Reviews

Monolith Festival feat. the Flaming Lips, Cake, the Decemberists, and Spoon

Photos by Jessica Partridge

Despite boasting “the Best Live Music Venue in North America”, Red Rocks Amphitheater has had a fairly poor track record when it comes to festivals. So, the question is: can Monolith really break the bad streak?

Monolith Festival

Monolith Festival feat. the Flaming Lips, Cake, the Decemberists, and Spoon

City: Morrison, CO
Venue: Red Rocks Amphitheater
Date: 2007-09

+ Monolith Photo Gallery 14-15 September 2007 Despite boasting a world-famous space dubbed "The Best Live Music Venue in North America" by Pollstar, Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado -- just outside of Denver and situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains -- has had a fairly poor track record when it comes to music festivals. Despite the fact that its history is more storied and steeped in the music of the past 50 years than the Fillmore in San Francisco or LA’s Hollywood Bowl -- rivaling even Madison Square Garden’s with the impressive list of performers that has graced its stage -- Red Rocks is best known as a single event venue. Sure, bands like Phish and the String Cheese Incident have ended their careers with four-day stints at the amphitheater, and even the Fray -- hometown heroes to the Denver locals -- managed to put together three back-to-back appearances this past summer. But previous attempts to bring a regular summer festival to Red Rocks haven't lasted more than a couple of years. Everyone wants to play at Red Rocks; the problem is, they also want to be the stars of the show.

That's the added challenge that Monolith Festival organizers Matt Fecher and Josh Baker faced in launching their large-production event -- added, that is, to the broader issues of flagging ticket sales nationwide and the logistics of hosting a festival that houses over fifty bands, making it the largest in the venue's history. Monolith hopes to compete with Bumbershoot, Coachella, and Sasquatch in the dramatic-but-limiting geography of a venue that normally seats 9,450 people. Fecher and Davis are no strangers to such feats of spatial dimension, however. Fecher has gained a small portion of local fame for his role in organizing the last three South Park Music Festivals, an ambitious project that offers a free mountain music festival and summit for thousands in a tiny town at the heart of the (in)famous South Park region. Baker is the prime mover for the Midwest Music Summit in Indianapolis, one of the largest emerging-artist events in the Midwest. The two have worked together for years, and with the decision to put South Park on hiatus, Fecher set his sights on his home base: Denver. In order to compensate for the size of the venue and the lull in the music economy, Monolith follows the large-festival formula, bringing together bands -- lots of bands -- in one place, with just-emerging acts joining the world-renowned.

Das EFX's DJ Rondevu laying beats

Monolith managed to launch itself on the right foot, bringing Spoon, the Decemberists, Cake, and the Flaming Lips -- arguably some of the most popular acts in the quasi-indie, quasi-mainstream galaxy -- together on the same stage. The next tier down (in ticket draw, at least) was none too shabby either, with Editors, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Das EFX, Kings of Leon, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Art Brut, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Lords of the Underground filling out the middle, and dozens of up-and-coming artists from both the local Denver scene and around the world serving those with a taste for fresh faces and semi-obscurity. Of course, the venue itself would have to yield to so much music in cramped quarters. Thankfully that was aided by the gorgeous 2003 renovation of the park's Visitor Center, buried in the heart of the hill underneath the stone steps of the amphitheater. The Visitor Center usually serves as a combination music/geography museum, but for Monolith it was converted to hold two small stages and a VIP lounge. A stage was erected outdoors on the pedestrian area above that then dropped down the steps dramatically to the main stage, and a small acoustic stage was added like an unfortunate appendage at the bottom of the hill. Thanks to some tight -- and surprisingly well-orchestrated -- scheduling, the bands interfered with each other minimally and offered a fair mix of styles from location to location. Still, some bands tested that limit. My wife and I were forced to leave the open-air stages after Ghostland Observatory fired up a particularly aggressive bass loop whose reverbed frequency bounced off the rocks with such force that it deadened the air, even on the top level. No matter, though, because that pushed us down to the indoor stages, where the smaller bands were working to make a name for themselves. Some time was spent listening to AutoVaugn run though an extended set closer, complete with sweet guitar solos (ah, nice to see the classics brought out once in a while), before downing a beer or two in the lounge to kill the throb.

Cat-A-Tac plays the WOXY.com stage

Local Denver favorites Cat-A-Tac were just warming up down the hall, and within minutes I found myself back in indie-rock guitar territory. Despite the band’s growing presence in the Mile High City, the performance was too full of sludgy, sluggish slackertude to hold my interest for long. So, I smoked a couple of cigarettes, then popped in to watch the electric string instruments of Ra Ra Riot tune up and burst into frenzied symphonic rock noise. Unable to stand still for long, I went in search of the party beats playing upstairs -- Das EFX's DJ Rondevu was warming up the crowd. The rapper duo took the stage shortly thereafter. When the thrill of watching a jet-lagged Krazy Drazyz puff and drop rhymes wore off, I left for the food cart that was selling pricey steak-and-cheese sandwiches. As I ate one, I realized I'd missed the kick-off of the Kings of Leon set. After they were done revitalizing Southern rock and I'd consumed the last of the bread roll, I had to decide whether getting a prime position for the Editors set on the top-side stage would leave me time to get prime seats for the Decemberists. That's the familiar challenge for festivals of any kind: you have to make decisions and compromises. In the rush to make sure you get to catch your favorites, you know you're going to miss out on a number of new discoveries. What seemed like a limitation in the size of Red Rocks actually turned out to be a bit of a blessing in this regard. The relatively short distances between stages meant you could drift like a butterfly between sets. But, as with any festival of this size, you could only find out after the fact what you should have seen instead, from drifts of other people's conversations. Catching the energetic horns-and-guitars (yet somehow not ska) set by Nathan and Stephen meant you only heard about Brian Jonestown Massacre’s trademark on-stage surliness as hearsay (though, in that case, I don't feel so bad about missing out).

The Decemberists' Colin Meloy

That also makes reporting on a festival like this a challenge, because there's always someone noteworthy being left out. What can be said for certain is that the big draws all put on worthwhile performances. The Kings of Leon set was economic and efficient, and, with short set allotments limiting the time to jam, things became crisp. The same could be said for the Decemberists, whose indie-darling status was in full effect. The band kept to the spirit of the festival by limiting their epic song-suites and concentrating on the shorter pieces of their catalog. Colin Meloy's stage banter won for most deliberate referencing of U2 -- he quipped at the beginning of the set that he'd promised their drummer not to reference "Sunday Bloody Sunday" at any cost, then promptly broke that promise a handful of songs later to sing the opening lyric during a break. Sound battle did wind up cutting through the top end of the Decemberists' final songs, as, just when the band went in for some softer, quieter material, the first chords of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's opener burst from the top stage area, bouncing off of the two enormous rock faces and clashing with the acoustics of Meloy's company. BRMC definitely brought their Jesus and Mary Chain-loving side along, and instead of the bluesier, more sedated Howl, the trio was all about black leather and rock.

Spoon on the main stage

Spoon also played the show with the force of a headliner. The spotlight stayed pretty firmly on frontman Britt Daniel, and he ran through his choppy bursts of guitar with full confidence in his command of the crowd. By the time he got around to stating that "this song is about warmongering, and warmongers" and launching into new tune "The Underdog", he certainly had it. Again, the set was limited, and that abbreviated festival feeling never let Spoon fully take over, but it was worth the sit from start to finish. Far and away the highlight of both days, however, was the typically explosive performance of the Flaming Lips. After grinning through the shouts and cheers he elicited while directing the elaborate set placement, Wayne Coyne disappeared into the wings, out of which a troupe of young concert-goers emerged dressed in Santa and space vixen costumes. Confetti canons blasted the crowd, smoke machines filled the stage with mist, and the band emerged to thunderous applause. Coyne played along with an enormous smile and some more confetti buckshot, and then the gigantic hamster ball came out, pushed by a crew dressed as the Justice League. At the same time, released from high at the back of the amphitheater, dozens of three-feet-wide green balloons rolled down over the heads of the crowd like a wave (woe unto any doped-up Prisoner fans).

The Flaming Lips

Typical Flaming Lips show, maybe, but performances with this level of theater are still few and far between, and are sort of exhilarating after two days of bare-knuckled stage shows. Coyne was also the most vocal about playing to the crowd. He spent a good four or five minutes lauding the organizers of Monolith, commenting on the chance to play with so many great bands at such a great venue, and generally playing spokesman to the whole festival circuit -- something he'd already done in the local media via interview. When the band finished a blazing run through "Mountain", Coyne paused to ponder out loud that that performance might be the first time that the Flaming Lips had literally played the song while standing on the side of a mountain, which of course drew cheers from the hometown crowd. And, while it may all be a regular part of the act, when Coyne led the amphitheater in a sing-along through "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1", it really did feel like a uniquely Red Rocks moment. All said and done, Monolith achieved what all good festivals achieve. It was big, professional, and well-sponsored, all of which are (unfortunately or not) key elements to a gathering’s lifeblood. There was a little something for everyone (if you fall into the indie-college-underground camp), and there was the nagging frustration of making tough choices, which meant that the festival had managed to land a solidly impressive line-up. Attendance figures aren't in yet, and there's no telling what minimum goals had to be met for Fecher and Baker to qualify the inaugural Monolith Festival a success. But from a concert-going perspective, it was a great two days of music. With some momentum and some rolling of the dice in 2008, there's a decent chance that Monolith could become another part of the long and celebrated history of Red Rocks.

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