Red Rocks: 75 Years of Music and Memories

Three quarters of a century ago, the amphitheatre at Red Rocks was officially dedicated. Here's everyone from Nathaniel Rateliff to Dick Lamm to Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire on what makes the place so special.
Although musical events have taken place at Red Rocks since the early 1900s, the then-just-finished amphitheatre was officially dedicated on June 15, 1941, paving the way for the stellar international reputation the venue -- owned and operated by the City and County of Denver -- enjoys today with musical artists and fans.

In recognition of this year's 75th anniversary celebration, Confluence Denver has assembled historical quotes, in addition to contemporary interviews, concerning music at Red Rocks from the perspective of concertgoers and performers.

Video by Sky Candy Studios.

A timeless venue

In addition to inducting individuals and bands into its roster of luminaries, the Colorado Music Hall of Fame at the Trading Post at Red Rocks has also inducted one venue: Naturally, it's Red Rocks. G. Brown, the author of the just-released book, Red Rocks: The Concert Years (Colorado Music Hall of Fame, 2016), and the Hall of Fame's director, shares his viewpoint on the importance of Red Rocks to music:
Confluence Denver: What makes Red Rocks the premiere outdoor venue in the nation, in your opinion?

G. Brown: As many artists and fans alike have noted, God is a pretty good architect: A naturally formed amphitheatre for performers to look up at the crowd instead of out over the crowd. The pitch of the seating allows [a musician] to see everyone's faces, instead of just seeing a sea of heads. And that's a pretty spectacular thing for a performer. I've been honored enough to be able to stand at the side of the stage and see what [the performers are] seeing. I don't know if there's a more exhilarating feeling in the moment of a concert: to see your audience that way.

Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado and a faculty member at the University of Denver, offers his take on the significance of the amphitheatre:
Red Rocks exemplifies Colorado. The geography, the geology, the vistas, the talent, the enthusiastic people. Colorado built this in harmony with nature and with an eye to the future. I wish we would be as farsighted these days!
Nolie Mumey, the author of History of Red Rocks Park and Theater (The Johnson Publishing Company, 1962), penned the following in his book:
The visitor or citizen who misses seeing Red Rocks Park with all its weirdly shaped formations, or fails to listen to the songs of an artist or the musical tones of a concert has missed an opportunity of being in one of the great wonder places of the world. It has a beauty all its own, and if the visitor will only yield to a receptive mood he will find manifold facets to absorb his imagination in the glory of a sun-lit day or under hosts of starry night.

A July 1941 Red Rocks concert, Rocky Mountain News file photo (Denver Public Library Western History Collection).

Helen Jepson,
a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera performed at
the dedication of the theater June 15, 1941:

The theater sings for you.

Australian operatic soprano Nellie Melba, who once sang with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, visited the park in the early 1900s and tested the acoustics:
This is the greatest open-air theater I have ever seen.

Mary Garden.

Scottish operatic soprano Mary Garden worked with the Manhattan Opera, the Boston Opera Company, and the Chicago Grand Opera Company. She sang in the park in 1911, about thirty years prior to the construction of the amphitheatre:
Never in any opera house, the world over, have I found more perfect acoustic properties. . . . Never under any roof have I sung with greater ease or had a greater delight in singing.

Gladys Swarthout, a mezzo-soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, sang in 1937 at the park to an audience which included workers constructing the amphitheatre, as well as Governor Ralph Carr and Mayor Benjamin Stapleton. She used near-religious terminology to describe the event:

It was a glorious experience.

The Colorado Symphony

DeVotchKa and the symphony perform. Photo by Brandon Marshall.

Symphonic concerts have taken place at Red Rocks since the early days of the amphitheatre. Today, the Colorado Symphony continues in that tradition -- often pairing its talents with touring pop and rock acts. Anthony Pierce, the symphony's senior vice president of program innovation, speaks to his organization's presence at Red Rocks:

Red Rocks Amphitheatre is deservedly one of the world's most iconic music venues, and the Colorado Symphony is honored to return as performers each year. Whether you're onstage or in the audience, the Red Rocks experience is nothing less than transformative. We were thrilled to take part in this great Amphitheatre's 75th anniversary by performing with acclaimed local musicians DeVotchKa in June. When artists can come together to collaborate and present their work in such a breathtaking setting, it is truly a cause for celebration!

The symphony will also be playing these dates at Red Rocks this year: with Chris Botti & Joshua Bell on July 24; as part of the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration featuring Warren Haynes on Aug. 1; and with Styx on Aug. 29.

The Beatles

Photo courtesy Apple Corps Ltd.

Tustin Amole, director of communications for the Cherry Creek School District, recalls the Fab Four playing in Morrison in 1964; she attended the show with her late father, Gene Amole, the noted Denver newspaper columnist and radio station broadcaster:
It was a hot August afternoon and my father and I left Denver at 2 p.m. to get good seats. The parking lot was already full and we had to walk quite a way and then climb about two-thirds of the way up to our seats. The Beatles looked liked little dancing mop-tops so far down. I screamed all through the concert and I barely heard a note. It was a magical night and one of my favorite memories of my father.

Gene Amole, from The Last Chapter: Gene Amole on Dying (Rocky Mountain News, 2002):

I counted 40 police officers from every jurisdiction surrounding the stage. It was bedlam from start to finish. There was so much noise I couldn't hear the music. Neither could anyone else. It didn't matter. We had become part of an event that would be repeated time and again everywhere the Beatles performed.

From my standpoint, though, there was one small difference. Somehow, in all that earsplitting noise, I began to hear a small voice saying, over and over, "I love you, George. I love you."

Finally, I looked around and saw it was my 11-year-old daughter who loved George. I have no idea how many other little girls at Red Rocks that night also loved George Harrison, but I suspect there were many. Obviously, there still are.

Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull. Photo courtesy

On June 10, 1971, over a thousand ticket-less concertgoers stormed the gates prior to
Jethro Tull taking the stage at Red Rocks, leading to a riot. Police fired tear gas -- which blew into the park. Ian Anderson, the band's lead singer and flautist, recalled the incident in 2011 to the Denver Post and within this 2008 video filmed at Red Rocks. But here's Ian Anderson's account of the incident, published just over a month later, in Rolling Stone (July 21, 1971):

"At first the police wouldn't let us go on. It took hours of patient explaining that if we didn't get up on stage, there was a large chance that there might be 10,000 people rioting, instead of 1,000. . . . But we, as well as the audience, were just sort of victims, innocent bystanders. It was like a war going on outside. The CS gas drifted through -- it was very uncomfortable, you know, seeing babies carried out unconscious from the stuff. I think we all felt the sooner we get out there and got on with playing, the sooner the situation might resolve itself. So we just went on and were as boring as we could possibly be and hoped everybody'd go to sleep." Ian laughs hugely and jabs a thumb at [drummer Barriemore Barlow]. "It was only this lad's second gig with us. He kept asking, 'It it always like this?'"

John Denver

John Denver and Dick Lamm in 1974 in a Rocky Mountain News file photo (Denver Public Library Western History Collection).

Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee John Denver is remembered by G. Brown, who saw Denver several times at Red Rocks, as well as by Richard Lamm:

Confluence Denver: Did you ever see John Denver at Red Rocks while you were governor?

Richard Lamm: I did see John Denver at Red Rocks (and a number of others). It was magic. Weather perfect -- as was the entertainment.

G. Brown: Back in the '70s and '80s, his name was synonymous with Red Rocks. [John Denver] did more concerts there than just about anyone. It was his home. I think his quote was if he could fly everyone into Red Rocks, he'd do nothing but perform there, given his druthers, but he had to tour the world instead. It was definitely his favorite place to perform. He debuted a song in 1972 there that wouldn't hit the charts until nine months later, [singing] "Rocky Mountain High" for the first time. That was a pretty special moment, in retrospect.

Barry Fey in a Rocky Mountain News file photo (Denver Public Library Western History Collection).

Barry Fey

G. Brown recalls another inductee of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, the late concert promoter Barry Fey, who helped to broaden Red Rocks' fame among musicians as well as concertgoers:
Barry Fey put Denver on the map. What he did is unassailable. Denver was a flyover, before he made it a destination for touring acts. He fought the battles in the '70s, making the city have a more generous use of the [Red Rocks] facility, and launched the "Summer of Stars" in '76. That was how the legend was built.


Allan Bumgartner, a musician who operates Galvanized Music Studios, saw U2's famous show at Red Rocks (released as the Under a Blood Red Sky video and album), about a year after his high school graduation ceremony was held within the same amphitheatre:
Bumgartner: I remember being at Red Rocks for the U2 show in June of '83. They pretty much did the entire War album, because that's what the tour was for. For June, it was an absolutely cold and misty day. You could see your breath. There was a cold kind of rain sprinkling over the Red Rocks amphitheatre for most of the show. Foggy, very foggy. I recall the bonfires they built on the pillars to the left and right of the stage. I also remember that, during the show, Bono went out into the audience and climbed on top of one of the concession stands with a white "surrender" flag. I had never seen anyone climb on top of those, and I'd never seen bonfires at a concert before. Plus, I recall it was being filmed for MTV, and there was a helicopter with a camera on it that was flying around, and it would actually come down into the amphitheatre, 20 or 30 feet above the concertgoers and film the stage. I do not believe, because of safety reasons, that it would be allowed today. In the video, you can see my distinctive parka. The show was stupendous: It probably ranks in the top five shows I have ever seen, out of hundreds. U2 really set a mood for the day: They looked at the weather, they looked at the situation. It was perfect for the message they were trying to convey.

G. Brown: That was the show that introduced Red Rocks to an international audience. That was the MTV era and that video got shown across the globe. Everyone was able to go, "Wow! That place looks pretty cool!"

My favorite anecdote is: INXS came to town three years later, and I was privy to Michael Hutchence, the late singer, asking the production people, "So where are the bonfires?" He thought they came with the place! He thought you were paying for that, along with everything else.

Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire

Philip Bailey. Photo courtesy

Philip Bailey's memoir Shining Star details the singer's formative years in Denver and his career with the multi-platinum recording and touring act Earth, Wind & Fire, recipients of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Bailey, born in 1951 in Denver, is justifiably proud of his local roots -- and his love of Red Rocks, where the band has performed, is evident:
I'm always so proud and thrilled to play Red Rocks. I love rubbing it in jokingly with my comrades that it ranks at the top of the list of most beautiful, stunning and iconic venues for live music in the entire world. I have great and long-lasting memories of Red Rocks, dating back to my young years in Colorado.

The Motet

Dave Watts is the drummer and leader of the Boulder-based band The Motet, which will be returning to Red Rocks on July 22 in support of its new album Totem:
Confluence Denver: What's it like to play Red Rocks?

Watts: Performing at Red Rocks is truly amazing, kind of like a dream . . . and certainly a dream come true.

How does it feel to get up on that stage?

It's actually very comfortable and unintimidating once you get up on the stage at Red Rocks. It's like a giant house party . . . with a million-dollar light show!

What's the energy like up there compared with other venues or festivals?

Red Rocks is always a great vibe. The energy of the audience is palpable, because from the stage it feels like all 10,000 people are practically sitting in your lap.

Do you have memories of concerts that you've seen there yourself that you flash back to, as well?

Earth, Wind & Fire [with an orchestra of Denver-area musicians] was incredible -- definitely one of my favorite shows as an attendee at Red Rocks.


Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.

To quote the popular song by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats: "Son of a bitch!" The Denver-based Rateliff had no idea his first headlining show at Red Rocks (scheduled for Aug. 21) coincides with the amphitheatre's summer-long anniversary celebration:
Well, it just gets better and better: I didn't know about it being Red Rocks 75th. We are excited to play for so many different reasons. When Joseph Pope III and I moved to Denver from Missouri in 1998, we would frequent Red Rocks in the late evening and sit on the stage and play guitars together. I remember saying to him, "Someday we are going to play here." We were blown away the first time we had the privilege to play there as openers [in the band Born in the Flood], and never thought we would get to play our own show there. It also marks the one-year anniversary of the record release; we have been so surprised and humbled by the reaction and love that has come back to us from the record.

Gregory Alan Isakov

Gregory Alan Isakov.

The video for the song "Liars" contains footage of Gregory Alan Isakov and his band performing at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony, which Isakov paired with for his 2016 album titled Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony. Isakov is another artist headlining his first Red Rocks show this year on Sept. 4:
Confluence Denver: Can you tell us your thoughts about headlining at Red Rocks for the first time?

Isakov: I'm still, "Is that really happening? Is that real?" It's totally a dream. It was never really on my list: "I want to headline Red Rocks!" Because I like small shows, I must admit. But then we got to play there a couple years ago, and opened up a show last year, and it was mind-blowingly beautiful, so cool.

What's it like hitting the stage at Red Rocks?

It's indescribable, really. It's amazing because I've seen shows there, you know, for years, and it's always these magical, special moments that I'll always remember -- and how big it felt. But it can really be so intimate. And it's always surprising how intimate that venue can be when it get a little bit darker. It's the coolest thing

What's a memorable show you recall attending?

Oh man, so many. I saw Bjork with Will Oldham opening up. That was amazing. I remember I was siting up in one of the trees on the side, you know? And it was incredible.

I think it's one of those venues [I'd] always heard about, and it had like this almost epic place in my mind growing up on the East Coast. And to see it, it's so beautiful, and it also sounds great. I think a lot of outdoor venues don't have that sense of intimacy that Red Rocks has. We're really lucky.

Check out writer Gregory Daurer's song and essay on what Red Rocks means to him personally here.
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Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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