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.
| Mile High Music Festival 2009|
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.
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.
| Gogol Bordello :: Mile High 2009|
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.
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.
| John Butler :: Mile High 2009|
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.
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.
| Thievery Corporation :: Mile High 2009|
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.
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."
| Gov't Mule :: Mile High 2009|
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.
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.
| Dave Schools - WSP :: Mile High 2009|
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...