Music

Grandoozy in Eight Hours on Orange Sunday: St. Vincent, Denver Broncos Play to Win

Grandoozy's winning team included (clockwise from top) St. Vincent, Kelela and Mavis Staples. (Photos by Michael Bialas)

With the inaugural Grandoozy music festival brought to the Mile High City by the co-creators of Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, the expectations — and temperatures — continued to soar. Guess who beat the odds?

Who knew St. Vincent was a Denver Broncos fan?

OK, that's definitely a reach. Sure, it was probably a coincidence that a luminous Annie Clark wore radiant orange — with a matching neon orange Ernie Ball Music Man electric guitar (and a leopard print pick guard) — when the adventurous artist with the saintly stage name opened her dazzling hour-long set at the inaugural Grandoozy music festival in southwest Denver on Sunday (16 September). Or was it?

Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, Orange-crushed it at Grandoozy on Sunday.

Photo by Michael Bialas

The fist-pumping Clark and her wonderfully weird cast of bandmates, who've been constantly traveling in support of the beautifully subversive and deliciously dark Masseduction since last October, appeared on Grandoozy's Scissor Stage promptly at 6:00 pm. It was a mere half-hour after quarterback Case Keenum rallied the Broncos to a last-minute 20-19 victory over the Oakland Raiders, their hated rival, in Broncos Stadium at Mile High, just a few miles up Interstate 25.

No wonder the Grandoozy crowd was in such a party mood by then. The day certainly didn't start that way. The Denver Post reported that, according to organizers, Grandoozy drew 55,000 people over the three-day weekend, but the numbers must have dropped off by Sunday.

Sweltering temperatures in the 90s persisted throughout the event, making the retreat of summer and the welcoming respite of fall look like the impossible pipe dream.

Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine was spinning her magic on Saturday.

Photo courtesy of Grandoozy by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Grandoozy's embarrassment of riches began by signing up Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar and Florence + the Machine as Friday and Saturday headliners, respectfully. People were still buzzing on Sunday about the well-oiled Machine's Florence Welch, whose stunning new album High As Hope is nominated for this year's Mercury Prize. She belies her ethereal material, though, by getting downright physical onstage and treating the crowd with gymnastic feats of revelry.

The lineup's eclectic mix of diverse acts over the first two days also included hypnotic Bayonne, rap/hip-hoppers Big K.R.I.T. and Ty Dolla $ign, indie rockers the War on Drugs and Phoenix, and country savior du jour Sturgill Simpson. That onslaught must have exhausted any hopes early risers had to return to the Overland Park Golf Course setting for the 1:30 p.m. start to Sunday's festivities.

But there I was for Day 3. That admittedly was no mean feat, since other work obligations kept me away from Grandoozy's grand opening. On Friday, that meant missing out on divine singer-songwriters Jade Bird and Bishop Briggs, two artists I enjoyed interviewing last week.

Snow Tha Product surfed a wave of attention off the Rock Stage on Saturday.

Photo courtesy of Grandoozy by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Then I had to pass up the Saturday's scrumptious potpourri that included New Orleans brass ensemble the Soul Rebels, Los Angeles quintet Young the Giant, Colorado's Head for the Hills (bluegrass) and Gasoline Lollipops (alt-country). Of course, there also was Snow Tha Product, aka Claudia Alexandra Feliciano, a California-born Latina lyricist who raps in two languages, rules on social media, acts on TV's Queen of the South and — by the photos I saw of her 45-minute set on the mammoth Rock Stage — looks like she has a helluva good time.

So I wanted to make the musical most of my one free day, which meant an early arrival and easy entry (little traffic and no crowds) as I bypassed the metal detectors and bag checkers. I entered behind the biggest of the three main music stages (first there's Rock, then Paper, then Scissors; get it?) before checking out the venue's expansive yet manageable layout well before the first band hit the stage.

Among the major festivals I have attended, which have included the Austin City Limits in Texas and the Hangout on the Alabama Gulf Coast, I must say I was most impressed with Grandoozy's setup. In addition to the just-right three main stages, there was ample room to move around, friendly security guards, plenty of trees and picnic tables to take the load off, games (giant Jenga) and sports (miniature golf), food trucks and vendor stands galore for dining (one woman pleaded to get inside a VIP area to purchase an $11 lobster "roll"; it was tasty, but not that good) and imbibing. (If only there were parking spaces ...)

My goal was to see seven artists perform over an eight-hour period and — as an approved photographer for the event — take shots of at least six of them. (For Stevie Wonder's Grandoozy-closing performance, only photographers approved by his team were allowed to shoot the first minute of his set from the soundboard, which seemed like a mile away from the photo pit. Meanwhile, the massive crowd was warned before the show that taking photos, videos or using recording devices was strictly prohibited; while strolling the premises, some pesky patrol types idly looked past the many attendees holding up their cellphones.)

Invited last week to sit down and interview rambunctious Colorado contingent the Drunken Hearts (that article will appear next week), I arrived in the photo pit just as they were hitting the Rock Stage (where Wonder would appear six and a half hours later) at 1:30 to shoot and check out their 30-minute set. Wearing a Minnesota Vikings cap, I was immediately dissed by a good-natured security guard who supports the Chicago Bears. At least, she wasn't a Green Bay Packers fan.

Was it a late Saturday night, Sunday's low-90s heat or the fact that Denver's beloved Broncos were scheduled to kick off in less than an hour that kept any semblance of an audience from forming? Sadly, there were only about 10 to 15 people watching near the front of the stage as Boulder-based frontman Andrew McConathy barreled his four Drunken Hearts bandmates through a lively set that began with "Broken Things", the riveting ball-buster that opens their 2018 album The Prize.

Kory Montgomery, electric guitarist of the Drunken Hearts, delivered some hot licks on a sweltering Sunday.

Photo by Michael Bialas

Following the interview in the press tent near the CorePower Yoga workout by the Florida Avenue entrance, I ran into a devoted Drunken Hearts fan who was steamed that he missed the show. Bob Montgomery, father of the band's animated guitarist Kory Montgomery, drove 13 hours from his home in Arkansas to see them play. Only he allegedly was told by a very close relative that it was starting at 2:30, not 1:30. He had every right to be ruffled. There will be many more Drunken Hearts shows in 2018, but only one Grandoozy.

R&B singer Kelela kept her cool while setting her sights front and center at Grandoozy.

Photo by Michael Bialas

Moving on to the Paper Stage, there was another late arrival — scheduled 3:30 performer Kelela. The sweet R&B singer and daughter of Ethiopian parents, who named her Kelela Mizanekristos when she was born in 1983 in Washington D.C., didn't apologize for her tardiness. But resplendent in an all-white outfit, she was a breath of fresh air, telling photographers in the pit they could stay for the entire set instead of the usual three-song limit imposed by most artists. (A Grandoozy media rep kicked us all out anyway.)

Stylish and sophisticated, Kelela kept her cool, though, teaming with a keyboardist to open with three songs from her 2017 debut studio album Take Me Apart — "LMK" (that's "Let me know," for those who don't know), "Frontline" and "Blue Light."

She glided quietly and effortlessly across the stage while singing about life's complications (If you think I'm going back, you misunderstood), comforts (Tired, but we go all night) and curiosities (Do you think you're my ride home, baby?).

When Kelela asked, "Denver, you guys ready to go all night?" she got a lukewarm response. The Broncos were trailing 12-0 at halftime.

Mavis Staples made a name for herself long before Denver's Grandoozy.

Photo by Michael Bialas

Old-school cool Mavis Staples knew how to rally the troops, though. Now 79, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who I first saw at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, was as effervescent as ever when she hit the Rock Stage at 4:15.

Her group members in the rock 'n' soul revue still include longtime guitarist Rick Holstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes, and backing vocalists Vicki Randle and Donny Gerrard. The latter jumped in for some lead vocal turns on "Slippery People," the Talking Heads cover that Mavis recorded in 1984 with the Staple Singers, the family band formed by Pops the patriarch in 1948.

As Staples stretched out the word Grannnn-dooooozy ("I love that name!" she exclaimed) after the first three songs of her 45-minute set, the Broncos were mounting a comeback.

From the Bush Wood Caddyshack in the VIP area next to the Rock Stage, fans on couches and chairs were glued to the flat-screen TV as Keenum scored on a 1-yard run to pull the Broncos within 19-17 in the fourth quarter.

While rooting for the home team, they could just as easily cheer for Staples, who was clearly visible on the big video screen to the left of the stage. If only life were luxurious enough to always make it possible to enjoy two of your favorite pastimes — pro football and live music — at the same time.

From there, it was a somewhat quick jaunt to the Visible Blue Room, a cozy oasis that hosted two artists each day of the festival. At 5:15, Gasoline Lollipops, a Colorado-based band that played on the Scissors Stage on Saturday, performed a relaxing acoustic set, setting the stage for the grand-slamming Grandoozy finales.

Even though St. Vincent played next, let's save the best for last.

The Chainsmokers' Alex Pall (left) and Drew Taggart get lit.

Photo by Michael Bialas

At 7:00 pm on the Paper Stage, the Chainsmokers were a blast. Well, more like a sonic boom, actually. Mostly smoke and mirrors, they were an over-the-top extravaganza with bursts of smoke, fire and sounds hitting a decibel level I haven't heard since the glory days of the Who.

The millennial-dominant crowd was blown away by the double-barreled assault of EDM-pop duo Alex Pall (DJ-songwriter-pianist) and Drew Taggart (songwriter-producer), who have been nominated for three Grammys and collaborated with a number of happening pop stars. The looks on the faces of my fellow photographers were quite comical before our 10 minutes in the pit mercifully expired.

I was just dying to see Maren Morris or Bebe Rexha make a guest appearance.

Stevie Wonder still has a wonderful voice and his smash hits are undeniable — "Isn't She Lovely", "Superstition", "You Are the Sunshine of My Life", "I Just Called to Say I Love You". He played them all as everyone congregated at the Rock Stage to watch Grandoozy's only remaining performer Sunday night. But the show that started a few minutes late at 8:08 dragged on too long, with one millennial calling it "pretty boring".

I wouldn't go that far, but Wonder, who was considerably more animated when I saw the Motown legend at the 2013 Hangout festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, stayed seated at those keyboards and seemed to be rambling while chitchatting between his golden oldies on Sunday.

I'm just pleased to have had the pleasure to see him perform at opposite ends of his career, first experiencing "Little Stevie", then at the tender age of 22, open for the Rolling Stones in 1972.

"Just watching the soundcheck today, seeing someone that's been so vitalized for years, that has played their music for years, is overwhelming, I guess," said Drunken Hearts guitarist Kory Montgomery about the honor of "opening" for Wonder on the same stage hours earlier.

The Drunken Hearts vowed to be there that evening as Wonder sang once more from the bottom of his heart. How could they resist?

The 68-year-old musician who has racked up 25 Grammys since 1972 certainly knows how to "Stay Gold" in his golden years.

St. Vincent/Annie Clark sings a swan song to Denver while performing with Toko Yasuda (left) and Daniel Mintseris.

Photo by Michael Bialas

How could I miss Grandoozy and the Denver return of St. Vincent, especially since I hadn't seen her perform the new material live. I became an unabashed fan in 2010, when Clark and Co. performed on St. Valentine's Day Eve at the Bluebird Theater in Denver after the release of Actor, the critically acclaimed second album. I've tried not to miss a show following each of her album releases since then.

That included the 2013 date with David Byrne (in support of their Love This Giant collaboration) that closed the Ride Festival in Telluride, one of my all-time favorite concerts.

So it was with sheer joy and glee that I watched Clark's performance art come to life and feature nine songs from Masseduction, opening in succession with "Sugarboy," "Los Ageless," the title track and the R&B slow cooker "Savior."

The band included Toko Yasuda on bass and keyboards, with keyboardist Daniel Mintseris and drummer Matt Johnson looking like faceless creatures in jumpsuits, with blond wigs in the shape of bowl hairdos. The images on the giant screen behind them were even more frightening, oftentimes showing Clark either bruised and battered, spewing blue gunk or completely disembodied.

The middle of the set included some of her best numbers from past albums as Clark seemingly was handed a different neon-colored guitar — black, white, pink, blue and lime green — by a faceless guitar tech in a black leather jacket after each song.

"Cheerleader" (off Strange Mercy) and "Marrow" (Actor) set up the explosive "Huey Newton" (St. Vincent) before Clark returned to Masseduction for "Pills," a snappy ditty-bop that Clark has said is "a little snapshot of a small period of my life" when she was taking sleeping pills to help her go nighty-night. Sweet dreams are made of this.

Offering a formal hello to the folks at Grandoozy after eight songs, Clark preceded St. Vincent's "Digital Witness" and the furious finish to "Rattlesnake" (on her knees playing that orange guitar this time) by saying, "I know the world's crazy right now, but it's a miracle that you guys are here. It's a fucking miracle. No matter what's going inside or outside our heads, there's always a reason to dance."

The Dancing Queen ruled through "Fear the Future" and "Slow Disco," a propulsive beat and driving guitar making the refrain that asks a rhetorical question — "Don't it beat a slow dance to death?" — easy to answer.

The guitars were put away when Clark came to the front of the stage to slowly croon the opening verse of "New York," substituting "Denver" for the City That Never Sleeps and "Colfax" for "First Avenue" in a song that includes the immortal lines:
Where you're the only motherfucker in the city / Who can handle me.

St. Vincent certainly knew how to win over the folks of Denver who know how to celebrate a real winner.

Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas

See more photos from Day 3 of the Grandoozy festival in Denver.

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