Red Rocks, Ryan Adams and the magic of unexpected occurences
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I have to apologize to First Aid Kit.
I’d been listening to Ruins in the past few weeks and was excited when they were announced as Ryan Adams’ opener at Red Rocks this year. But when I bought tickets and started planning the trip to Morrison, Colo., it was indeed to see Ryan Adams play this fabled rock formation. Seeing anyone at Red Rocks would be a major box off of the checklist. Seeing Adams, who I’ve followed so fervently since the first time Gold spun in my friend’s stereo, raised the entire endeavor to a rare plane.
So when I bought tickets, I made sure to check the “Will Call” box so that I could actually hold the paper artifact and add it to my book when I got home. And the hotel was just a couple of miles from the venue, and after the car dropped us off, a shuttle quickly took us up to the entrance.
And that’s when I discovered that the box office at Red Rocks is absolutely nowhere near the entrance. And beginning my hike down, after traversing down a long wooden staircase, I asked someone quickly if I was heading in the right direction, and received maybe the worst answer I could’ve heard:
“Yep, head left, go down to your right at the sign for the trail. It’s about two miles from there.”
The ordeal of that dusty journey down the hill to the box office and then back up to the gate aside, I was parked down just in front of the general admission section towards the back of the arena, beer in hand and sweating into a flannel shirt, when Adams and his currently Unknown Band jumped right into the silky opening notes of “Let it Ride,” and all the annoyance began to wash away.
Playing that song and its Cold Roses cousin “Magnolia Mountain” side-by-side to kick off this set felt entirely appropriate. As a disciple of all the best qualities of the Grateful Dead, Adams has begun to embrace the power and responsibility of playing Red Rocks, with this his third trip in four years.
He’s more than living up to the giants who previously roamed the space within those peaks, of course. The catalog and his continued work in pursuing the weird and the muse speak well enough to that, but the Unknown Band as currently composed seem much more adept at interpreting his songs and whims than his previous group, The Shining (though they each share bass guitarist Charlie Stavish).
Through them, he was able to wind through his more recent material, like “Do You Still Love Me” and “Stay With Me,” bring the innate sorrow back to “Dear John,” and stretch out older songs like “Shakedown on 9th Street,” giving the more lived-in songs new life and getting both camps to a place of shared standing.
This might’ve been best illustrated on “Outbound Train.” Beginning the song solo on a Stratocaster, the band slowly crept up behind Adams and gave the song a power that rolled as it progressed. By the time it was finished, it was a Springsteen-esque pillar that filled the venue. Through it all, the sound just carried and never dissipated. It was a sight to hear, if that makes any sense.
As I finally got back to the entrance, I realized I’d climbed up the wrong way to meet the rest of the group, who were still waiting outside for the tickets I insisted on holding rather than storing in my phone. And thus began the climb up the stairs that my out-of-shape ass was not looking for, especially in my first day in the altitude that was already starting to render me dizzy.
When I reached a sign that said “29 steps to go!” and stopped to make sure my lungs weren’t about to collapse, First Aid Kit jumped into a cover of “Crazy On You” that sounded like 1977-era Heart had just jumped on stage. I think “Fireworks” popped up after that in the set. My vision was starting to funnel to a point, but they still still sounded amazing.
Again, my apologies to the band. Poor planning and substandard physical condition kept me from truly enjoying their show. It looked like the crowd at large loved it and gave them a proper response, though.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any $15,000 songs.”
Not surprisingly, Adams was enjoying himself, but his set was butting up against the venue’s 11:30 curfew. He noted that he had some surprises planned and that the set was longer, but they were going to have to race to the end. So out came an impressive and powerful reading of “I See Monsters,” followed by First Aid Kit returning to back him up on “Come Pick Me Up,” as bizarre an anthem as anyone could have in their catalog. There’s no one reason why some songs work, but there’s no denying when they do.
But shortly after, Adams discovered a note pinned to his monitor that he had, in fact, already incurred the fine. With the band backstage, he came streaming back to the spotlight with a triumphant declaration:
“This is a $15,000 song!”
And thus came “Jacksonville Skyline,” a gem from Whiskeytown’s doomed third LP Pneumonia, with Adams solo at the front of the stage, up past his setup, armed with just his acoustic guitar and one of his earliest songs elegizing and mourning the limitations of his first home.
If the night began with some prototypical jams and embracing the opportunity to open things up and let the songs breathe, it ended stripped and bare, with just the power of an early song that seemingly hasn’t aged in 18 years. It stood apart from everything and still brought it all back together, melding the atmosphere and the work and the crowd and the moment. The sound as it carried through the hills all evening had been beyond description, and having it all come together in that instant was overwhelming, unexpected and, simply, beautiful.
At one point late in the set, maybe around “New York, New York,” I was thinking about some of the incredible venues in which I’ve had the opportunity to experience music. The first outside of New England was Madison Square Garden in New York City, then the Fillmore in San Francisco, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. And with my breath finally coming back to me after an impromptu hike up a mountain in Converse sneakers to have the printed souvenir of the ticket tucked away in my notebook, I kept looking up to my left at the light gleaming off of a red cliff while the guitars swirled around with minimal distortion.
How does any of this happen? How did I go from my bedroom looking at pictures of these places and listening to the music made in them, to becoming the person who could find the time to book plane tickets and make the journeys to actually see these giants ply their craft on these hallowed grounds?
And how does a rock structure on the edges of Denver become one of the most renowned natural amphitheaters in the country, a veritable haven to the weird and the wild, a home for opera, the Beatles, Grateful Dead and U2?
It’s the mysterious combination of proper planning and cosmic interference. That rock structure took 200 million years to form, and in the past 100 or so, humans figured out that music would be suited for it. Those humans come and go, some lucky and talented enough to create those sounds that ring up the hills. Some are lucky enough to hear it. Think about it too long and it becomes impossible to understand how all those occurrences can line up in just that way. Beyond the “how,” I’m just grateful it happened.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org