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...
Day Two: September 13
The second day of Monolith dawned much nicer than the first, and with temps promising to be in the 70's with only the occasional shower on the radar things were looking up.
|Rahzel :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
As we walked into the main bowl of the amphitheatre, the crowd was already very loud responding to Rahzel of the Legendary Roots Crew, who was hamming it up a bit onstage. It wasn't long after he began that his DJ informed him that the turntables "went out" and he was going to have to do all the beats himself. Though it was clearly part of his shtick, he knows how to work a crowd got the audience fully engaged in his "Do That Beat" game. The audience would chant, "Do that beat!" after the DJ spun something and Rahzel would proceed to imitate the beat almost perfectly. It was as close to a human jukebox as I have seen, and as he name checked The Transformers, Kanye West and Wu Tang Clan (with Method and Red performing later in the day) the crowd ate it up. He ended his set with a segment where he did the beat and chorus of a song at the same time and brought the house down. For one man to dominate the main stage at Red Rocks like Rahzel did is no small feat. I was very impressed but as soon as he walked off stage I headed down to the smallest stage at the festival for Beats Antique, who were about to rock the MadeLoud.com Stage that usually hosts small acoustic acts.
The trio, made up of David Satori, Sidecar Tommy and belly dancer Zoe Jakes, put a very unique spin on dubstep by melding it with live instrumentation and sampled horn fills to create a very organic electro sound heavy on huge beats. They attracted a densely packed crowd that danced feverishly in the mid-afternoon and even piled onto the stage for an impromptu dance party when invited for the last song of the set. This Oakland-based group was one of the most interesting of the festival, and if this set was any indication we can expect big things from these guys in next year or so.
We returned to the main stage just as the heavy psych sound of "Burned," the lead off track from The Dandy Warhols recent album, The Dandy Warhols Are Sound, washed through the amphitheatre. Under a giant royal blue banner, Courtney Taylor-Taylor and his bandmates weren't afraid to talk about how excited they were to be playing Red Rocks before they raged through the dirty country power pop of "The Legend of the Last Outlaw Truckers." The band touched on material from throughout their 15-plus year career during their set, and at times seemed heavily influenced by Nirvana or even Oasis. While their show was enjoyable, I can't help but feel that it would have made more of an impression with a blinding light show and just the right number of fog machines pumping out walls of gray smoke.
|The Dandy Warhols :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
While The Dandy's tore up the main stage, fellow Portland band The Thermals were pumping out short, intense punk songs to a tightly packed group at the Southern Comfort Stage. Lead singer/guitarist Hutch Harris belted out the politically charged lyrics, and bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Westin Glass were locked together as one of the tightest rhythm sections at the festival. Though their set mainly focused on their 2009 release Now We Can See, the band did throw in a few older tunes and even nodded to an obvious influence when they covered Sonic Youth's "100%" late in the set.
As The Thermals left the stage a booming voice came over the PA and implored us to pay attention. "I know that some of you are drunk and some of you are stoned, so I am going to say this a few times. MSTRKRFT has been forced to cancel their performance tonight. Again, MSTRKRFT has been forced to cancel their performance tonight. Let's have a moment of silence for all the MSTRKRFT fans out there." Though this was a major blow, it did mean that Phoenix would relinquish their spot on the Southern Comfort Stage to Passion Pit and get a chance to show us all that they really did deserve to be on the main stage all along.
|The Thermals :: Monolith 2009 by Dwenger|
Meanwhile, the booming sound coming from the bottom of the amphitheatre signaled that The Glitch Mob had taken the stage. While not the most interesting of stage set-ups, the trio used identical touch screens and mixers to create and manipulate sounds that got the entire crowd off their asses and dancing hard. From two-finger tap solos on the screen, to a full-on assault on the screen with a pair of drumsticks, these guys kept the energy very high.
We left The Glitch Mob to catch The Twilight Sad and ended up face to face with one of the few real hassles of the festival. The Fire Marshalls had again decided to crack down on the capacity of the indoor venues in the Visitor Center. The small stages are part of the charm of the festival, but waiting in line to get in to see an act while there are other bands playing is a bit of a buzzkill. After a solid 20-minute wait, we were let into the WOXY Stage, where the band was probably three or four songs into their set. I am a big fan of The Twilight Sad and their melodic shoegaze style had moments of brilliance at Monolith but equipment problems, earsplitting volume and frontman James Graham's sour attitude left me wanting a bit more and I decided to let someone else who was waiting in line give it a shot.
Up on the surface, Boulder's own electronic wizards Savoy were making the most of their chance to throw down on the Southern Comfort Stage. The lineup of a live drummer flanked by two laptop knob-twiddling DJs had the energetic crowd bouncing to a bass heavy remix of Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing" as I made my way to the main stage for another dose of Old School hip-hop. The couple of minutes of Savoy's set that I heard made me wish I hadn't dealt with the lines for The Twilight Sad.
|Method Man & Redman :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
As we descended the stairs to our spot just behind the soundboard, the purple and red outfits of Method Man and Redman were blurs on the stage as they jumped around and poured surprising energy into their set. Mixing up new tracks with old Wu-Tang Clan material, the duo got a huge reaction from Sunday's hip-hop loving fans and certainly won over some of the kids who had never heard of them before.
The biggest buzz of the weekend surrounded Passion Pit, the band that had been selected to replace Phoenix on the Southern Comfort Stage. The band opened with "Make Light" and immediately the electronic beats had the ravenous crowd jumping up and down and began a dance party (complete with crowd surfing) that didn't let up until the group had run through a bulk of their debut album. Unfortunately, their set didn't do it for me. The sound was absolutely horrible when they took the stage and it didn't get much better for the duration of their 45-minute time slot. That, coupled with the painful falsetto that lead singer Michael Angelakos insisted on singing in, nearly drove me out of my mind.
Back down in the amphitheatre, techs were running around as preparations were being made for Phoenix to take the stage. With the opportunity that every band dreams about laid at their feet, I was pretty surprised when 8:00 p.m. rolled around and the Frenchmen still hadn't appeared. 10 minutes later, a full 25 minutes after their designated start time, Phoenix took the stage in a thick haze of fog to a deafening roar. From the first notes of "Lisztomania," it was clear the band was hitting right on stride and their sing-songy, disco meets the '80s vibe was eliciting smiles from all corners of Red Rocks. Though their recent release Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has been their commercial breakthrough, the band didn't ignore their back catalog and dropped "Too Young" from the nearly 10 year old album United. That being said, it was the new stuff that the crowd was truly eating up, and when they packed "1901," "Girlfriend" and "Rome" in near the end of a majestic set the crowd went wild and frontman Thomas Mars took a shot at crowd surfing in the first few rows. As the stars came out for the first time all weekend, Phoenix proved that they could own one of the most storied stages in rock, even if that stage isn't well suited for crowd surfing antics.
|Phoenix :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
As much of the crowd headed for the exits and Chromeo beats reverberated off the giant stone monoliths on either side of the amphitheatre, the main stage was being set up for the weekend's headliner, The Mars Volta. While The Mars Volta are an undeniably talented band that packs the kind of sheer power that most bands only dream about, they just don't have the draw to headline a festival on a Sunday and unfortunately that was evident at Red Rocks. While the bowl was more than half full for Phoenix, by the time Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala took the stage to triumphant orchestral music there couldn't have been more than 2,000 people standing around waiting for them. The band rewarded their hardcore fans with a set that featured some absolutely screaming guitar solos from Rodriguez Lopez and countless clichéd rock 'n' roll gyrations executed perfectly by Bixler-Zavala. From screaming leaps off speaker cabinets to microphone twirls that would make Roger Daltry green with envy, the band embodied a true devil-may-care attitude that was further solidified by the almost demonic presence of one of the most powerful drummers I have ever witnessed. Thomas Pridgen perched behind the kit, bare-chested with dreadlocks hanging to his shoulders, pounds the drums like a man possessed. He anchors The Mars Volta's monstrous prog-rock jams alongside bassist Juan Alderete and seems equally at home during the lightening quick orchestrated segments as he is during long, drawn out, spacey jams. It was quite a set to witness and while I can't say that I will be rushing out to catch them again, I am glad that I had the opportunity to see them this time around.
|The Mars Volta :: Monolith 2009 by Cooper|
As we walked out into the largely deserted parking lot, I was struck by the thought that maybe Red Rocks isn't the place for Monolith. It may seem like blasphemy, but the sheer disparity in size from the main stage to the club stages at the festival presents a problem. The location is a big part of the festival's charm, but I think that if Monolith ever lands a headliner that can truly sell-out the main amphitheatre then the inside club stages will be completely inaccessible and that would destroy the point of having multiple stages.
In the meantime, despite the fact that it doesn't sell out or have the real marquee names of our time, it is a festival that gives a whole lot of young, up and coming bands the opportunity to play at one of the best venues in the world, and there is something to be said for that.
Continue reading for more pics of the Monolith Festival...
Images by: Lewis Cooper
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