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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2008/09/28
by John Zinkand

Gordon Umphreys Rides a Mule to the Rocks

Back when I was funemployed in 2002, I hit up Red Rocks in Morrison, CO for the first time. I had seen the beautiful pictures, heard some tapes of Dead and Phish shows from there, and generally yearned to visit this esteemed venue. That yearning and burning became a reality in 2002 when I saw the Phil Lesh Quintet play two back to back shows there in August (with RatDog opening the first night and Willie Nelson opening the second night). Having been to the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington State, I assumed I had already seen the most magnificent outdoor venue in the country, but was sorely mistaken. My expectations that Red Rocks would play second fiddle to the Gorge could not have been more wrong. Red Rocks Amphitheater offers a stunning beauty unlike any other live music venue in the country. And not surprisingly, the venue hosts consistently above average performances by almost any band that graces its stage. Add the fact that the venue is plunked in between two massive and beautiful rock towers and has an aura of ancient power, and what youve got is the best damn venue there is. Period.

I had been hoping to return to see some more shows there for quite some time. A few shows that took place were tempting, like the Big Summer Classic tour a few years ago, but nothing demanded my attention and could not be ignored. Fast forward to January 2008. It was time at work to select the days off wanted for the entire year ahead. As I do not know all of my plans for the entire year by January of said year, I started picking random dates. So I locked in a week for a family vacation I knew about already and also some important dates like my birthday. But once those are used up and its your turn to pick some more days off, what you do? Well, what I did was picked the Tuesday after Labor Day, which gave me a four day holiday weekend. As the winter rains slowly turned into spring drizzle, I began thinking about what I might do with the time off. A backpacking trip? See the family? Go to the beach? Who knows?? When the announcement was made it was crystal clear to me I was going to be heading back to see a show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. My current favorite band on the scene, Umphreys McGee, would be opening for Govt Mule at Red Rocks one night, then headlining their very own debut two set acoustic show at the Fox Theater in Boulder, CO the next night. Not to mention the fact that the Allman Brothers and RatDog were slated to play the night before Mule at Red Rocks as an added bonus. Travel websites were perused and soon my significant other and I had secured plane tickets, concert tickets, and a reservation at a hotel in Boulder for three nights complete with Jacuzzi tub, balcony, and free breakfast each morning. The plan was to maybe catch the Allmans/Ratdog show the first night, but we did not buy a ticket ahead of time. We also planned to do some Rocky Mountain hiking while there.
The time slowly ticked by until it was finally a few days before the flight to Colorado. I was still on the fence about seeing the Allman’s/Ratdog show the first night as it is an expensive ticket and I have seen these two bands many, many times over the years. Not expecting much, I visited the Umphreys McGee fan site www.umphreaks.com and went to The Bort (the board but with a Chicago accentget it?). I posted a message asking if people were doing anything else on Saturday night besides the show at Red Rocks. I received a response from someone saying they were going to see Mike Gordon at The Mish. I know who Mike Gordon is, I though to myself, but whats a mish?? I posted my thoughts and received a reply that The Mish is short for the Mishawaka Amphitheater. Turns out the place is about an hour and a half from Boulder is supposedly a pretty sweet venue in its own right. I had missed the Mike Gordon show in Portland as I was vacationing in Tahoe when he came to Portland (yes, my life is hard), so it didnt take much for me to decide this was a great idea. Sold! And we added another show to the docket.
The day finally arrived and we boarded the plane in Portland and enjoyed non-stop service to Denver on Southwest Airlines, the best damn airline in the country. The flight was painless and the weather was hot and summer-like in Colorado. We secured our rental Suzuki (nothing but the best), and drove toward our hotel in Boulder. Accommodations were secured along with certificates for a free breakfast each day we were there (and served til 2pmnice). After a quick power nap and perusal of our stunning assortment of cable channels (no cable TV at home), we jumped into the trusty Suzuki and headed north to Fort Collins, then turned west heading down the winding road through Poudre Canyon, eventually arriving at our destination for the evening of the Mishawaka Amphitheater.
What a cool venue!! This has to be the best smaller outdoor venue in America. Theres a little stage set up basically right on the bank of the river that runs through a canyon. A small building houses a restaurant and bar and there is camping available to the left and right of the building. To get to the actual venue, walk through the restaurant, out the back door, and across a spacious wooden patio packed with chairs and tables (and incredibly beautiful views of the river, the canyon, and the stage). Once at the bottom of the stairs, you are in the venue proper a large open space, bars on either side, and the homemade stage perched high beside the river. Everyone was in a good mood and the vibe was extremely heady, if you know what Im saying.
Although we were pretty tired from getting up at around 5am Pacific Time, we made it through most of Gordos set. Having never heard the new album, I was pleasantly surprised by the show. Most of the tunes were accessible and danceable on the first listen. The band was tight, too. Gordons bass was loudest in the mix, but I suppose thats to be expected. Scott Murawski played some mean solos over Gordons thumping bass lines and everyone seemed very excited, dancing and smiling. The playing was precise and tight, yet it had a usual approach very characteristic of Mike but unlike his more disjointed and bizarre stuffits kind of hard to explain, but was really good! The packed crowd seemed to think so, too. We met some nice people and also hung out on the large deck and enjoyed some of the show from that beautiful vantage point. There were steep, vegetation-coated hills all around and the beautiful roaring river rolled right through the place. When we just couldnt keep our eyes open any longer, we embarked on the long drive back to Boulder and I only got lost once.
Awaking feeling somewhat refreshed, we eagerly made plans for the day. We would buy some food and beverages to take with us to Red Rocks for an afternoon of hangin in the lot before heading into the show. And the first item on the list so that we could keep our food and beverages nice and cold, of course, was a nasty necessity known as The Evil Styrofoam Cooler. Ever tried to find one of these bad boys in a town like Boulder? Its tough! Much tougher than expected. Once all the grocery stores, Targets, and sporting good stores told us no, we resorted to the convenience store. Yup, they had one. Unfortunately, we had already wasted almost two hours looking in huge stores on densely populated mega-mall thoroughfares before we actually found one. Oh well, what can you do? We bought some subs, booze, beer, and snacks, jumped in the Suzuki, and rolled on down to Morrison, CO and the infamous Red Rocks Amphitheater.

As we headed south, dark clouds started rolling up over the Rockies. This is pretty typical summer weather here, but I was hoping it was just a thunderstorm and not consistent rain. We drove through a shower or two on the drive to the venue, but when we got there the rain had subsidedfor the time being. Quickly getting out of the car, our attention turned to the strangely shaped red rocks in the park all around us. They are huge and almost seem as if they are oozing around right in front of your eyes. We enjoyed a nice hike amongst the beautifully shaped and colored rock formations, and then headed back to the car to grab a quick bite before going into the show. Thats when the thunderstorm hit. Diving into the car, we narrowly avoided a thorough soaking. We watched the people running here and there out in the rain, watched the driving wind bend signs, and witnessed the sheets of rain pouring in from over the mountainbut we also snacked, drank, listened to music, and generally had a two-person party fiesta in the Suzuki.

Lookthe storms gone I thought to myself as the last lonely drop or two fell from the sky and it became a little lighter outside. Making our way out of the car and up the hill towards the entrance, we were happy that the rain stopped 30 or 40 minutes before show time. Once inside, we poked around a little bit and checked out all the venue had to offer. One thing it had to offer was extremely expensive beer. But the sweeping views from inside this venue are spectacular. To look down between the towering rocks at the stage and out at the city of Denver even further below is jaw-dropping. We could see the storms that had passed through moving across the distant plains of eastern Colorado and were lucky enough to see a beautiful rainbow to add to the magic. Mystical.
We settled in for the show on the left side down near the front of the stage. As usual, the musical power and beauty meshed perfectly with the beauty and power of the venue. Umphreys came out kicking and played a solid set of tunes including the newer tunes Search 4 and Wappy Sprayberry. Both were played strongly and with some powerful jams. Higgins is probably my favorite newer tune, and this version was as good as or better than previous versions Ive heard live. The Bottom Half>Glory>The Bottom Half sandwich was tasty, but I assumed hearing Glory excluded my chances of hearing the song Divisions with which it is commonly paired. Psyche! The next tune was Divisions, for me the highlight of the show, a song that is seemingly harder and harder to catch live these days. I love the many varied musical sections and the poignant lyrics in this classic Umphreys tune and this version segued into Pipeline and Resolution (with Norwegian Wood teases) before closing out the tune. JaJunk was a solid and unexpected set closer on top of the Divisions sandwich. Tight!!
Next up was Mule and they did not disappoint the masses. Haynes and crew always show up with their collective game face on ready to rock, and tonight would be no different. Some beautiful melodic intro riffs melted away into the song Soulshine to open the show and we were off. Mule played a solid show of originals and covers much to the enjoyment of the crowd. A highlight for me was the version of Dear Prudence with Brendan Bayliss of Umphreys sitting in and also the powerful and rocking cover of War Pigs. We headed out of the Mule show a little early so we could check out the North Indiana All-Stars at Cervantes in Denver after the show. The band is made up of a few of the guys from Umphreys and some others. Cervantes is a pretty run down little bar in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, but the show was fun if not mind-blowing. It consisted of lots of jams and grooves, but rarely did the energy blow the roof off the place and wailing solos were only occasional. But it was groovy nonetheless and the drinks were strong, so life was good. When we had enough of that around 2am or so, it was back to the hotel and the king size pillow top bed. Ahhhh
The next morning greeted us along with free blueberry pierogies and a big diesel omelet in the tasty little hotel restaurant run by a Polish chef. The place was literally 3 steps from our room! Our plan was to eat a big breakfast to fuel up for a rigorous hike in the Rocky Mountains. We pointed the trusty Suzuki back towards Mishawaka Amphitheater down the Poudre Canyon, but this time we stopped a few miles before the venue at a hiking trailhead for Greyrock. It was the perfect hike at about 6 miles or so roundtrip. The first section goes up gradually for about 2.2 miles, and the last .7 miles or so climbs straight up 1200 ft. to the top of the massive rock. While the effort was pretty intense, the monumental views were stunning and the exercise and accomplishment felt great. Some other hikers pointed out some darker clouds on the horizon, so we decided to head back down from the breathtaking views in anticipation of another afternoon thunderstorm. Only a few minutes after we were back in the car driving towards Boulder, the first few drops of afternoon showers began smattering against the glass.
After a quick bite and margarita(s) at the little Mexican restaurant next to the Fox Theater, we walked into the show. It was to be a special two set acoustic affair and everyone seemed very excited chatting happily and festively. The small room was packed, but we somehow managed to wrangle our way down to the front left side just in front of Joels grand piano. The band had a little vodka bar set up on stage, and went and helped themselves to a drink from time to time throughout the show. There was certainly no shortage of alcohol flowing through the crowd either. Yet the vibe was not out of hand or overly boisterous, just intense, happy, and attentive. Both sets were outstanding and the band was obviously having a great time on stage. Brendan joked with the crowd about what he thought Red Rocks looks like from the stage (two beautiful titties), for example, and there was other such festive nonsense all throughout the show. The first set featured a mellow opener Great American and also offered interesting versions of Liquid and Plunger. There was a debut cover version of just Jake on acoustic playing the Deads Crazy Fingers as well as the return of an old Umphreys tune called Duck Butter. Closing out the set was a powerful version of 40s Theme, a seemingly odd choice of songs for the acoustic format, but somehow it worked well and rocked the house to a roaring finish.
And the hits kept on coming in the second set as everyone seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. The band played some great nuggets and also brought out Dave Murphy from STS9 on bass for a Jimmy Stewart jam. A highlight was the combo of Genesis cover Thats All into Hajimemashite and a beautiful piano solo. Rounding out the set was a version of the traditionally acoustic Uncle Wally followed by the bluegrass tinged Mullet (Over). But the band wasnt quite done and encored with a song that had not been played for almost two years, Memories of Home. This song is a beautiful slower ditty and was a pleasure to hear live. A cover of Steve Winwoods Cant Find My Way Home was very appropriate as the next encore considering the vodka bar on stage and the heavily drinking crowd. Bob Segers Night Moves closed out the triple encore as well as the show.
Upon waking the next day, we hung out in the room right up until check out time and then headed over to the restaurant for one more large and free breakfast. The entire trip was whirlwind of mountains, music, fun and frivolity, but then Ive come to expect some very high times when I go to Colorado. Colorado is a great place with wonderful people who really dig good music and it is always a pleasure to visit. For our final day, we drove to the park up in the steep and craggy Flatirons just above the town of Boulder for one more bout of site seeing. The natural beauty doesnt stop in this great state. We made it back to the airport, returned the Suzuki, and got on the non-stop flight back to Portland – and a friend even picked us up at the airport! Ive had many fun music and nature excursions to Colorado, but this one will go down in my personal history book as one of the absolute best.

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