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Historic Venues: Red Rocks Amphitheatre


Photo by Don Peitzman

Historic Venues: Red Rocks Amphitheatre

Glenn McDonald

 U2 at Red Rocks

It’s one of the most iconic images in rock: U2 frontman Bono, having scaled a lighting tower mid-concert, stands above the crowd at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. As giant torches burn through the mist, Bono raises a white flag and – outlined in dramatic silhouette – sings of revolution.

That image announced the arrival of U2, and their earnest brand of warrior rock, to America and the rest of the world. The concert itself became legend. The show was nearly canceled due to heavy rains throughout the day. Concert-goers had to hike through a torrential downpour just to get to the stage. Even after both opening acts bowed out due to safety concerns, U2 decided to press on, performing in an otherworldly red mist generated by the heavy fog and stage lights.

The 1983 show would be immortalized in the concert film U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky.  And it turned the attention of music fans everywhere to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, one of the most unique and beautiful music venues in the world.

History

Red Rocks Amphitheatre is an open-air venue just outside Denver with a seating capacity of 9,450. Nestled into a unique rock structure, the location has natural acoustic qualities that make it ideal for presenting music outdoors. Legend has it that the spot was used for millennia by the Native Americans for just that purpose. It’s name, in the local tongue of the Ute people, translates to “Garden of the Angels.”

Photo Credit Michael Goldman

In 1906, publishing magnate John Brisben Walker erected a temporary stage at the site and hosted orchestra and opera concerts for several years. In 1927, the city of Denver purchased the land and began construction of a permanent performance venue.

Construction lasted more than 12 years. At the time of its completion in 1941, Red Rocks was one of the big success stories of the new federal Work Projects Administration (WPA). By the 1950s, Red Rocks was home to regular musical performances and was earning a reputation as a place that musicians want to play.

Geologically, of course, Red Rocks has a much longer history. Fossils dating back to the Jurassic period have been found in Red Rocks’ walls, which are actually sandstone ledges pushed up from the prehistoric ocean floor millions of years ago.

Notable Performances

On August 26, 1964, the Beatles played Red Rocks as part of their famous U.S. tour. The Fab Four drew 7,000 fans – not quite a sell-out, but still enough to break the box office record for an open air venue up to that point. When the band complained about being out of breath due to the thin atmosphere, oxygen canisters were put in strategic spots around the stage.

In the book The Beatles Anthology, producer George Martin remembers another concern about playing Red Rocks: “There had been death threats. I remember going to one of their concerts at the Red Rock Stadium in Denver where Brian [Epstein, band manager] and I climbed up on a gantry overlooking the stage, and we looked down at the boys below during the performance; and the Amphitheatre is such that you could have a sniper on the hill who could pick off any of the fellows at any time – no problem. I was very aware of this, and so was Brian, and so were the boys.”

In 1971, the infamous incident knows as the Riot at Red Rocks nearly shut down the location as a rock venue for good. On June 10, Jethro Tull played a show that was bum-rushed by about 1,000 fans who had arrived at the Amphitheatre without tickets. Police fired tear gas at the crowd, and Denver mayor William McNichols banned rock concerts at Red Rocks for the next five years.

Recordings

Grateful Dead at Red Rocks June 1984

Red Rocks was a favorite spot for the Grateful Dead and their legions of gypsy fans through the ’80s and ’90s. Subsequent jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic have made Red Rocks a mandatory stop on all their tours. Bootleg tapes of Red Rocks shows are nearly a genre onto themselves.

Many artists over the years have chosen to record official live records at the celebrated musical venue. The Moody Blues, never afraid of the grand musical gesture, recorded there for A Night at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Other notables include Neil Young, Stevie Nicks and the Dave Matthews Band.

More than a few non-music acts have gotten in on the fun, too. The entire second half of Steve Martin’s famous 1978 comedy LP A Wild and Crazy Guy was recorded at Red Rocks.

Location and Legacy

Red Rocks is more than just a music venue. The Amphitheatre is part of Red Rocks Park, which is still owned and operated by the city of Denver. The venue is surrounded by hiking and biking trails, and home to roaming herds of mule deer. Concert-goers to Red Rocks often make a day of it, hiking the surrounding area before or after the show. You can try that at Detroit’s Cobo Arena, but it’s not recommended.

The park also maintains a visitor’s center with a restaurant and coffee shop, as well as the popular Trading Post store, which stocks videos, CDs and books chronicling the venue’s rich history of performances.

Among musicians and audiences both, Red Rocks is generally considered to be the most beautiful concert location in North America. The trade publication Pollstar gave Red Rocks the award for Best Small Outdoor Venue for 11 years running, before finally making a change.

Since no other outdoor venue in the United States really had a chance, Pollstar took the Denver stage out of the running and simply renamed the prize the Red Rock Award. Which makes Red Rocks Amphitheatre, quite literally, the outdoor venue against which all others are measured.

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