Red Rocks or Bust
Friday, July 1st
Your flight was moved to gate K 4. You better hurry. The lady at the gate K 17 counter couldnt help her own lofty downward look of spite as Brandons and mine eyes widened with fright as we saw or Colorado trip go from splendor to shit with just a few words.
Three minutes to catch the 10:30 am Denver flight from OHare.
Fuck this airport. The rat bastards in charge must stroke themselves for the notoriety this place gets as the busiest airport, to the point where they must look in the surveillance cameras and laugh as two half drunk show junkies bolt to their suddenly moved flight. All the frantic slipping by and plowing through people were to no avail. Gate K 4 was empty.
Oh, there you two are, said the gate counter woman with a too familiar disdain for our boozy panting. We paged you three times. Didnt you hear it? Fucking Christ, does it look like we heard it?
Heads hung, we sat and slept while we waited hopelessly on standby for the 12:15 flight to no avail. It was Fourth of July weekend, after all. We felt it was time for a plan. Back out of the baggage claim, we went to the American Airlines desk to get an actual seat and to hell with this standby nonsense. But, nothing was to be had on this weekend, although the clerk gave us a ray of hope, pointing out we were top of the standby list for the 3 oclock flight to Denver. So we waited and each row/section/whatever the hell boarded. Final callsecond Final call (hmmm.)_third final call_. I closed my eyes, breathed deep and said over and over, _Were getting on this flight. Were getting on this flight. Were getting _
Feldheim.Ah! Take that you awful bastards! You see, no one enjoys themselves at OHare. A lot of floor staring among the travelers. Through much frowns and discontent, Brandon and I laughed our way onto the plane to embark on our first trip to Red Rocks.
If you fancy yourself a column reader no doubt you caught David Steinbergs piece on the deterioration of the jamband community. Being a stubborn 24 year old, my first reaction to the beginning of his rant was something like, Old man, quit whining about the damn Golden Age and go change your diaper. Golden ages never happened. There was always something wrong and there always will be. If one can see all existence as an ebb and flow of opposing forces, you free yourself to actually savor whats good and deal with the bad without getting it all mixed up. The thing is he made some dreadfully strong points. The more I read Steinbergs column it did bring out some doubt about the jam scene that had been lurking in the mind ever since seeing the blown up cluster fuck that Bonnaroo became between year two and three. That festival has turned into a display of greed at work. It seemed the scene had become so vague that many people had jumped on the train for reasons other than music. And when that happens, a counter culture focal point starts to die. It happened to Phish, the Dead, Haight-Ashbury. Check it out and youll see when enough people on board dont get it, and assume the sex, drugs, music and maybe the love is all free and you dont have to put something in to make it all work, the scene withers like diseased skin.
In light of these heavy thoughts and the ache in my midsection that this might be whats happening to the beloved scene that raised a good chunk of my music soul since age 16, I traveled this summer to find out if things truly had changed for the worse. Or, maybe the scene is merely evolving into a wider reaching field beyond the pressure cooker of focusing on a solitary band.
The first stop was the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Karl Densons Tiny Universe has morphed once again, putting out a jumpy dance feel along with their hard funk. Every time I see that band they clearly change, adapt and adjust many facets of their sound to keep it constantly interesting. Treys 70 Volt Stroll didnt quite set my blood on fire, and even with the solid jam acts playing at the fest, there was just too much other great music to catch at this thing. Treys new band has also been a saucy subject, but we wont dwell on it here. One less-than-soul-spinning project does not mean instant downfall of a scene. Just remember that god awful synth album Neil Young recorded. One band who lit a furious furnace in New Orleans and would again in many other places was Umphreys McGee. The Tipitinas set from 2 am until about 7:30 am had destructo greatness all over it, especially on an evil Norwegian Wood jam with Gabby La La on sitar and a JaJunk that sounded like a psycho jesters theme. Music aside, the people there were friendly as hell, open to sharing everything and random conversation. As far as Jazz Fest went, the scene was running strong as ever.
The next stop was at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe, Illinois for Summercamp. At this fest, the music was on with Umphreys getting nutty with Black Water, and sustaining awesome tension past the point it felt like they would throw a change out during Believe the Lie. Oteil and the Peacemakers played ripping day and night sets, with Oteil plucking sounds from his bass not of this world. JMP had the best sit in with Theresa Andersson seducing the band members with her Gypsy-like singing. But the scene had little steam. At times during the fest, some people looked haggard and zombified. In other times at the fest, I met some folks in with the music, listening keenly and very full of life. But one couldnt ignore the bleary eyes and addled stares, not to mention stumblers and fallers down. It wasnt the shit storm that Bonnaroo has mutated into, but having been to three Summercamps it really was different in years past.
Onward to Colorado, where the real test would be as Brandon and I set out from Urbana, Illinois to the first Big Summer Classic. Jamscene expansion has not gone so well in recent years especially in the realm of the package tour. Lollapalooza feel before a single note was played the year before, and the Zooma tour also slipped into the dark. Off we went to test the status. We flew out with just our backpacks, some cash and a few packs of smokes. It would be just enough to return some kindness if we had trouble.
We arrived in Colorado way later than we should have been, but tasted some excellence right away. Driving west from Denver International, you start at the bottom and go up through the foothills of the Rockies to come to the giant rocks. With a jug of cool Fat Tire, we made our way to the tall staircase up to the stage. With the thin air and many stairs to climb, Govt Mule looked a little hazy as they thrashed their way through Thorazine Shuffle. My friend Neal had seen many shows at Red Rocks, and encouraged us to wander around as much as possible and take in all the scenery. A warm start to the weekend, we made our way up to Vail to spend the night, yet it wasnt so clear how we were to get back for the Big Summer Classic the next day
Saturday, July 2nd
Hi, Im still at my lacrosse tournament. Probably wont be going to the show
And with one phone message, we were stuck in Vail with our tickets and no way back east to Red Rocks.
A strange resourcefulness happens in desperate hours. Or maybe you just cant care anymore. Either way Brandon scrawled Red Rocks or Bust in thick black marker on a loose chunk of cardboard found in Neals place, and we were dropped at a entrance ramp to Interstate 70. No luck was had, so Brandon suggested we walk on the actual highway and stick out the thumbs. Some awful ringing in the head said, Many do it in Colorado, but between missing the flight and this, a cop will drive right to us. Up we went, and five minutes later a state trooper turned on the non-blinking you could be fucked lights.
He came out of the cruiser and said, Its alright if you hitchhike, just stay by the entrance ramp. Theres no shoulder up here.
Oh, no problem, I said. Soare you going that way, jerking my thumb east.
Why the hell not? He smiled, thought about for a moment and said he would if his car wasnt loaded to the brim with paperwork. But, he suggested a busier exit.
Time was tight. The nexus of this trip was to share our first time at Red Rocks with Umphreys McGee. As it came closer to two oclock, with an hour and a half drive still ahead to the venue, our hopes of catching our Midwest brethrens set at four grew dim. And then
Get in, he said. Ferris drove a beastly old Chevy tank trunk, and off we went to the venue. He pointed out the odd, overlooked histories of towns along the highway, Brandon took the pictures and I told him about the jazz reggae of Ernest Ranglin. We stopped and bought him gas and beer and went back up the foothills in Morrison, just in time to hear the first notes of Walletsworth.
The more spread out nature of todays scene might suffer from fragmentation, but that is only on the surface. Its not as easy to pick up the quirks, jokes and distinguishing habits of the many bands under the umbrella of the scene, but therein lies a beautiful thing. With some bands from different nooks, pumping out different styles and ways of playing, you will find camps of fans that fall for the given band, and at scattered points like the Big Summer Classic, we all convene together to inform our brethren and sistren of the different bands we love. That doesnt just come from the band itself. For many of us, the music marks a time in our life growth and change, and such is the case with me as far as Umphreys is concerned.
Every time, I just sit back and say, Ah, Umphreys! It takes titanium balls to pick two fights at once by making complicated music fun. The musician virtuosos call them undedicated children and the jam-heads fans scoff at their ADD style and rock tenacity.
After the tender opening, Umphs went head first into sudden-change laden fierceness with Dump City around Roulette. During a tweaked Hajimemashite, they offered two trademarks: the near-all-improv of Jimmy Stewart into a cover of Another Brick in the Wall Part II in honor of Pink Floyds reunion happening at the same time.
The bands blend of serious and not shook the foothills of the Rockies, leaving a good number of folks who noticed us singing every word to ask who is Umphreys, and where do they come from? Dont ever tell me nothing good came out of the Midwest.
The rest of the day had Keller sillying things up, especially on Kielbasa Sausage, with Umphs Brendan Bayliss adding a touch. He closed out the first day with an explosive Above the Thunder, letting the song melt into total weirdness. Michael Franti and Spearhead got the energy up huge, with a full Red Rocks Amphitheater screaming FIRE!! EEYO EEYO!!! during Yell Fire. Ive never been a big Cheese fan, but they caught my attention that night. The band had really taken the time theyve been at it to try a great many things, even delving into some techno stuff and the jam techno can easily suck. Off in the Denver and suburbs skyline, firework shows raged, sparking up like fire fountains across the horizon. Off to the left of the stage was a lightning storm close enough to see, but not quite hitting Red Rocks. The whole thing was tied together by the Big Summer Classics firework display. With the PA blowing around for this weird natural panning effect, and a huge jam to end the night with none other than Keller, as well as Jake Cinninger, Joel Cummins and Kris Myers from Umphreys closing it all out with String Cheese, one cant complain about falling asleep on the dirt road near the Trading Post waiting for a cab to Denver.
*Sunday, July 3rd *
For the third time in this trip, people were kind and hospitable in ridiculous ways. Brandon and I stayed with Jason, a friend of a friend, in Denver that night, and went with he and his folks to the second day. It was high time to get some lot scene action. Will call was backed up with some poor showgoers who were sold fake ticket printouts by some awful fuck who worked at the venue. The kind smiles on the faces of the staff I saw on Friday had warped into a kill look that said the treacherous fool selling bunk tickets would meet a savage demise. And rightfully so, but at that point it was time to drink Fat Tire and grill. As we filled ourselves with beer, burgers and sausage the eight of us traded tales of show mishaps, agreed that a sign of being close with folks is when you can jovially take cracks at each others race/nationality/religion and other life spurts. Some ratty kid said he was selling coke and pharmies, so we laughed in his face while pointing at cliffs he could jump off of and do us all a favor. A security guard hassled us a bit for the open flame, but then another one came by and said not to worry since that guy was a dick. We fed the guard a bit and got up in time for the full venue to roar at Franti when he asked How you FEELIN?! during the last bit of Spearheads set.
Of all the places I could have camped out for day two of the BSC, I end up next to two Umphreys fans from the Midwest. Jen and Kristin are from Indianapolis and were swayed by Umphreys first time at Red Rocks to make it their first as well. When you can go hundreds of miles to see a band, only to end up right next to people who traveled the same distance, from the same place, to see the same fucking band things are all right. Not perfect, but it never was and never will be. There are times when Umphs goes way beyond into a creeping nastiness that makes the jaw drop, but it seemed on this day, they were playing it safe. The songs did sound good as they are, the set was just missing some bonafide craziness. They closed out with a ridiculous Bridgeless, offering evil and complicated and ferocity on a solid level.
Yonder heated it all up with their speedy yelping and picking, getting many on their feet with Follow Me Down to the River. They craftily took hold of the crowd, and just when things were already hot they pulled out Girlfriend is Better. Bluegrass takes on Talking Heads? Yes. During their set, a giant Chinese dragon was marched through Red Rocks, getting passed off to different people as it went from the top down to the stage. String Cheese returned to close out the weekend with another taste of just about every thing played throughout the weekend, even toying with Heads themselves busting into Life During Wartime, except they could have used a refresher on the lyrics. The night closed out with members of Yonder and New Monsoon joining String Cheese for a charged Born on the Wrong Planet and I Know You Rider. Brandon and I took one last trek all the way up to the top of the amphitheater to gaze on an enormous skyline and boogie, and back down to the foot of the stage to get down some more. It was time to return to the flatlands knowing the scene is alive and well. Now, alive and well is not without hang ups, but so it goes.
*Monday, July 4th *
After an hour of sleep, we hopped a cab to Denver International at 4 am warily aware of the OHare mishaps, but in wiry good spirits. Not much trouble at DIA, just an extra security check for your humble narrator who seemed a little bug-eyed to the guard at the metal detector. We watched the mountains fade out of our window, a little saddened to be going back to flatland, except, that night would be Umphreys at the Naperville Rib Fest. We stopped at my familys home for some needed rest and refueling before heading to Naperville, Illinois.
I first found Umphreys McGee during the beginning of my second half of college life. I lived with people I hardly knew and lost touch with many I had gotten to know, because I was plagued by this feeling that I wasnt living my life the way I felt I should. I loved music but hardly was involved with it, and just didnt see anything great about the life I lived. One of my roommates was real into Umphs and practically dragged me to a show of their, at which we did a rambling drunken interview with Bayliss. The important thing was from then on, I started doing all the things I knew in my guts I should be doing. I began playing music again, writing a lot more and finding many people who understood these things, people who didnt judge you for an appearance, and actually dealt with the problems of the world on a simple, realistic level instead of just getting shitfaced and forgetting about it all.
Each time I hear that band, I go right back to that time where I was so lost and only began to find my way. Not that one ever fully finds it, but theres a world of fucking difference between on the way and on the couch, lost in an empty whiskey bottle. That Fourth of July was spent with some of those folks who I met right at the beginning of this turnaround, and the common ground was this amazing and goofy band from similar small towns in the Midwest as us.
The strength in the scene always is music, and now the weight is not solely on one band. Digital downloads take the people connection away from trading music, but the shows are still there and thats always been where one goes for the real connecting. Things change and thats the only thing that you can count on. Old problems will be solved only to make way for new struggles. What I liked most about Steinbergs column is he suggests that the harder you work for it, as in going to smaller festivals, the more youll gain. If you are going to be critical, offer a fucking solution to the problem you address. So long as we all put something in and remember the reason why we go to see shows, a way of living by sharing with each other and being a part of the joy that comes from live music will not ever die.
Onward._Special thanks to Neal Conroy, Mike Ferris, Techno Billy, Kevin Lenny Leonard, Jason and all your buds and the Colorado State Trooper. You all helped to keep it living. _