The legendary Red Rocks Ampitheater near Denver, Colorado has long been one of the nation’s most celebrated concert venues. The 9,000+ capacity venue set amongst a majestic red rock mountain landscape is a special place that marks a career peak for any band playing there for the first time. The venue is what shamans refer to as a “power spot” and the music played there hits the soul on a deep level. Certain bands recognize this and make it a habit to play there on an annual basis. Sound Tribe Sector 9 fall into the latter category, with this year’s appearance marking the band’s 10-year anniversary at the venue.
It was a sign of a band on the rise when STS9 were tapped by their friends in the String Cheese Incident to open for them at Red Rocks in 2003. Now a decade later, STS9’s headlining appearances at Red Rocks have become known as one of the magical venue’s seasonal highlights in any year. The jamtronica quintet’s two-set shows promise one of the longest performances on the venue schedule. and their ultra-psychedelic light show offers a truly epic spectacle for the senses.
The band’s summer 2012 show at Red Rocks, however, received a rare amount of criticism in the social media sphere for being somewhat under par, so it was all but certain that STS9 were out to deliver an unquestionably stellar performance this time around. The band had a big year overall in 2012 though, touring behind their “Great Cycle Spectacles” banner in honor of the end of the Mayan calendar. It was STS9 that hit the stage at midnight on the 2012 winter solstice on the beach in Tulum, Mexico to deliver the first music of the new age, following the conclusion of the Mayan calendar’s 26,000-year “precession of the equinoxes” cycle. They’ve carried that energy into 2013, making this one of their heaviest touring years in recent memory.
Coloradans are truly blessed to get STS9’s summer tour closer on this weekend, following in the wake of Phish’s summer tour closer the previous weekend at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in nearby Commerce City. The Denver music scene has long been a strong one but it just keeps on growing and is now easily one of the nation’s best. 27,000 fans packed Dick’s to enable Phish to sell out two of their three shows there and it’s a safe bet that most of the fans here at Red Rocks this weekend were also at Dick’s the previous weekend. The audience crossover makes for a great scene, with a community vibe that is hard to find at mainstream rock shows. Jamrock fans view music in a borderline religious way, and Red Rocks is one of the genre’s most sacred temples.
It’s no coincidence that there’s a Facebook fan group called “The Church of STS9”, since many fans view the band’s music in a sacred light. Drummer Zach Velmer and percussionist Jeffree Lerner conjure a tribal sort of percussion when they synch in just right, while bassist David Murphy, guitarist Hunter Brown and keyboardist David Phipps always play for the collective groove. The quintet has carved out a relatively unique genre all their own based on mixing electronic music with rock sensibilities and a true reverence for the spiritual power of music.
The band gives a nod to longtime fans in Friday’s first set by throwing down early old school favorites in succession with an “Aimlessly, Ramone & Emiglio, Baraka” trio. “Crystal Instrument>Frequencies” is another winning combo, with the entire mountain side cresting in an ecstatic wave on the precision segue between the tunes. The collective groove at the end of the “Frequencies” jam makes it feel like Red Rocks might just launch into space, and the band’s winning lightshow comes into prominence here. Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda is generally acknowledged as the ultimate Jedi master of the trade, but STS9’s Saxton Waller has raised his game in 2013 and is giving Kuroda a run for the title with his dazzling synchronized blend of colors and shapes.
Friday’s second set opens with the newer “Golden Gate” from 2011’s When the Dust Settles EP, after the surging title track had closed the first set. Never content to coast on past glory, STS9 are always mixing in new material in their sonic journey. The uniquely triumphant counterpoint melodies and groovy rhythms from Lerner on “Golden Gate” create a truly majestic feeling to re-start the dance party in full. “Equinox” is another highlight, a tune that always conjures a reverent vibe. Pairing the classic jams of “Circus>Moonsocket” to close the show’s triple encore serves notice that the band is out to make a statement, and it’s a happy crowd that descends the mountain at the end of the night.
What could be better than one STS9 show at Red Rocks? A second night, of course, and so it’s an amped up crowd that reports for duty on night two. There’s not quite as much glow-bling in the crowd as there was for Phish at Dick’s the previous Saturday night, but there’s a similarly festive vibe that makes Colorado feel like the place to be. The dirty funk of “Arigato” is an early highlight, while the soaring melodies of “Kaya” light up the night midway through the set. The second set finds the band going for broke by opening with the all-too-rare “Hubble”, a classic jam vehicle that was once a tour staple. The uplifting jam takes everyone to a pinnacle and the band keeps the high energy vibe flowing with a segue into the raucous “Dance” and the ever-epic “Inspire Strikes Back”, making this set a strong contender for one of the band’s best of the year. “Four Year Puma” is a barnburner as well, with the band crushing another one of their classic grooves for all its worth.
An epic multi-song encore ensures that this will be a weekend to remember for the fanbase when the band launches into “2012”, a soaring sonic journey that has become one of the band’s top crowd pleasers. The ultra-rare “Water” follows with sound effects of thunder and a slinky groove that sounds extra great here since the weekend’s clouds did not lead to rain. But it’s still not over as the band follows with a surprising “Dance” reprise before leaving the stage. They then come back for yet another encore of “Music, Us”, a gorgeous tune with a Beatle-esque message on how love is all you need.
When the heavy rains come later in the week leading to apocalyptic flooding in the Boulder area, the band shows Colorado some extra love by donating proceeds of all concert downloads and special Colorado-themed merch to flood relief efforts. That is how a band that is all about the music does it, showing extra love to one of their favorite tour spots.