Magic. Beauty. Splendor. Turmoil. Unforgettable. Natural.
These are several words used to describe the world famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre. At its most basic level, it is a natural phenomenon embedded with millions of years of history, a highly regarded destination of spiritual and magical importance, and an alcove to harness and amplify the experience of live music. Whether you’ve never even heard of Red Rocks, or it rounds off your bucket list top five, this iconic venue is deserving of the history made right there on its iron infused rocks. So what is the story of Red Rocks? Perhaps the more appropriate question would be to ask what are the “stories” of Red Rocks?
All Stories have a beginning, Red Rocks’ just happens to begin 250 million years ago. The great red monoliths that encapsulate the amphitheater holds the history of plant and animal life in the area for that duration. The Jurassic period is well documented in these rock layers and surrounding area, where fossils from a 40-foot sea serpent can be found. Nestled in Morrison, Colorado at the doorstep of the Rocky Mountains, the park sits 6,450 feet above sea level. The fabled red sandstone goliaths, dubbed Ship Rock and Creation Rock, jut upward into the Colorado sky to a staggering 300-foot pinnacle (higher than the drop water endures off the edge of the Niagara Falls). This unique geological spectacle, once counted as part of the Seven Wonders of the World, holds a unique reputation among the music community; it is the only naturally-occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world. It is for that exact reason Red Rocks has such a rich entertainment history.
Entertainment and Red Rocks might never be synonymous if it were not for one man by the name of John Brisben Walker, who envisioned the two coming together in one spectacular way as he began to produce shows at the beginning of the 1900’s. It wasn’t until 1936 that plans were finalized to transform Red Rocks into the world-class amphitheater one can step foot in today.
Though the music community held Red Rocks in high esteem once the venue was developed, one show propelled the legendary rocks into music history. On August 26th, 1964 the Beetles took the stage and began rock-n-roll’s love affair with the Denver venue. From that point on, musicians across the world have dreamt of rocking fans amongst the mystical red giants. Playing at the venue is held in such high esteem, that many artists can’t consider their careers fulfilling unless they get the chance to do so themselves.
Once artists do get their coveted chance, however, whether it be the first or 30th, some emblaze their performance into live music history. A few noteworthy examples, both epic and disastrous, have established Red Rocks in the history books. Widespread Panic, and their devote jam band following, holds the all time record for most sold out shows at Red Rocks racking up an impressive 36 performances. Jethro Tull, on the other hand, will forever be remembered as the band that shutdown Red Rocks. Their show on June 10th, 1971 closed the doors to performers for five years at Red Rocks after 1000 fans without tickets rushed the gates and created a riot that forced police to disperse tear gas. With the tear gas released, mother nature took over as it floated into the crowd and on stage forcing the cancelation of the show and the “Riot at Red Rocks” to be permanently inked into the venue’s history books.
Tales of records and riots are not why Red Rocks continually draws thousands of people for each show from around the world, no, the true appeal is in the hope of experiencing a show that will forever stand above every other live performance you encounter in your lifetime. As a native of Colorado, and being extensively involved in the music business there, the number of shows I have seen at Red Rocks would make music enthusiasts around the world salivate. However, if one thing holds true about Red Rocks shows, it’s that every band brings their top game. Perhaps because of the excitement generated from walking onstage and looking up into nearly 10,000 screaming fans nestled between rocks that seem to glow from the fiery passion of the earth, or maybe because they feel as if they have finally “made it” as a musician. Whatever the reason, Red Rocks adds something intangible to the live experience that cannot be replicated in any other venue in the world. That creates a backdrop for live shows to be catapulted to the status of greatness, which is exactly what happened with U2 in June of 1983.
Regarded as the most memorable show at Red Rocks by many, U2’s rain soaked endeavor in 1983 is the definition of the legendary rock-n-roll show. Already heavily invested in filming their live performance that night, things started out bad and went to worse throughout the day as heavy rain and storms held up the band’s equipment caravan and threatened the safety of the set up crew. While diehard fans weathered the storm in anticipation, the band had a heavy choice on their hands; cancel this show that dump trucks of money had been poured into, or take their chances in hope of the weather letting up and rock out. Fortunately for them, they choose the latter and as the rain subsided into a heavy mist, they delivered one of the most revered rock-n-roll shows of the ages. They later released this live recording as the appropriately titled Under a Blood Red Sky.
The U2 show, more than anything, reveals why this venue is so special and held in such esteem because it is nature’s stage. Red Rocks is an ancient stage where upon music, one of humanity’s most primal modes of communication, is shared in the most natural setting, with natural acoustics, amidst natural elements. That is why people flock from around the world to experience a concert themselves. That is why musicians feel such a connection to the crowd when playing there. That is why there is no place else on earth that compares. That is why Red Rocks is the best live venue in the world!
Have you been to Red Rocks? What is the best show you have seen there?Sources: Red Rocks official webpage, The Moments: Rolling Stone.