Mile High Festival | 07.18 & 07.19 | CO

Words by: Tim Dwenger | Images by: Pamela Martinez

Mile High Music Festival :: 07.18.09 & 07.19.09 :: The Fields at Dick's Sporting Goods Park :: Commerce City, CO

Mile High Music Festival 2009
While last year's Mile High Music Festival (read the review here) was a gargantuan affair with nearly 90,000 people attending over the two days, this year's event was significantly scaled down. Maybe it was in response to the economy or maybe it was simply an effort on the part of the promoters to make the event more fan-friendly. No matter the reason, the festival was definitely easier to navigate this year. They reduced the size of the site by 33-percent, installed several more free water stations and lots of shade tents. But the single biggest improvement was the addition of a second main stage that meant people didn't camp out in front of one stage all day, which made it much easier to get close to the bands if you wanted to. All of those factors, plus relatively mild temps in the 80s with plenty of cloud cover made for a very enjoyable weekend on the fields that surround Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

Saturday, 07.18

We arrived shortly past noon on Saturday and a well-organized will-call and security staff got us into the festival with ease. We didn't waste any time in heading off across the field to the Westword Tent to catch a guitar legend in the making, Davy Knowles. Knowles and his band, Back Door Slam were already on stage when we walked into the tent and wailing through a soundcheck that doubled as an extra song for the solid early day crowd. Once things were leveled out and the soundman was pleased, Knowles launched into an instrumental opener that left many of the uninitiated in the crowd with their mouths agape. He followed this with the originals "Tear Down the Walls" and the arena ready "Riverbed" before he nodded to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and launched into an absolutely ripping version of the classic "Almost Cut My Hair." Midway through the song, Knowles took yet another solo but added a twist. He didn't touch the strings with his picking hand for nearly a minute and kept the solo going with only one hand on the fret board, tapping and sliding his way to a screaming ovation from the steadily growing audience. His ear-to-ear grin showed how much fun he was having and he ran through several more songs, including a new one that figures to be titled "In a Little While." Back Door Slam was a phenomenal power trio in the style of their obvious influence, Cream, and left me wondering what could top it.

Tim Carbone's - RRE :: Mile High 2009
After wiping the drool off our chins, we set out to get our bearings and learn the festival grounds a bit before wandering into the Rhapsody Tent. On stage in the relatively crowded tent, which was nearly twice the size as the Westword, were two men who apparently make up Rocco DeLuca and The Burden. With DeLuca on dobro and vocals and drummer Ryan Carman pounding his kit, the powerful sounds these two created were strangely reminiscent of a legendary band. DeLuca's strong, ringing voice conjured up images of Robert Plant while the blues-based riffs and thumping drums brought to mind the old blues songs that the mighty Led Zeppelin borrowed from to invent their unique sound. DeLuca took a moment between songs to acknowledge the legacy that the great folk and blues artists of the 20th Century left behind and specifically called out Son House before he slid into "I Trust You To Kill Me," a song inspired by those artists. The faithful upfront pumped their fists in the air and cheered each new song as people continued to filter into the area. I'm sure that DeLuca won over several fans with his spirited early afternoon set.

Speaking of spirit, we tore ourselves away from DeLuca to catch the tail end of The Duke Spirit back at the Westword Tent. Fronted by the sultry Liela Moss, I couldn't help but think back to last year when Grace Potter played the same tent. The Duke Spirit's music is much harder and more modern than Potter's, but an attractive, charismatic woman with a great voice fronts both bands of shaggy haired boys. Their relatively simple indie rock sound didn't translate particularly well for me on this occasion but it is easy to see why hoards of teenage boys are goo'ing and ga'ing over this band.

Lyrics Born :: Mile High 2009
Following Moss and her band in the Westword Tent were Colorado favorites Railroad Earth, making their first trip back to the Denver area since their CD release shows back in early April and the crowd was pumped for their set. When they took the stage to a tremendous cheer it was clear that Todd, Tim and the rest of the band felt right at home. They kicked off the set with old favorite "Bird In A House" and continued to let people ease into the set with "The Forecast" before really whipping the place into a true hoe-down with a well played segue from "Dance Around Molly" into "Dandelion Wine." As they traded solos and smiles, the crowd bobbed and danced in unison, singing along with almost every word. It was a beautifully sunny day and the band's feel-good songs seemed to fit perfectly. I hung around and danced for two more tunes, "Been Down This Road" and "The Mighty River," before reluctantly leaving to head back to the Rhapsody Tent.

As I bobbed and weaved my way through the massive female-heavy crowd that was spilling out of the tent and hanging on Ani DiFranco's every word, I was surprised by how many people she had drawn. I have seen Ani before, but this show was a turning point for me and I now understand her better than I ever have before. She is, simply put, an amazing guitar player and while her lyrics do lean a little too political and feminist for me, I have to give her enormous credit for her songwriting. While she showed off her guitar skills on "Swan Dive," she was flanked by a drummer and upright bassist that fleshed out her sound on songs like "Napoleon" and "Smiling Underneath." While her own songs were very well written and performed, the highlight of the set was when she played a song from the 1930's that she'd played at Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday party at Madison Square Garden earlier this year. The song, "Which Side Are You Are On," got the audience singing along and really pushed the energy up a notch. She closed the set with "Both Hands" and as she left the stage the noise level went through the (proverbial) roof. It wasn't long before she came up the stairs for one of the only encores of the weekend. After thanking the crowd profusely for the opportunity to play another song, she played the opening notes of "32 Flavors" and the crowd went crazy. Those who hadn't counted on an encore were scrambling to get back into the thick of the crowd, and it seemed like everyone knew the words. As she wrapped up and left for good, the crowd filtered out smiling and talking about what a great set it was, and you know what? They were right.

As we headed across the fields toward the bathrooms we came across the tiny Firstbank Stage for the first time. It was quite a sight to see about 500 strong waving their hands in the air as Lyrics Born sang LL Cool J with a full backing band. Not sure if it was his rapping or the funky band but he sucked us in for a couple of minutes of old school hip-hop. I've seen him backed by a DJ in the past and this was hands-down a better performance. Then again, in my mind a good, tight, funky band would make just about anyone sound better.

Big Head Todd :: Mile High 2009
After refreshing our drinks and catching up with some friends, we made out way over to Big Head Todd and The Monsters' performance on Main Stage East. It was a bit of a blast from the past as Todd Mohr and his band ran through several songs from their 1993 breakout album Sister Sweetly, including "Broken Hearted Savior," "Bittersweet" and "Circle." Backed from time to time by a horn section, the band did pull some tricks from their sleeve. The first came when they unleashed a pretty solid version of Springsteen's "Rosalita" and then the second when they invited Denver soulstress Hazel Miller up to the stage for two tunes including the title track from that 1993 record that put them on the map. Overall it was a surprisingly spirited set and it was clear from the vast array of lawn chairs and tarps that made it tough to get anywhere near the stage, that they are still quite a draw in Colorado.

As Big Head Todd wound down we made the short walk back over to the Firstbank Stage where Karl Denson, Robert Walter and the rest of the Greyboy Allstars were about to throw down some serious funk. The small paved area in front of the stage never really got crowded and it left plenty of room for grooving to soulful sounds while in the sweet spot. They got things going with a hard charging instrumental before hitting a couple of tunes off their most recent release, What Happened To Television?, namely "Still Waiting" and "What Happened to TV?" Karl D. was as ripped as usual and despite being in such seemingly good shape, he made the obligatory Mile High joke when he complained about the lack of oxygen. As we slowly danced our way out of the crowd to catch a little bit of G. Love, I was impressed by the mass of people that had been pulled in by the music as it was more difficult to navigate the edges of the crowd than it had been right in the middle.

The funky dance grooves kept us moving across the fields as the organ and horn driven sounds of Greyboy faded into the background of the jazzy hip-hop stylings of G. Love filtering out of the Rhapsody Tent. As we made our way toward the stage through a very diverse crowd the decidedly hip-hop flavors of "Can't Go Back To Jersey" had everyone grooving hard until he busted out the harmonica and called for everyone to wave their hands in the air for the "dirty version" of "Booty Call." The butt shakin' soon resumed and continued as the band segued into a percussive version of The Beatles classic "Why Don't We Do It In The Road." By this time the energy was coursing around us and their recent hit "Peace Love and Happiness," while a little on the cheesy side, got even the outer edges of the crowd into the action. Feeding off the crowd G. Love kept up the energy up as he teased Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" and finally busted into the crowd favorite "Cold Beverages" toward the end of the set. It was another surprisingly strong set from a band I had set aside several years ago.

Karl D. - GBA :: Mile High 2009
As the sun sank lower in the sky, we headed toward one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend, The Black Keys. Now, The Keys have blown my mind more than once but unfortunately they were on too small a stage at Mile High and when we walked in shortly after they had come on we couldn't get more than a few feet into the tent where the energy and sound simply didn't translate well. It was a bit disappointing at first but slowly things loosened up and my first highlight came as the duo blew the roof off the tent with the dirty blues of "Stack Shot Billy." Soon after the more pop flavored "Your Touch" had the crowd singing along at the top of their lungs. It was every bit the show that people were expecting, but it was just too bad I hadn't gotten there earlier to get into the fray more and it wasn't long before I snuck out the side to check Ben Harper's new project, The Relentless7.

On my way over to Main Stage East I was struck by the distinctly rock 'n' roll sound that was coming from Harper's band. In recent years I have lost my taste for his slower R&B flavored material and this sounded like something I could get into. Unfortunately, by the time I picked out a spot next to the soundboard and turned my attention to the stage the band had moved into "Another Lonely Day," an older, slower Harper tune from his 1995 album Fight For Your Mind. They kept the pace slow with "Skin Thin," one of the more subdued tracks from their new album, White Lies for Dark Times. Overall the band had a great mellow groove going but they lost a lot of the crowds' attention, along with mine, as I turned tail and ran back to The Black Keys to discover much more space as hoards of people were making their way over toward the Main Stage West for the opening show of Tool's first tour since 2007.

We were able to secure some space to the right of the soundboard and settled in to wait for Maynard James Keenan and company to take the stage. The crowd got thicker and thicker and it was clear the sun and easy access to expensive beer had gotten to some folks, with eyes rolling back in people's heads and shirtless high schoolers slamming their way through the crowd on their way to a guaranteed beatdown. But, I've got to say I didn't see anything that topped the naked guy who ran through the crowd pissing on people last year before the Dave Matthews Band set in the very same spot.

Patrick Carney - The Black Keys :: Mile High 2009
Just before 9:00 p.m. the lights went down and the crowd exploded into chants of "Tool, Tool, Tool" as the four members took to their corners of the stage. It became clear from the first ear pounding moments of set opener "Jambi" that this was going to be a spectacle more than anything else. The band was flanked by two giant video screens to either side of them and four directly behind them. Each man kept to his own area of the stage for most of the set and aside from a brief and notably strange welcome from a Mohawked Maynard that included the non-sequitur, "Good evening, naked people! Everyone likes boobies," they let their music speak for them.

The amount of sound these four men created was absolutely incredible as they wove their instruments together in perfect sync throughout the performance. Though I am not intimately familiar with the Tool catalogue, the musical range that the band covered was amazing. From intense prog-rock to head-banging metal and even venturing off into the realm of the darkly psychedelic, they did it all and they did it very, very well.

For the duration of the nearly 90-minute set the audience stood mesmerized by one of the most incredible visual displays I have seen since Pink Floyd toured for the last time in the mid '90s. The screens displayed fantastic, disturbing images and animations of water, fire, flesh-eating beetles and eyeballs, while giant iridescent totem-like heads loomed high above the band. Midway through the set, things got even more out of control when the stage exploded with multi-colored lasers that bounced around the band and tore through the crisp night air as the music took us on a journey like none I have experienced prior.

John Bell - WSP :: Mile High 2009
Not that Danny Carey needed any help at all but for the set closer "Lateralus," Patrick Carney of The Black Keys emerged to sit in on percussion while Maynard disappeared for a moment only to reappear in a pair of tight black boxer briefs and nothing else. After the song's thunderous conclusion the band came to the front of the stage for a quick bow and headed to the wings. They returned moments later for a show closing take on "Vicarious" from their 2006 album 10,000 Days. And just like that, it was over. The lights came up and while a healthy number of people headed for the exits, the rest of us turned around and headed to the other end of the festival where Widespread Panic was about to rule the late night.

It wasn't more than a couple of minutes after the dark, frenzied, exhibition of the Tool show that JB and the rest of the boys took the stage on the East end of the festival grounds. They leapt right into the set with a drum jam that segued into "Goin' Out West," where Schools took it over with a mean bass solo. The song's lyrics fit the night perfectly as the cool air blew in on the back of a strong wind that whipped JB's hair into a swirling mass around his head.

The band segued straight into "Impossible" and that's where we got the first taste of what the night was going to be like as they turned on the dance machine. The jam flipped ultra-funky and everybody, and I mean everybody, was getting down. JoJo wailed on the Clav like a man possessed and drove the band to some funky heights that I have rarely seen them reach before. A raging run through chestnuts like "Pigeons," "Diner," "Tall Boy," "Climb To Safety" and "Big Wooly Mammoth" landed the band in "Flat Foot Flewzy," where they honored JoJo with a birthday rap.

Looking back on the show after realizing it was JoJo's birthday it makes sense that he took the reins and led the band in such a funky direction. It was truly a wild dance party everywhere you looked within 100 yards of the stage, and though the set was well past the 90-minute mark, things showed no signs of slowing down. A slow version of "Porch Song" and a typically serene take on "Pickin' Up The Pieces" were highlights of the second half of a monster three-hour set that wrapped up just shy of 2:00 a.m. The spent crowd wasn't as thick as it had been early in the evening but this was only night one of a two-night run.

Continue reading for Sunday's coverage of Mile High...

Sunday, 07.19

Mile High Music Festival 2009
Fortunately, as the sun rose on day two of the festival, I was in the comfort of my own bed and not waking up in a dusty tent with a sore back. This is the way to do a festival. The morning started out warm but the clouds slowly rolled in and kept the temperature in the high 70s or low 80s for much of the afternoon.

Again, strolling into the festival was no problem at all and we were able to catch the last few songs of The Wailers' Exodus set. As we made our way into the thick of the large afternoon crowd the band was running through a note perfect version of "Waiting In Vain." Midway through the song, lead singer Elan Atias paid tribute to the late Michael Jackson by getting the crowd to sing the chorus to "We Are The World" before concluding the song and leading the band into the Marley classic "Is This Love."

The sweet smell of ganja hung in the air and smiles radiated throughout the crowd of old and young folks as the band broke into "Three Little Birds." Though only one of original Wailers, Aston "Family Man" Barrett, is still an active part of the group, the band is bolstered by a horn section and back-up singers to keep the sound as robust as people expect it to be. The set closing "One Love" made me wish I had headed out just a few minutes earlier to catch the whole show. It was yet another moment at this festival where I was pleasantly surprised by a band I didn't have high expectations for, and little did I know but there was another example coming right behind it.

Gogol Bordello :: Mile High 2009
From the Rhapsody Tent we headed over to the Westword Tent where Dead Confederate was just finishing up their set of droney, almost shoegaze rock. After the up-beat set of sunny reggae we had just come from it wasn't what the doctor ordered. I was in the mood for some harmony and maybe even a pop song or two. Fortunately, and not by coincidence, Guster was up next in the small tent. It had been years since I saw these former buskers from Boston but in the late '90s I caught their shows all over the East Coast. It surprised me a little that the crowd didn't seem to have changed at all, and though I had grown older Guster still draws the kids. Without a doubt, it's where the money is, so more power to them.

The lineup has expanded from three to five members over the years and while it does fill out the sound, I caught myself wishing for some of the stripped down, acoustic pop that they used to crank out. As I settled in and realized that they still had the elements that I had loved years ago, I really got into the set. Multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia's vocals blend very well with Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner and their hooky melodies and tight harmonies have a way of seeping into your soul. The band's trademark humor reared its head early in the set when the fifth member, who, we joked, seemed to be interning with the band, brought out a cowbell for a quick tease of "Don't Fear The Reaper." While the early part of the set focused on new material like the hit "One Man Wrecking Machine" and "Satellite" from their 2006 album Ganging Up On The Sun, the middle of the set featured the older songs "Center of Attention," "Barrel of a Gun" and "Demons" from Lost and Gone Forever and Goldfly. As the crowd started to thin we became aware of the gypsy punk reggae sounds of Gogol Bordello bleeding into the tent and we headed back to the small Firstbank Stage for a taste of John Butler's solo set.

John Butler :: Mile High 2009
As we approached the stage the first thing I noticed was how mobbed it was. At least twice as crowded as it had been for the Greyboy Allstars on Saturday, we worked our way through the crowd until we were directly in front of the soundboard in time to witness some absolutely stellar guitar playing. Butler was just starting into a very percussive solo guitar piece that kept adding layers and building, without the use of pedals, until he had several hundred people jumping up and down. How one man and one guitar can get that many people that pumped up was, quite simply, a mind-blowing thing to witness. On top of that, Butler had the crowd craning to hear his every word between songs as he told a story about meeting his father-in-law and he joked about his set sounding like "a dog being raped in the middle of a train station." While what I caught of Butler's show remains a highlight of the weekend for me, later in the set, he brought out drummer Nicky Bomba and I think the show lost some of its incredible intimacy and intrigue. After hearing a tune or two I headed off to see the legendary Buddy Guy tear it up on Main Stage East.

As we walked up Guy was wailing on Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man." He did his best to get the crowd to sing-along with the chorus and when he didn't get the response he was hoping for chastised the audience, "Hey man, I played Tokyo a few months back and even the Japanese didn't fuck it up that bad!" After a good laugh with us and at our expense, he tried it again and things went much better. As the set continued Guy showcased all aspects of his talent, from his guitar chops to his ability to sing in a very soulful, almost gospel style voice. As he had during "Hoochie Coochie Man," Guy deftly wove humor into the set and kept the audience completely engaged. After running through several classic blues tunes, including "Man of Many Words" and "Someone Else is Stepping In," Guy stepped to the mic and explained that he was going to play a blues medley "just like they played 'em," where he tried to make each version sound exactly like the original. He started off with John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" and after a verse or two switched over to British blues with Cream's "Strange Brew" and a tease of "Sunshine of Your Love." He then thanked Albert King for his contributions to the scene and disappeared off the stage while his guitar was still clearly heard over the P.A. He soon popped up in the crowd, guitar in hand, and continued to play as he moved through his tightly packed fans. It's one of Guy's trademark moves but somehow it never gets old and always gets the crowd going. The man is a true showman and it was fantastic to see him in great form at the age of 72.

Thievery Corporation :: Mile High 2009
As Guy went into Bill Withers' "Use Me," we headed off to the other end of the field to stake out some prime real estate for Thievery Corporation, who were about to drop their funky down-beat bombs at the West end of the grounds.

We got within about 20 feet of the stage and sat down to wait Rob Garza, Eric Hilton and their army of musicians. Garza and Hilton kicked things off on the decks with "Sound The Alarm" from their most recent album, Radio Retaliation, and the show was off to a great start. The sultry beats were soon supplemented by a live bass player, two percussionists and a variety of other instrumentalists, including a horn section and a sitar player that came and went depending on the song. In fact, the only constant on stage for the entire set were the two masterminds of this project, and even they darted into the wings once or twice for a couple of seconds.

One of the most interesting aspects of a Thievery Corporation show is the fact that they rotate singers throughout the set. There were at least two women and two men who took turns at the microphone as a storm brewed over the mountains behind the stage. While the entire set was a funky dance party, "The Numbers Game" was an absolute highlight. The horns were crisp, the beats deep and the vocals right on-point, electrifying the faithful. Later in the set the title track from Radio Retaliation featured a collaboration between three of the singers over the song's reggae flavored rhythms. It was almost as if they stole a page out of Buddy Guy's playbook back stage when one of the female singers leapt down off the stage and made her way into the crowd to the delight of many. She sang and danced in circles of gyrating fans as the wind picked up and Garza called out something about wanting us to generate enough heat to drive the storm away. The 90-minute set pulled songs from their entire catalogue and it was certainly a festival treat to get an extended set from such a wildly innovative group of musicians. This festival was continuing to get high marks in my eyes.

Gov't Mule :: Mile High 2009
After Thievery wrapped up their set, we made the trek one last time to the Main Stage East for the one-two punch of Gov't Mule and the festival closing performance by Widespread Panic. We rolled through the thickening crowd as Warren Haynes, Matt Abts and company opened with "Bad Little Doggie," and while Mule doesn't usually do much for me it was a good way to come down from the organic/electronic wonderland that Thievery had created and get ready for a set of good old fashioned rock & roll from Panic. Warren's voice sounded good, and he pushed it to its limits on an interesting sandwich of "When Doves Cry" > "Beautifully Broken" > "When Doves Cry." The storm that had been brewing earlier was beginning to build in intensity and the rain was starting to fall and, as if taking cues from the weather, the band just kept building right along with it. Haynes teased the Allmans and the Stones while leading up to a set ending crescendo of "Thorazine Shuffle," "Mule" and "Soulshine."

Unfortunately, next came of the longest periods without music of the whole festival. Nearly 75-minutes went by between Mule's last note and Panic taking the stage 30 minutes late. 45 minutes is plenty of time to go get a beer, hit the porta-potties and even grab some food, and the extra half hour definitely wore on some of the fans who had been going hard all weekend and were eager to rock one more time.

Dave Schools - WSP :: Mile High 2009
When they finally hit the stage at 9:45 p.m., JB thanked the crowd and they dove right into "From The Cradle." When they followed it up with "Love Tractor" and "Henry Parsons Died" it became apparent that if Saturday night's musical persona was a big, grinning funk machine, on Sunday their lip was turning into a snarl and the darker side of the beast was coming out.

Though significantly smaller than the previous night, the crowd energy was high as shoes came off and fists pumped high in the air. It was a set that featured several searing guitar duels between JB and Herring while Schools dropped bomb after bomb on the low end. JoJo wasn't nearly as prominent and as a result the jams didn't take the funky turns they had on Saturday. The combination of "Walkin' (For Your Love)" and "Space Wrangler" midway through the set added a light, almost honky-tonk element to the evening that was quickly overwhelmed by the deep growls of "Thought Sausage." At some point one of the cameras that were projecting the band on screens on either side of the stage flashed over a setlist that had no break and a big cheer went up from the crowd as we realized they were delivering another three-hour show with no set-break.

While darker themes permeated the rest of the set, the band did spice things up a bit when they invited Danny Louis from Gov't Mule up for "Holden Oversoul" and then Wally Ingram appeared for a "Drums" segment that flowed into Sabbath's "Fairies Wear Boots." Wrapping the set with "Imitation Leather Shoes," "Ain't Life Grand" and "End of The Show" seemed to be a signal that there would be no encore like Saturday, but after a brief trip backstage everyone resurfaced for a rollicking version of "Blackout Blues" to close out a great weekend of music.

Sure, people will say attendance was down this year, the headliners weren't as big as last year's festival and the grounds were smaller, but all in all I think these three factors made for a much better festival. With highlights like Davy Knowles, Tool, Ani DiFranco, John Butler, Buddy Guy, Thievery Corporation and Panic, what more could you really ask for? There are always growing pains with something like this and it's good to see the organizers taking steps in the right direction and listening to the fans. Whether the Mile High Music Festival comes back next year or not remains to be seen, but if they continue to make improvements like they did this year it'll turn into a great little festival.

Continue reading for more pics of Mile High 2009...

Dan Auerbach - The Black Keys
Hardy Morris - Dead Confederate
Stanton Moore - Galactic
Elgin Park - The Greyboy Allstars
Eugene Hütz - Gogol Bordello
Buddy Guy
The Fray
The Fray
The Wailers
Paolo Nutini
Todd Sheaffer - Railroad Earth
Jerry Joseph
Thievery Corporation
Matt Abts - Gov't Mule
Herring & Hermann - Widespread Panic

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