On June 15th, 2004 I had the great pleasure of attending my first concert at the justifiably famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, just outside of Denver. I flew in that morning with my good friend Evil and we met up with three others at the airport where we picked up our rental, hit a liquor store, and made our way to the Marriott. This marked my first trip to Colorado and it would prove to be quite epic.
It might come as little surprise that we were there for a run of shows featuring The Dead (as Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart – along with Jeff Chimenti, Jimmy Herring, and Warren Haynes – were calling themselves at the time in an effort to milk/respect the Grateful Dead name after Jerry Garcia’s passing); they were playing five nights and we were there for two of them. Go medium or go home, right?
After a couple of cocktails in the room we took advantage of the Marriott’s free drinks & snacks happy hour (the first time I had experienced such a thing) before taking a $25 taxi to the concert, so when we arrived we were already well juiced for the evening.
We did a walkabout through the lot and got even juicier, and by the time we climbed to the upper tier entrance to beat the lines we were five tired but very fun guys, and of course as soon as we walked in the place we got separated.
It was probably my fault. Entering the venue my astonished eyes couldn’t help but to look up and gape at the rocky spires that framed the concert bowl. I’m pretty sure the sight of the site stopped me dead in my tracks, my gaping mouth hanging too low to call out for the rest of the guys to wait up.
The place is simply incredible. A naturally formed amphitheatre three hundred million years in the making, it is flanked on either side by massive towers of rusted stone columns. The rocks sweep down towards the stage like the tailfins of an enormous geologic 1959 Cadillac, closing in to hug the natural bandshell and ending in a hollowed-out backstage of caves. And in between these walls of ancient stone are wide benches that can hold 9,500 giddily happy concertgoers.
From the upper third of the seats you can see the lights of Denver above and behind the stage which is really quite beautiful, especially when there’s lightning over the city (as there was during much of this concert). I can’t think of another venue where the amphitheatre itself is such a major part of the light show; or at least the visual attractiveness of the evening’s entertainment. At any time one can just arc their neck around and everything your eyes fall upon is easily as interesting to look at as whatever is happening down there on the stage. Or so it was to me.
Oh, speaking of the stage, just after our crew accidentally split up into two groups the band started to play (we had missed Warren Haynes’ solo opening set but no matter, we would catch it the next night). It felt strangely appropriate that The Dead opened with Shakedown Street, and I was soon surprised to discover that Chris (who I found myself with) had never seen a “jammy” concert before. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to spend too much time getting to know one another because I wandered off to find a drink* and when I came back I somehow missed our row entirely. I spent the rest of the set bouncing between looking for Chris (who turned out to be just a dozen feet or so from where I ultimately parked myself) and paying close, intense attention to the music at hand.
As I stood there taking in a two-punch of classic Dead in the form of Ramble On Rose and Cold Rain and Snow somehow a thousand forces all worked together to form an epiphany in my mind. I was staring at the twinkling star-like lights of Denver in the distance when the wind tickled the hair on my arms just right and I, for the only time in my life, felt a tinge of what I thought it might feel like to be a patriotic American. I could feel the warm tickle of number-oneism under my skin and I could sense the spirit of Uncle Sam seeping up from what was once sacred native ground. Just a tinge, mind you, but enough that I got an enormous swell of appreciation for the totality of my immediate surroundings. In that moment it occurred to me that the Grateful Dead were the quintessential American rock and roll band and that the group could only be fully, 100%, all-the-way appreciated by someone who grew up with the myths, legends, unswerving truths and unspoken lies of America coursing through their veins…that is, to truly “get” the Grateful Dead you had to be an American (that said, I once discovered the meaning of life in a parking lot in Rochester, so take it as you will). Anyway, I ended up finding Chris in time for the last song of the set and we had a reunion that couldn’t be beat.
The second set was amazing, from the El Paso opener (that I called as a set opener back at the airport when I saw the city listed on the arrivals board), through one of the best drums/space I had witnessed live (and it wasn’t just me; friends agreed), all the way through to the Playin’ In The Band closer. As I recall Warren Haynes was on fire, belting out a very soulful Days Between that just slowly and intensely kicked my butt.
Then they encored with Ripple. Ta-da…perfection! I had laughed, I had cried, I had felt the joys of America. After the show we all somehow got reunited and then we went on to miraculously find a van taxi that could a) fit the five of us and b) was available to comfortably deliver us back to where our beers and hot tub was. We all shared a nightcap and a hundred stories before they all turned in. I, on the other hand, took a handful of drinks down to the pool area and soaked in the hot tub for an hour or so before turning in at 4am.
Pretty solid first night, all around.
*I swear to you I bought a beer from a vendor for just seventy-five cents. I counted my change twice.