The Red Rocks Amphitheater rests at 6,450 feet above sea level, the stage nestled comfortably between two 300-foot monoliths that together form the world’s only venue of its kind, providing for near perfect acoustics and one of the most breathtaking sights imaginable. For most of the audience, the view is not only of the stage but also the skyline of nearby Denver and its suburbs from above. Much time is spent trying to understand how nature could combine with man to create something so incredibly and breathtakingly perfect.
But Mother Nature makes you work to enjoy it. The hike from the parking lots to the venue itself is a steady incline and as you climb further from sea level your lungs and heart have to work harder and your head feels lighter. The effect of any alcohol in your system is multiplied, and even one or two beers might make even the most seasoned drinker stumble up the stairs. Altitude is a surprisingly effective drug.
As one might expect, John Butler proved to be a strong believer in the spiritual history of the area, and asked a group of local American Indians to open the show with tribal dances to salute the Earth. For many in attendance, it proved to be a highlight of the evening as each dancer put their best on display for the nearly sold-out crowd.
As Butler and company, Bryon Luiters (bass) and drummer Nicky Bomba entered from stage left, 9,000 people screamed in drunken anticipation. Butler picked up his 11-string guitar (he chooses to forego coupling the D string in sonic preference) and launched into “Used to Get High”, a rocker of an acoustic pop tune from the group’s 2007 album Grand National. Next up, Butler strapped on his electric guitar for the first new song of the evening, “Don’t Wanna See Your Face”, off the new release April Uprising. It was more of the same for the rest of the night. Butler switched between multiple instruments, 11-string acoustic guitar, six-string acoustic, electric guitars and a banjo, and whether new song or old, the trio played strong and loud.
Photo: Brendan Flanagan
The musical highlight of the evening began mid-set when Butler sat down to play yet another instrument on “Treat Your Mama”: his lap steel guitar. This number turned into an extended solo for him as he brought in influences from American blues to traditional Indian and back again. The lights shone on the entire crowd as the trio could have easily walked off stage after this song and left a lasting impression – in the world of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, a true showman would have done just that. But the show was not nearly over, and Butler brought his wife on stage to sing his most beautiful ballad, “Losing You”. Together, their voices combined to form a sweet, gentle rasp over an equally beautiful finger-plucked guitar. Following this, Butler remained on stage alone and seated as he calmly began the impressive, to say the least, solo acoustic guitar epic “Ocean”.
It was these three songs that proved Butler’s incredible talent. Though sometimes his stylistic leanings may leave something to be desired beyond the poppy sing-along, as do many of his lyrics, his ability on the guitar to play both complex and simple lines with emotion and stability is rarely surpassed.
They say that all things, good or bad, must come to an end, and this concert was no exception. Upon exiting the natural wonder of Red Rocks, make sure to bring a flashlight, and maybe some good walking shoes. If you don’t know where you’re going, you may be in for a treacherous slip down a dirt hill, but in the end all you remember is the beauty.
Photo: Brendan Flanagan