of the Visitors Center for the deafening shoegaze of New York's A Place To Bury Strangers. While the room was packed to the gills at the beginning of the set, little or no lighting except a projector that bathed the entire stage in a strange pulsing glow of light and images combined with the sheer volume was enough to drive many away and before long there was room to move and breath. With time, their ear splitting white noise gave way to a strangely hypnotic psych pop sound that couldn't help but evoke comparisons to My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain before everything blended into one and escape to the radio friendly pop of Vampire Weekend was the only cure.

Silversun Pickups - Monolith 2008 by Kline
Back out in the brisk night air, the sun was setting and the Upper East Side Soweto sounds of the New York foursome filled the amphitheater. Running through much of their debut album and some new songs, the biggest response came with the audience participation of "One (Blake's Got A New Face)" as their set wound to a close. They were a good fit in the festival atmosphere, and they're up-beat party vibe was a refreshing change from much of the darker indie rock that dominated the festival.

Taking the main stage after Vampire Weekend were the Silversun Pickups, whose melodic and spacey reverb drenched guitar rock was a perfect compliment to the windy weather that swept into the amphitheatre as darkness took over. Despite having only one full-length album on the street, the band has been playing together for nearly eight years and it showed when they took the stage. They are tight, energetic and rip into their instruments with an uncommon fervor. While frontman Brian Aubert and bassist Nikki Monninger shared vocal duties, Joe Lester held down the keys and Chris Guanloa pummeled his kit, frequently reaching high above his head to smash his famously high crash cymbal. Despite their energy, the small indoor stages beckoned again as The Presets were about to take the stage.

Hailing from Australia like their slightly more mainstream musical cousins Cut Copy, The Presets packed the small room and showered dark, throbbing electro pop on the sweaty crowd as rain fell on those who had remained outside. Vocalist Julian Hamilton twiddled knobs and danced about the stage in a shocking pink blazer as his partner in crime Kim Moyes stayed primarily out of the spotlight in the back corner of the stage. It was nearly impossible not to dance as the infectious beats filled the room and created a club-like atmosphere.

Devotchka - Monolith 2008 by Dwenger
After extracting ourselves from the packed room, we headed up the steps to catch the hip-hop of Atmosphere as they rocked the New Belgium Stage in front of a huge crowd. Fighting the occasional sprinkle of rain, Slug and DJ Ant pumped out the beats and kept the kids hopping all the way to the back of the terrace. It was a high-energy set packed with intelligent lyrics that proved yet again that hip-hop is a vibrant genre and so much more than what mainstream media makes it out to be.

As the rain blew out and the chilly temperatures remained, Denver's own Devotchka took to the main stage at about 10:30 p.m. A huge headlining slot for the locals, the band made the most of it by inviting a six-piece string section and a three-piece horn section to join them. The additional instruments fleshed out Devotchka's dark, eerie sound and frontman Nick Urata's old time crooning style sounded as full and strong as ever. Their sound was in stark contrast to the rest of the bands on Saturday, and the number of people who were filtering out early revealed that it didn't sit well with everyone. However, there was a strong group of adoring fans that stayed till the bitter end. After all, that's what this festival is all about. It offers up something that you don't see every day, and from the jammy indie rock of Blitzen Trapper to the electro madness of The Presets to the Eastern Block indie rock of Devotchka, the festival delivered in spades on Day One.

Continue reading for Sunday's coverage of Monolith...

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