Friday, September 26, 2008

Show Review: Monolith Festival @ Red Rocks, Denver, CO--Day 1

With over 1200 photos to edit, text to write, and legs that are no longer wobbling from running the many, many flights of stairs to get from stage to stage, I'm finally getting around to reporting on the coolness (literally and figuratively) that was the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks in Denver, CO.

Now, I'm from the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains so I thought I knew mountains. But nowhere on the NYS Thruway is there a view quite like the one I saw ahead of me as I barreled up I-70W towards the Morrison exit for Day 1 of 2-day festival. The amazing Colorado mountain ranges sat in the forefront of the brightest blue sky, a picture so perfect it was like it had been Photoshopped. If I'd not been running so late (overslept and more shite Google Map directions), I would have pulled over and shot pictures of it, it was that breathtaking. And this wasn't even Red Rocks!

Which btw, was pretty mind-blowing. All these naturally-placed red sandstone monoliths, angled just so, it's like an American version of Stonehenge. And in the middle of it all is a BIG concert amphitheater and multiple parking lots and a visitors center, none of which you initially see as you pull in, because these rocks aren’t just big, they’re GINORMOUS (history of Red Rocks). I gotta tell you, it was a little surreal knowing I was going to see rock shows in the middle of all that.

I arrived, so that was one challenge down. Then, I had to adjust my NY-paced stride to the high altitude (things like walking up inclines or flights of stairs definitely left you winded), so challenge two down. Challenge three, finding the stages that were indoors, was a bit tougher as some festival planner thought directive signs to stages weren’t as important as signs to hemp ice cream or a pay-for-oxygen booth apparently.

1. The Morning Benders
Fortunately I was able to catch at least one song of Berkeley, CA's Morning Benders by the time I found the "Rock Room Stage;" unfortunately, that one song was their last song. Somewhat of a bummer as I had enjoyed *hearing* their live set enough that I wanted to *see* their live set too. That one song didn't disappoint though. They brought the coagulated sounds of British pop and California sunshine as nicely in person as they do on record.

I made a mental note to request the VU song from their great record of covers when I interview them at their DC show October 12th.

(Two of the Morning Benders during Blitzen Trapper. More photos of The Morning Benders set here.)

Dammit Anna_The Morning Benders

2. The Muslims
I had scheduled an overview appointment to get skinny of the Dell Dome shortly after The Morning Benders set, but I was able to catch a few songs by The Muslims on my way. These guys may dress like Vampire Weekend but they were all about testing the sound barrier of everyone's earplugs with their super-energetic hard driving punk-pop.

I think Jon Behm over at Culture Bully summed them up the best:

Pretty music is nice. Sometimes though, what you need is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of a spirited bar fight. In those instances, lately I have been turning to San Diego band The Muslims.

"Spirited bar fight," yup sounds about right.

(More photos of The Muslims set here.)

Extinction_The Muslims

3. The Dell Dome
Billed as a "self-expressive arts studio" and a place to discover new music, the Dell Dome's exterior was designed by artist Mike Ming. Ming also designs specialized Dell laptops, skateboards, and the like.

(Artist Mike Ming)

(Mike Ming-designed skateboard display.)

Ming is one of the 4-5 artists that Dell has involved with the Dome as it makes the festival circuit (Monolith was its fifth this year). Additional artists will be joining shortly for a collaboration with Project Red.

(The start of Ming's painting that he was working on inside the Dome.)

Activities inside the Dome included free screen printing on attendees’ clothing, rock star hairdos, and temporary tattoos ("There's always a wait for those," said my guides Lee and Lisa).

(Two brave souls getting rock star hairdos.)

Other cool activities allowed individuals to create a "mix tape" with 20 or so free downloads that was emailed (mixes can also be created here), and to partake in meet and greet interviews with artists.

(Devotchka's Shawn King and Tom Hagerman during one of the artist interviews in the Dell Dome.)

3. Blitzen Trapper
I'd heard a lot about Blitzen Trapper but not seen or heard them, so I did some reading beforehand. One phrase I found was "experimental folk rock." Seeing them myself, I didn't hear much in terms of "experimental" so much (unless by “experimental the author meant combining indie pop with folk (like pre-electric Dylan folk) and rock (ala classic, southern, and cock rock)). But the "folk rock" part was definitely accurate...think big guitar sounds with a harmonica and rock howl (which lead singer Eric Earley was great at). The "Rock Room Stage" was a rather small room but BT packed the peeps in (including two of The Morning Benders and two of the Vampire Weekend kids). A great rendition of "Wild Mountain Nation" made the crowd lose it altogether, and they did quite a few tracks from their new release Furr, out this week.

(More photos from the Blitzen Trapper show here.)

Wild Mountain Nation_Blitzen Trapper

4. John Vanderslice
Before I made the long trek down the 230 amphitheater stairs, I stopped for a few minutes to check out the bright daylight settings of the bad ass Nikon D80 I was sportin by shooting some of the John Vanderslice set. I wasn’t left with any big indelible impression of his music (and I’m normally a sucker for a fiddle in an indie band) but I did manage to get some nice shots, so I had that going for me. Which is nice.

(More photos from the John Vanderslice show here.)

5. Cut Copy
Cut Copy didn’t do much for me when I went to review their opening band, The Black Kids, here in DC awhile back. But as I stood up at the top of the amphitheater seats, waaaay above the main stage as they played, I thought to myself, "Hey, they aren't half bad!" Maybe Cut Copy is just like a set of bagpipes, maybe they're just better heard over a hill and far away.

So Haunted_Cut Copy

6. Scratch Track
I swung down to the acoustic stage to see this two-piece called Scratch Track before The Fratellis show (with a stop off at the stinky media tent for a bottle of water with a cap. Red Rocks, for whatever reason, sells bottles of water without their caps. Odd...) Scratch Track is comprised of a soul singer who doubles as a human beat box, and a guy playing acoustic guitar. They were a different sound and they made it work (and that stuff isn't typically my cup o' tea). I mean, how often do you get to hear a good acoustic rap version of "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News at an indie rock fest? Exactly, so you couldn’t help but give them props.

(More photos from the Scratch Track set here.)

Shaker_Scratch Track

7. The Fratellis
Other reviews of the Fratellis performance at Monolith weren't stellar, saying that they were kind of blah, not too exciting, etc. I, however, didn't think they were so so bad. True, it could have been the high altitude messing with my brain, but I thought they had a great wall of poppy sound, more Liverpudlian than Glaswegian, that bounced nicely off the rocks that framed the back of the main stage.

Or maybe I was just more entertained watching their cuckoo-bananas drummer, Mince...the guy was a total maniac on the drums. Picture Ringo's feet fused with Keith Moon’s body.

Me digging them this time was kind of funny as I hadn't been so impressed when I saw them before at Webster Hall with The Airborne Toxic Event. Although it could have also been that I was just blinded by Jon Fratelli's excellent taste in shirts to notice much else (he was sporting the exact Dublin Sound shirt by Worn Free that I'd been planning to buy that very week).

(More photos from the Fratellis set here.)

Chelsea Dagger_The Fratellis

Still to come for Day 1...A Place to Bury Strangers, Vampire Weekend, The Night Marchers, Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, Silverun Pickups, and Devotchka.

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