Words by: Tim Dwenger | Images by: Lewis Cooper, Mitch Kline & Tim Dwenger
Monolith Festival :: 09.12.09 – 09.13.09 :: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: Morrison, CO
Day One: September 12
In September the summer concert season begins to wind down in Colorado. As the nights get cooler and the Aspens begin to change most shows head indoors to the many venues scattered around the Front Range. However, the Monolith Festival once again broke the mold and braved the elements with a largely outdoor extravaganza of widely varied acts. From the old school hip-hop stylings of Method Man and Redman to the experimental prog-rock of The Mars Volta, the 2009 edition of the festival was a true sampling of what's really going on in the music world today.
|Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
In past years festivalgoers were greeted by 70-plus degree weather and Colorado sunshine during the day and mild, starry evenings. This year was different. Saturday dawned to gray skies and chilly temps in the 50-degree range and it wasn't long before rain showers developed and most of the day saw hardcore music fans navigating the thousands of steps at Red Rocks Amphitheatre bundled in countless layers to fend off the elements. Despite the weather, the music played on and saw some fantastic performances from both up and coming and established artists.
We started the day inside with a set from one of the best new bands to hit the scene in years. These United States hail from the nation's capital and in a nod to the location of the festival kicked things off with "West Won" from their 2008 album Crimes. The packed room responded with incredible energy and as I looked around the room, I caught several people singing along with "First Sight" a bit later in the set. Fronted by the charismatic Jesse Elliott, every member of TUS pours their soul into the intelligent blend of alt-country and rock 'n' roll and their hard work seems to be paying off with some name recognition as they continue to tour non-stop around the country.
As we emerged from the bowels of the Visitors Center on our way to catch the first Scottish band of the weekend, Frightened Rabbit, I couldn't help but think that maybe they brought their notoriously dreary weather with them. The light drizzle kicked up into a steady rain as the set progressed and those of us who came prepared donned rain jackets and ponchos in an effort to keep our spirits up. Despite the weather, Scott Hutchison and his bandmates were full of contagious energy as they ran through the bulk of their breakout album, Midnight Organ Fight, as well as a brand new song during their hour long set. Songs like "Cripple Walk," "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms," "My Backwards Walk" and "Old Old Fashioned" translated very well in the live setting and rather than shrinking in the rain the crowd seemed to balloon as the set went on.
|Frightened Rabbit :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
After a brief stop at the Southern Comfort Stage at the top of the amphitheatre to catch a bit of the '80s flavored dance pop of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, we ducked back inside to warm up and dry off for a few minutes. When we emerged at the top of the seats again we found Internet sensations OK Go whipping the crowd into a frenzy. They were dressed very sharply in dark suits and a sea of arms were pumping in the rain to Dan Konopka's thunderous drumbeat as frontman Damian Kulash jumped the barrier to the delight of those in the front row. While their brand of pop-punk isn't always my thing I was happily surprised with what I caught at Monolith.
From there we climbed the steps yet again (yes, steps are a theme of this festival... steps, steps and more steps) to catch Cymbals Eat Guitars on one of the club-like stages in the Visitors Center deep below the rocks. As we got to the doors we were greeted by an angry usher, who informed us that the fire marshal was cracking down and they weren't letting anyone inside. It took us five or ten minutes of watching people go one in, one out to get inside only to find the room about half empty. When the band did finally come on after a brief Southwest Airlines raffle fiasco, where the first 20 numbers called for a free pair of plane tickets weren't present to win, we were assaulted by loud, hazy guitars with a melodic undertone that was vaguely reminiscent of The Cure. It was a good break from the rain that was still coming down outside but I can't say too much more about them.
|OK Go :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
Above our heads, and in the shadow of Ship Rock, The Walkmen were playing to a big crowd on the Southern Comfort Stage. Hamilton Leithauser and his band's performance called to mind acts like U2 and Coldplay, and "In The New Year" from their latest release, You and Me, particularly stood out. Anyone who hasn't given this band a chance in the past might want to reconsider.
Down on the main stage, monster of folk M. Ward, was taking the stage as the rain continued to fall steadily. Ward emerged backed only by his drummer for a version of "Sad Sad Song" that seemed to fit the rainy afternoon nicely. They were soon joined by the rest of his band for an unfortunately muddled version of the usually stellar "Chinese Translation." "Requiem," "Epistemology" and the next two or three songs continued to disappoint and it wasn't long before I was perusing the schedule to find another act to go check out. Maybe it was bad stage sound, maybe it was an off day, or maybe it was the fact that Ward's music translates much better in intimate surroundings but his Monolith performance couldn't even hold a candle to his absolutely mesmerizing set at the Lyons Folks Fest just a month before. I took off for the drier confines of the WOXY Stage down in the Visitor's Center to catch a little bit of Cotton Jones, and boy was I glad I did!
|M. Ward :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
Hailing from the hill country town of Cumberland, Maryland, the music of Cotton Jones has a '70s AM rock feel to it that makes you want to sip whiskey on the porch while watching the sun set. Decked out in lumberjack-like red plaid, frontman Michael Nau strummed his guitar and traded lyrics with the other core member of the group, keyboardist Whitney McGraw. Though there were several musicians onstage to flesh out the band's sound, it was clear there was a connection between Nau and McGraw as their harmonies brought to life outstanding tracks like "Where You Stop for a Minute," "Gotta Cheer Up" and "Some Strange Rain." I stood there transfixed for most of their 40-minute set, just sopping up everything they offered as they quickly became my favorite act of the festival.
As Cotton Jones waved goodbye and I shook their harmonies from my ears, I realized that back outside in the rain Girl Talk was about to throw a huge main stage dance party. It was a change of pace, to say the least, but as Gregg Gillis dropped clips of "Dancing In The Dark," "Under The Bridge" and "War Pigs," and the hundred or so dancers that crammed in alongside him onstage wriggled with excitement, the night seemed to warm up a bit. Everyone was on their feet, dancing and singing along as song after familiar song filled the air. Gillis spent the set twiddling knobs and he occasionally leaped up onto the table that held a pair of laptops and speakers to bask in shower after shower of confetti and toilet paper that rained down on the throng of dancers. He kept the energy pumping by giving a nod to Michael Jackson as he teased "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and announced that "The Beatles played here for fuck's sake!!!" Though his set hasn't changed much this year, a Girl Talk party is one that will keep you moving from beginning to end, and Gillis didn't disappoint the Monolith crowd despite the weather.
|Girl Talk :: Monolith 2009 by Dwenger|
As the Girl Talk set was winding down, Of Montreal was just getting going on the Southern Comfort Stage at the top of the steps. Incorporating a video screen with wild animations and strange camera angles (ala The Flaming Lips) with the band's trademark costumes and make-up, it was clear that the freaks were out in full force. While their set didn't involve bringing a live horse out, as it has from time to time this year, there were more than a few strange costumed creatures inhabiting the stage. Kevin Barnes and company ran through favorites like "Rapture Rapes the Muses" and "Id Engager" before ending their set with "She's A Rejector" from 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? It was flashy and creative but unfortunately the lighting seemed to be lacking a bit and the performance just didn't seem to carry the weight that it could have.
As I peaked back over the top of the amphitheatre, it was a little disconcerting to notice the giant eyeball staring back up at me from the back of the stage as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were taking their places. Karen O was decked out in vaguely tribal, multi-colored robes as she crooned the set's slower than expected opener, "Runaway." From there things picked up and each song seemed to pack a little more punch than the last as O twirled and gyrated around the stage, spitting water in the air and performing various acrobatic moves to the electronic beats that her band was pumping out. It was a high-energy set that weaved recent tracks from It's Blitz together with older hits like "Cheated Hearts" from Show Your Bones. Overall, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were a little bit disappointing in the headlining slot but with several other bands coming out of the woodwork for me over the course of the day, I wasn't let down at all and left soaking wet and satisfied with a day of great music under my belt.
|Yeah Yeah Yeahs :: Monolith 2009 by Kline|
Continue reading for day two of Monolith...