Belle and Sebastian & Charles Bradley. Red Rocks. 06.17.15
Indie bands always need a little help drawing a crowd to Red Rocks. Denver provides a lot of support for its excellent local music scene, but independent acts visiting from other cities (and countries) usually have to stick to venues within the city limits. They regularly sell out shows at the smaller Bluebird, Ogden and Marquis Theaters, but when touring bands come through Colorado during the summer, there really isn’t a better place to play than the amphitheater in Morrison. Promoters know this, so they usually facilitate stacked bills which they hope are capable of drawing thousands of people to the Rocks, but even that doesn’t work out all the time. MGMT were paired up with Janelle Monáe and Tame Impala in 2010. Vampire Weekend were supported by Beach House and Dum Dum Girls that same year. The Shins were carried by Colorado-favorites The Head and The Heart in 2012, while Feist was able to align herself with Bon Iver at the height of their popularity. I’m not sure if any of those shows sold-out.
There are many more examples, but nothing proves my point more than the failure of Monolith Festival. Monolith was the only festival of its type from ’07 – ’09, bringing 50+ indie acts to Red Rocks each year. Big names like The National, The Decemberists, Kings of Leon and Spoon would perform alongside smaller acts such as Cymbals Eat Guitars, White Denim, The Twilight Sad and Matt & Kim. At a capacity of less than 10,000, the festival should have sold out every year. But it didn’t. The weather was always a factor (we were pelted with large hail during Phoenix’s set in ’09), but I saw people stand around in a flash flood while lightning struck all around them during a Jack White show, so I don’t think the weather was to blame.
Having been witness to disappointing turn-outs for indie bands in the past, I was still surprised when I arrived to an empty Red Rocks at 6:00pm on Wednesday night. I literally had to check my ticket to see if I’d got the date wrong. There were more tourists taking photos of their families than there were concert-goers. I realize Belle and Sebastian are not a household name outside of Scotland (they probably aren’t even a household name in Scotland), but for a band who has been around for 20 years and released 9 studio albums and countless EPs, I was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm. The Upper North lot wasn’t even full when we made our way inside at 7:30pm. And the upper 30 rows were empty when Charles Bradley was introduced (and hyped up) by Mike Deller of The Budos Band.
Vampire Weekend pairing up with Janelle Monáe made sense. There was a common denominator between the two. Neither would be off-putting to those who were only a fan of one or the other. They could help each other drive ticket sales. It was immediately evident that Belle and Sebastian pairing up with Charles Bradley was something else entirely. There was no guarantee that Belle and Sebastian fans were going to be into Charles Bradley…or vice versa. The low ticket sales were not to be blamed on either act (they could have both filled the Ogden a couple times over), but they were not going to help each other drive ticket sales. Those were really wanted to see Charles Bradley might not have made the trip because he was only the opener. And Belle and Sebastian fans who were on the fence about going to Red Rocks were not going to be encouraged by Charles Bradley. That being said, those of us who are fans of both acts were treated to an unbalanced, but altogether fun evening of music.
Backed by Brooklyn’s Menahan Street Band, the 66-year-old Daptone recording artist took the stage in a tight yellow polyester suit, giant gold belt buckle, protruding belly and dance moves for days. Armed with an organ and full brass section to go along with guitar, bass and drums, The Menahan Street Band provided enough talent among their ranks to deserve the attention of the small crowd, but Charles Bradley demanded it! The man who had grown up hard and worked odd jobs for most of his life found himself on the big stage, with an incredible backing band, and he wasn’t going to squander that opportunity at any cost.
Bradley took us to “that way back, old time church”. He made us feel his “Heartaches and Pain” through his grunting, screaming and howling. He channeled James Brown as he made love to his mic stand. He cried “oh baby!” a few too many times, but before you knew you it, you were crying “OHHH, BAB-Y!!!” along with him. He lit a flame on the stage, setting his band on fire, and then he left them to jam in the smoke he left behind. For a man who has only released two albums he sure didn’t shy away from pomp and circumstance – staying backstage until Deller once again got the crowd whipped up into a frenzy for the man of the hour.
The wardrobe might have changed during his break backstage, but nothing else did. Bradley continued his journey down the dirty funk and soul road…all the way to church. He was trying to be a “righteous man”, but he was gyrating like a sinful one. He was talking about love, but he was singing about lust. He sounded like one of the long lost greats, which is saying something considering he’s a relatively new face on the scene, but he was alive and well and knew exactly where he was. The audience seemed to be torn down the middle though. Some loved him and she were unmoved. My wife was one of those who loved everything he way lying down. I was unsure.
Charles Bradley is a unique talent and it’s a shame that it took so long for someone to discover him, but I also feel like he tries too hard. There was no build-up. He was always going at 100%. He never slowed it down. It was so impactful when James Brown would scream because of what came before and after the scream. The highs are only high when you’ve experienced the lows. Charles Bradley could use some balance in his set. You can’t constantly pull on someone’s emotions without breaking them. I really enjoyed seeing Charles Bradley perform. I really did. He was one of the best opening acts I’ve ever seen. But I’m glad he was the opening act. I don’t know if I could have handled him for much longer than 45 minutes. I kinda felt like he was screaming at me the whole time. It tugged at my heart when he got down into the crowd to hug everyone at the end of his set. It was really something to see a man of his age finally getting the love he deserves. But I was also a little relieved when it was over.
Belle and Sebastian had the advantage of the first truly nice night at Red Rocks this season. The one lonely cloud looked like a giant marshmallow against the pink sky as the sun set and the Colorado Symphony took their seats. Photos of children playing in fields were projected out to the amphitheater as the band from Scotland opened things up with one of the uncharacteristically upbeat tracks from their new uncharacteristically upbeat album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. The visual accompaniment was in black-and-white, but “Nobody’s Empire” came to life in full Technicolor as the symphony sound swelled behind Stuart Murdoch.
Standing up from the keyboard to join his 7-piece band, Murdoch looked like a kid in a candy store as he brought things back a few years for “I’m A Cuckoo”. “I tell you, these Rocks know how to party!” The symphony assumed the role of spectators for “The Party Line”, but the Scots brought out local dancers to urge audience participation. Belle and Sebastian had never played Red Rocks before, so the awe in which they gazed out at the star-studded sky framed by monoliths was to be expected, but I feel like the beauty of the environment, and the weight of the symphony behind them, might have distracted them a bit. “Identify that star for me…is it Venus? The God of Love blessed these rocks.”
The self-professed “Red Rocks virgins” were as excited to be performing as their fans were to be watching them perform….maybe even more so. The collaboration with the Colorado Symphony had been 10 years in the making and was a dream come true for Murdoch and crew. “I wish my Mommy was here!” he exclaimed before “If She Wants Me”. That selection was one of the songs that truly benefited from symphonic backup. Not all songs were so lucky though. “Perfect Couples” was advertised as their most Grateful Dead-influenced song, even though it sounded more like Talking Heads meets Squeeze, but even though it was the longest performance of the night, it just didn’t have room for a symphony. “Legal Man” would go without the additional musicians as well.
The set included songs from across their entire career, which should have satisfied most of the fans in the crowd, but I am partial to “Push Barman To Open All Wounds” (because I came around too late to have heard the original Jeepster EPs), so there was a little too much new material for me. Dancers, visuals and a plethora of musicians made every song enjoyable in its own way though. “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, “The Boy With The Arab Strap” and “Legal Man” were personal highlights of the main set, but the banter was almost as fun as the music. Claiming to be passive pot smokers, naming Colorado as the best dance crowd since Glasgow, borrowing mascara from a front-row girl who lived in New York, talking about seeing Frampton’s bus at the Hampton, and then going on a rant about birds waking in the rocks and asking “what is this indie shit” while the person next to you turns into a mountain lion who got in on a guest pass. They really made me question if they had consumed mushrooms or LSD before taking the stage.
“If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” found Murdoch in the audience while the dancers donned neon plastic guns. Then the first few rows joined the band on the stage for a dance party during “The Boy WithThe Arab Strap”. Many were taking selfies while a girl in a red dress was dancing for the rest of them, but then Murdoch round them up – “Put your phones away and focus!” – for “Legal Man”. Once all non-essential personal were escorted back to their seats, the band closed things out with the last symphony-assisted track, “Sleep The Clock Around”. “There is exactly the same number of people here as the night the Beatles played,” Murdoch exclaimed, “I counted!” He might have been right. The Beatles couldn’t sell out Red Rocks back in the 60’s and Belle and Sebastian couldn’t sell it out in 2015. But the amount of tickets sold has no bearing on how good a show is. I’m sure The Beatles were incredible, and although Belle and Sebastian seemed a little out of step in their surroundings on Wednesday night, it was a great show. And if nothing else, it was an incredible night for them. “Thank you for a night we’ll never forget!”
Lightning could be seen to the south as we waited for the band to come back for an encore. Watching the sky light up over the horizon while the stars shone bright above us was just another reminder of how lucky we had been to enjoy a perfect evening on the Rocks. The symphony hadn’t moved, so it wasn’t a surprise when the show got started again a few minutes later. “You managed to get us back out for another. It wasn’t hard, we’ve got nothing better to do.” The Boulder-based dancers were introduced by name before the band brought us back to 1996 with “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”. Then the night ended with “The Blues Are Still Blue”. Interestingly enough, they did not utilize the services of the symphony for either of the encore songs. That was slightly disappointing to me. I just think they could have planned their set out a little better to take advantage of the talent they had at their disposal. So many songs from Tigermilk could have been made new again with a string treatment, but the only track from that album was “Electronic Renaissance”. It was great to see ExciteBike, Paperboy and other video games from my childhood on the big screen, and I’m sure they thought it went better with the selections from the new album, but it was a strange choice for the night.
It’s always hard to review a show three days after it happened, so I apologize if I haven’t caught the essence of the performances. Overall it was a great night at Red Rocks. The weather was perfect. The crowd seemed to be having a good time. The stage was filled with amazing musicians and everything sounded perfect. It was also a strange evening though. Charles Bradley set a mood that wasn’t entirely conducive to what Belle and Sebastian brought to the stage. I felt the Colorado Symphony could have been used to greater effect as well. When all was said and done, I almost felt like I was a spectator at a Belle and Sebastian party, rather than a member of the audience at a concert. Which really isn’t such a bad thing if you think about it.
Heartaches And Pain
The World (Is Going Up in Flames)
You Put the Flame On It
Ain’t It A Sin
Lovin’ You, Baby
Strictly Reserved For You
Let Love Stand A Chance
Belle and Sebastian:
I’m a Cuckoo
The Party Line
Dirty Dream Number Two
If She Wants Me
I Want the World to Stop
If You’re Feeling Sinister
The Power of Three
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
If You Find Yourself Caught in Love
The Boy with the Arab Strap
Sleep the Clock Around
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying
The Blues Are Still Blue