The Decemberists, Spoon, Courtney Barnett. Red Rocks. 05.27.15
We knew we were in for a change of scenery when we migrated east from San Francisco. We were somewhat prepared for having more than one season, but we weren’t prepared for experiencing multiple seasons in a single day. While not exactly a shining example of the Golden State, the City by the Bay did have predictable weather. So it was music to our ears when everyone described Denver as ‘moderate’. They also told us that there were 300 days of sunshine a year. And while both of those statements hold true for 20+ hours each day, it’s the remaining hours they don’t tell you about. It’s the softball-sized hail storm on an otherwise sunny day. It’s the May blizzard. It’s the wind that will rip the shingles off your roof while you’re grilling steaks in the backyard. It’s the torrential downpours that last only minutes, but dump enough water to quench California’s thirst for the next decade. Then there’s moth season and cotton season and flood season and fire season. Natives will laugh, but I didn’t even know Colorado had tornadoes until I saw one with my own eyes. I’m not complaining. We love living here. We’ve learned to adapt. That being said, the unpredictability can really put a damper on my favorite season of all…Red Rocks Season. Weather was not only a factor at Wednesday night’s show, it was the third act.
Weather apps are pretty useless when it comes to preparing for a night at Red Rocks, so I tried to keep my expectations at bay while I waited for friends to meet me in the Upper North lot before the show. It was sprinkling on the eager GA’ers who were waiting in line before the gates opened, but the clear skies in the distance looked promising. After a bit of pre-show tailgating, we made our way in to catch Courtney Barnett’s opening set. By the time she took the stage it appeared Mother Nature was on our side. Barnett kicked things off at exactly 7:00pm with the opening song from her excellent debut LP. Part folk singer, part punk rocker, Barnett powered through her noisy, word rock while the seats started filling up.
Having seen Spoon and The Decemberists multiple times in the past, I was extremely excited to see Barnett for the first time. She did not disappoint. It’s always hard for a trio to fill a giant stage, especially in broad daylight without any type of visual assistance, but Barnett and her band had no problems what-so-ever. In fact, by the sound of the applause after every song, I’d say she received a lot more attention than most opening bands I’ve seen at Red Rocks. Her set was short, almost too short at 30 minutes, but she was able to bust through half the new album. She even found time to perform “Avant Gardener” from her 2013 EP. Her clever lyrics might have been lost on those in the crowd who hadn’t heard her before, but the sound was perfect and lines like “the paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar, I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying” came through loud and clear.
Standing at the mic, staring down at her guitar with her hair shielding her face, you would be forgiven for confusing Barnett with a poster child for slackers, but then she would turn her back to the crowd and attack her guitar with such purpose that you couldn’t help but question how one person could make that much noise. “This place is disgusting…I mean beautiful…I mean disgustingly beautiful. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen” Quite a compliment from someone who comes from a country full of amazing things. She introduced her small band, “we’re from nowhere in Australia”, before leaving us with “Pedestal” – proving herself so wrong while screaming “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you!” I didn’t even realize it had started raining again until she left the stage.
The show was advertised as a dual-headliner, with Spoon and The Decemberists sharing the top billing, but Spoon would play first. The band from Austin, Texas has been putting out hard hitting indie rock with a pop sensibility for almost 20 years now. Quite impressive for a what I would consider a straight-up guitar driven rock band. Spoon are predictable…and I mean that in the best way. I’m not a huge fan of the band, and I’m sure anyone who is would argue against this assessment, but I have a hard time differentiating one Spoon album from the next. They are all good, but I have a hard time finding any variety in what they do. That being said, they have a formula that works, so why fuck with it?
The sky had cleared up again by the time they took the stage at 8:00pm with “Rent I Pay” from last year’s They Want My Soul. The first thing I noticed was that they didn’t sound anywhere near as loud as Courtney Barnett and her band, which was disappointing, but as they got deeper into their set the volume hardly seemed to matter. As with every Spoon show I’ve ever been to, I realized that I actually do like quite a few songs as they are played live. “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” was the one that really woke me up to their sound on this particular evening. From there on out, I was a fan for the night. What they were lacking in volume was more than made up for by the thunder above. It was around the time they were performing “Do You” that the sky threatened to crack open, and when “I Turn My Camera On” ended with giant fingers of lightning striking all around us, you could literally feel the electricity in the air. And then all hell broke loose. It started pissing rain during “Don’t Make Me a Target”, but the band played on like the true professionals they are.
Watching Spoon end the set with a stripped-down version of “The Underdog” made me realize that I actually like the band enough to stand in the pouring rain for them. I was even hoping for an encore. There would be no encore though. The rain had stopped, but the thunder and lightning was intense. We were advised to take shelter. The real storm was imminent. The diehards stayed put as we made our way back to the car. We were just happy to have a cooler of full of beer, some food and a dry place to reflect on Spoon’s kick-ass set while watching Mother Nature steal the spotlight for the next hour.
After an hour in the parking lot drinking tallboy Deviant Dale’s, my earlier buzz had matured into something more. I was slightly drunk. The storm had left muddy trails and sloppy concert-goers behind, but it hadn’t stopped the show. Colin Meloy graced us with his presence almost an hour and a half after Britt Daniels and the boys from Austin left us. Looking much different than last time I saw him, Meloy was sporting a pretty impressive beard to go along with his 3-piece suit. He appropriately introduced himself to the sold-out crowd with “The Singer Addresses His Audience”. The thousands of people who braved the storm just to see him sing those words made the song come to life. Hearing the collective voice join him to pledge itself as steam rose from the wet stage, “Cause we know, we know, we belong to you”, was nothing less than magical. The rest of The Decemberists joined him as the song built around us… eliminating any doubts as to why we stuck around.
For the next 90 minutes Colin and his Portland collective took us on an adventure. Barnett and her band were streamlined folk fury. Spoon was a good ol’ guitar rock show. The Decemberists were something else altogether. Stand-up bass, accordion, harmonica, backup singers…and more importantly, stories. Stories from here, there and out of this world. From now, then and somewhere out of time. The Decemberists do not shy away from weighty material (the 15 minute “Crane Wife” segment), but they always balance everything to the full enjoyment of those who are willing to participate. Even in my intoxicated state, they didn’t lose me for a minute.
The right decision was made by removing the white backdrop that the other bands used, so all movement was shadowed against the rocks behind them…creating a theatric setting for a theatric band. I honestly don’t remember any of the stage banter, or details about the setlist (see below for what I got off setlist.fm), but I can say that they covered songs from across their whole discography and that we were singing and dancing along with every one of them. I also know they ended the main set with “A Beginning Song” and it was not the first time I questioned my lukewarm response to the new album. As the lyrics rose to the back of the amphitheatre, “I am waiting, should I be waiting?”, everyone in attendance knew they made the right choice earlier in the evening. But at that point it was time for us to go. We’d been at Red Rocks for seven hours and we were tired. Missing out on the encore was something we would probably regret, but with a whole season of Red Rocks still in front of us, it was a regret we were willing to live with. Here’s to the rest of my favorite season in Colorado! And here’s to hoping Mother Nature is booked somewhere else for the rest it!
An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)
Pedestrian at Best
Spoon: (not sure this is 100% correct)
Rent I Pay
Don’t You Evah
The Way We Get By
My Mathematical Mind
The Ghost of You Lingers
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
Anything You Want
I Summon You
Knock Knock Knock
I Turn My Camera On
Don’t Make Me a Target
Black Like Me
The Singer Addresses His Audience
Down by the Water
Hank Eat Your Oatmeal / Calamity Song
Make You Better
The Crane Wife 1 & 2
The Crane Wife 3
The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
The Wrong Year
The Rake’s Song
The Abduction of Margaret
The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing
16 Military Wives
A Beginning Song
The Mariner’s Revenge Song