Winter on the Rocks. Red Rocks. 01.29.16
People in Colorado are no strangers to outdoor concerts in the middle of winter. Local and national acts have been performing in Winter Park, Aspen, Vail, and countless other mountain locales for a very long time, but it wasn’t until four years ago that anyone witnessed a performance at Red Rocks before Easter Sunday. The inaugural Winter on the Rocks took place in 2011, when AEG teamed up with Icelantic Skis to host Atmosphere, Common, and Grieves on a ridiculously frigid night in late January. The experiment was a raging success, despite the fact temperatures dropped below 14 degrees. Counting on people to attend an outdoor winter event, miles from a major ski resort, was a risky bet, but it was one that paid off. The success of that first show led to an annual gathering in Morrison to coincided with SIA’s huge trade show in Denver.
The second Winter on the Rocks found Macklemore achieving the giant leap from the Bluebird Theater to the big stage on a much warmer night in 2012, which paved the way for Jurassic 5 to continue their reunion tour under a blanket of snow in 2013. Hip-hop lost its dominance to Diplo the next year when his dancehall-infused EDM project, Major Lazer, took over the headlining spot. The rocks were concealed under a thick layer of fog in 2015, but the relatively balmy night found revelers stripping off layers of clothing by the time the dance party peaked. That brings us to the 5th Annual Winter on the Rocks. The promoters of the event booked a combination of local beatmakers, national trip/hip-hop collaborators, and Canadian EDM to commemorate the milestone, thus providing a balanced diet of bass to sate the appetite of their established demographic. And once again, the event was a success.
The road to Red Rocks was as clear as the night sky as I rounded the corner to the Upper North Lot. All remnants of prior storms were regulated to a few filthy piles of ice that had been shoved to the side. People in snowboard gear were grilling out, while electronic beats flowed freely from open tailgates. The sun had disappeared to the west, making it extremely dark outside, but at 48 degrees Fahrenheit, the conditions hardly called for gloves or heavy jackets. Once inside, the growing crowd was treated to the latest in ski/snowboard fashions by an array of male and female models employed by the Matthew Morris Salon. Bookended by the half-naked runway walkers, Colorado’s own Michal Menert and Paul Basic opened the night as Half Color. Describing their sound as “driven by analog synthesis over intricate drum layering and sequencing blended with vintage cinematic aesthetics and a touch of overcast on a perfect day,” their set was a bit lackadaisical, but it achieved its goal in adding color to the dark night. Sounding quite a bit like Pretty Lights at his most subdued, but without all the pretty lights, the duo provided just enough sonic flavor to get the party started.
DJ Matt Cassidy took over where Half Color left off. Setup in the middle of the crowd, just above the sound booth, the Denver nightlife staple had the kids bouncing with his mix of 90’s hip-hop. That interlude from live entertainment threatened to extend past its expiration date, but Big Boi finally appeared on the stage just after 9:00pm. Unfortunately, he did so in silence. It wasn’t until halfway through the first verse of “Run for Your Life” that his mic was turned on. And even then, his voice was buried in the mix. Sarah Barthel came through much stronger on the hook, but there was still something slightly muted about the whole performance. As “Lines” became “Lights On”, and “Objectum Sexuality” became “Goldmine Junkie”, Phantogram and Big Boi brought Big Grams alive as more and more bodies filled amphitheatre. Impressive images lit the three screens (Red Rocks finally has a screen on both sides of the stage), but nothing about the performance could come close to the Phantogram or Big Boi shows I’d seen in the past. It was obvious Barthel was extremely high (even before she admitted such) and not in complete control of herself. Her voice rang true, but the personality that usually pierces the strobe lights at Phantogram shows was all but absent. Big Boi wasn’t on his best behavior either. A lot can be blamed on sound issues, but his flow machine had obviously been turned down a couple notches since I last saw him.
Things got much better toward the middle of the set. Starting with “CPU”, everything came alive for a short run that included “Put It On Her”, “Born to Shine”, and “Black Out Days”. That unstoppable OutKast flow was back in full effect, while Barthel gave the bass a run for its money when she sent that hook (“we were just here..born toooo shiiiiiiine”) flying through the windows of neighboring subdivisions. Two OutKast/Phantogram mash-up experiments followed, and while it was great to hear “Ms. Jackson” and “The Way You Move”, as well as “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “Don’t Move”, they were ultimately failures. Like a lot of Big Grams material, the tracks seemed forced. Eliminating the chorus of “The Way You Move” was a cruel joke to play on an unsuspecting crowd, which is not something you want to do at a dance party. Hopefully they remedy that fuck-up before their festival dates this summer. The uneven performance ended on a high note with “Fell in the Sun” (where Barthel’s rap was surprisingly convincing) and “Drum Machine” (where I couldn’t help but think Sleigh Bells would have been a better fit), but at the end of the extremely short set, it seemed I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. I think everybody would have benefited more from individual performances. Big Grams had a lot of promise on paper, but the relationship doesn’t bring out the best in either party.
If there was any doubt as to who the majority of the crowd came to see, it was immediately put to rest when the Montreal-based Adventure Club took the stage after a short intermission. Thousands of green glow-in-the-dark headbands came alive like bioluminescent plankton in a sea disturbed by waves of bass. Christian Srigley and Leighton James were able to animate the crowd, with nobs, buttons, and stunning visuals, in a way the previous acts only aspired to. They came out so hot that I feared the apex of their set would come too soon, but each selection proved to be a false summit. Thousands of people were in perpetual motion as the duo combined hip-hop, dancehall, and EDM to keep the machine moving. Looking around, I was surprised at the relative control of the crowd. There were more than a few examples of overconsumption in years past, but apart from the guy who held on to the endcap a little too long before stumbling back into his row, and the girl with the glazed-over eyes who was spitting a little too often, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves in a way that wouldn’t be devastating the next morning. And even though it was warmer than some early-season shows I’ve attended on the Rocks, the bros didn’t seem to have a problem keeping their shirts on.
Individual tracks are hardly the point when it comes to electronic dance music, but Adventure Club didn’t disappoint those who wanted to hear familiar singles. The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s-sampling “Wait” was included mid-set, as was “Wonder”, “Gold”, and “Crash”. Each song was accompanied by visuals that were sure to impress those who were wrapped in something a little stronger than a whiskey blanket as well. The overall feel of the set followed the basic EDM blueprint, with the lull coming around the one-hour mark. I realize the vocals in most electronic songs are just samples, but the dormant rock/popist in me always pines for live singers during songs like Lullabies (Yuna), Hurricane (Lizzy Plapinge), and Limitless (Delaney Jane). The absence of instruments is something I got over years ago, but I still think having a singer physically present would add a whole new element to the experience. That didn’t stop the crowd from demanding “One! More! Song!” though. Always happy to oblige, the Canadians came back for one last banger before taking the obligatory selfie with the crowd. Everything got eerily quiet when the whole thing was over, but the consensus seemed to be that it was way too early to call it a night. Plans revolving around after-parties could be heard as the crowd made their way out of the venue. After all, it was only 11:30pm.
Winter on the Rocks represents different things to different people. For many, the event is just another excuse to wave glow-in-the-dark plastic in the air while dancing under the stars (if they are even visible). For others, who are in town for the trade show, it may be their only chance to experience a show at the iconic venue in Morrison. Masochists might just like braving the cold weather (when it’s actually cold), while others deal with the elements because their favorite group, or rapper, or DJ is performing. Then there are people like me. Red Rocks is one of my favorite places in the world and I spend a good part of my summer there every year. It is always slightly depressing when the season comes to a close, so Winter on the Rocks allows me to get my fix during the offseason. For me, it’s all about the venue itself. The performers at these winter events just provide the soundtrack to the act of stealing a show at the amphitheatre months before the season gets started.
Big Grams Setlist:
Run for Your Life
Put It On Her
Born to Shine
Black Out Days
Ms. Jackson / Mouthful of Diamonds
The Way You Move / Don’t Move
Fell in the Sun
Selections from Adventure Club’s Set:
We All Fall Down