Monolith Festival :: 09.13.08 & 09.14.08 :: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: Morrison, CO
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
As they wound down, we took off up the stairs, only noticing slight soreness from the previous day’s countless trips up and down, to catch another local band that is just starting out. Moonspeed packed the stage with ten people, two drum kits and all kinds of other equipment to create an atmospheric, layered yet folky sound that showed enormous potential to develop into something very special. I’ll be keeping an eye on the Denver scene to see what develops with these guys over the next year or so.
After a brief stop at the oxygen bar to clear my head a bit, the bluegrass punk of The Avett Brothers rang out from the main stage. It was my first experience with The Avett Brothers and I’ll be back for more. With a traditional bluegrass lineup, strong harmonies, great songwriting and a rough around the edges energy, their unique approach to bluegrass is an interesting change of pace and I can see why they’ve been getting such great press over the last year. They converted many new fans at the festival and turned in one of the best sets of the weekend.
Back at the main stage, it was time for a trip back to the ’70s with the funky R&B laced soul of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend, they did not disappoint, cranking out song after song of some of the tightest, funkiest music I’ve heard in a long time. Jones herself is a little dynamo onstage, dancing with the flair of Tina Turner and belting ’em out with one of the strongest voices on the scene today. Everybody was up and dancing in the stands, and she even invited several people up onstage with her to shake it in front of the whole festival. While she would have been right at home on the juke joint stages of the past, Jones and the Dap-Kings tore things up at Monolith and were another testament to the variety that this festival offers up.
After Jones wrapped up her set to a tremendous ovation, the ripping guitar of The Kills could be heard rebounding off the rocks from the New Belgium Stage, and with Does It Offend You, Yeah? taking the stage shortly after them it was time for another hike up the stairs. The Kills seemed a bit like a cheap rip off version of The White Stripes with a similarly blues-based sound that didn’t really move me. Maybe I should have made more time for them, but in a festival setting it was just too easy to head off to see Does It Offend You, Yeah? rather than spend much time assessing these guys.
Reverb was the word of the hour at the main stage as Band of Horses took over and showed that their sudden success a couple years back was no fluke. They just seem to get better and better live and Monolith was no exception. Ben Bridwell showed off his versatility, switching between guitar and pedal steel as he and the band ran through about an hour’s worth of tracks from their two albums. The set was highlighted by gripping versions of “The Great Salt Lake” and “Is There a Ghost,” which seemed tailor made for the majestic confines of Red Rocks.
As the evening cooled attention was focused on the rumors that had been swirling all day that TV On The Radio had broken down in Utah and might not be making the festival. Turned out the rumors were true but the band did everything in their power to get to Red Rocks. Though they arrived minutes before their set time, their equipment took a while to set up and their performance was delayed by about 30 minutes, unfortunately eating into their allotted time. When the band finally took the stage they made the most of their 40 minutes and ran through songs from each part of their six-year career, including several songs from their epic new album, Dear Science. Under a nearly full moon, “Wolf Like Me” was particularly appropriate and the deafening wall of sound guitars that have become something of a trademark for them washed over the crowd, bringing everyone to their feet. New tracks “Golden Age” and “Dancing Choose” stood out from the new material, and though the band did seem a bit off, probably due to their harried day, they put on a very solid set that left them up near the top of my list.
When all was said and done and we headed out to the parking lot shortly before Justice took the stage, it was clear that this is still a young festival with a few kinks to work out but it was much smoother than last year. Hopefully, as years pass and things get ironed out, it will become the marquee festival that it deserves to be. In the meantime, enjoy the underground feeling that this festival offers and use it as an opportunity to catch some amazing unknown bands in an absolutely beautiful setting.
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