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Winter on the Rocks

(27 Jan 2012: Red Rocks — Morrison, CO)

In more than a century of live events, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre had never put on an official winter show before this year. So when the venue announced Icelantic’s Winter on the Rocks, a January concert featuring Atmosphere and Common, rap fans weren’t the only ones marking their calendars. Given Denver’s boundless love of Red Rocks, inclement weather and oddball hip-hop, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the event didn’t happen sooner.


But even among the most diehard of snow bunnies, you could sense some quiet hesitation. There’s a reason Red Rocks takes the winter off, and it is called snow. At 6,200 feet above sea level, the stone-and-wood amphitheater is known for freak storms even during the summer. Plan all you like, there are winter days when people simply aren’t driving into the venue unless they own snowmobiles.


Happily, the only precipitation in evidence Friday was a windblown mist of light snowflakes, invisible except for where they flitted and flashed through spotlight beams. Ship Rock and Creation Rock, the 300-foot monoliths that make up the walls of the natural amphitheater, loomed impervious, seeming to glow with a reddish warmth that had nothing to do with weather. The temperature hovered in the mid-teens—toe-stubbing, beer-frosting weather to be sure, but wasn’t that kind of the point?


Minneapolis indie rap crew Atmosphere seemed an iffy choice to headline the landmark show, but the capacity crowd welcomed the group as if they were a St. Bernard carrying the world’s largest brandy cask. Slug (Sean Daley) sauntered on stage with a casual air belying the emotional weight he threw behind his lyrics.


From the call-and-response of “God Loves Ugly” to the piano-driven “Little Man”, Atmosphere dealt in a kind of weary, snarky sarcasm spiked with moments of naked honesty that were not lost on the crowd. Live keyboards (and of course turntabling by Slug’s partner Anthony “Ant” Davis) made the set feel even more authentic.


Early in his set, the usually rock-solid Common seemed slightly off his game, obviously struggling to keep warm and tossing out standard “get your hands up” club lines. But he hit his stride with the Neptunes-produced banger “Universal Mind Control”, and Common in full stride, with a live backing band no less, is truly something to see. He even rattled off a few Colorado-themed verses so smooth it took the audience a moment to realize that he was freestyling. It was strangely Bieberesque, though, to watch the hip-hop elder statesman pull a girl on stage just so he could flirt with her.


In addition to being a general celebration of Colorado snow culture, Winter on the Rocks tied directly into the massive SnowSports Industries America tradeshow, which ran through the weekend at the Colorado Convention Center. While the tradeshow itself is not open to the public, it acts as a magnet for snow enthusiasts and parties of all kinds (just a day before the Red Rocks show, Dilated Peoples headlined yet another snow-themed hip-hop bash in downtown Denver). Icelantic itself is a Denver-based ski gear company that has hit upon monster success in recent years.


The SIA crowd made the 30-minute trek to Red Rocks in full force: top-grade, computer-engineered parkas were the fashion rule, and canned domestic beer vendors were doing a brisk business—never mind that your lips were sure to freeze to your tallboy at first sip.


Naturally, the musicians were just as bundled up as the fans, which led to an interesting phenomenon: they became much less recognizable. With his trademark bald head covered and his bearded chin tucked into a coat, Common could have passed for one of the hip young parents in the crowd. The members of Atmosphere, already partial to blue collar chic, could easily have zipped up their puffy vests and wandered off into the audience, never to be seen again. Openers Grieves and Budo and Get Cryphy? As good as native already.


All of which added to the communal vibe; a sense that everyone including the celebrities had come together in an ancient gathering place to pay tribute to something bigger and more permanent than themselves. What exactly that force was would depend on who you asked: Common might say art, while Atmosphere would almost certainly mention family. More than a few kids in the crowd would go with “party!”


If that sounds a bit silly in the light of day, know that it made perfect sense to 10,000 people crowded into a bright canyon, one night in the dead of winter.


Matt Farley is a writer, photographer and occasional TV person based in Denver. His interests include music, road trips and brunettes who wear glasses. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Farley.


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