Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Monolith Recap

Saturday, September 12th, 2009
Here's my long awaited recap of Saturday at this year's Monolith Festival, held every September at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater just outside of Denver, Colorado...

Heather and I got to Red Rocks at about 11:30, half an hour before the gates were supposed to open. It was a chilly, overcast day that eventually turned into a raining mess. Neither of us had enough clothing to stay warm nor dry for the entire day, but we had food and enough money for a long afternoon of beers to keep us warm. For reasons still beyond my understanding, our particular gate didn't open until 12:30 (half an hour after they were supposed to). Much to my chagrin, Generationals had already started playing at the underground stage by the time we made it down there. I'm still bitter at festival organizers &/or Red Rocks security for this mishap.


Anyhow, Generationals proved to be a wonderful opening act at Monolith. Four youngsters out of New Orleans treated us to energetic, well-crafted indie pop-rock. The two male singers/guitar players were clearly the heart of the band, as the drummer and keyboard player stuck to simple beats and chords that, nevertheless, provided a steady backdrop for each song. Clearly, Generationals know how to write quality songs & I reckon they will only get better as a band. All the highlights from their debut album Con Law sounded great, although I wasn't too keen on their down-tempo version of "Wildlife Sculpture."

Feeling pretty great after the exuberance of the Generationals show, Heather and I wandered into the nearby Radius Earphones stage (the other underground venue) to check out Stars of Track and Field. Hoping they were named after the Belle & Sebastian song, I figured they couldn't be half bad. I couldn't have been more let down. Three aging, smug L.A.-types burst onto the stage and started pounded out heavy alternative riffs that would've sounded dated 10 years ago. Heather and I looked at each other, laughed, and decided to go get a beer. I decided the lead singer of Stars of Track & Field was probably the last person at the entire festival I would've wanted to hang out with.

While getting a quick drink, we caught a song or two of Autovaughn, and while they weren't as terrible as SoT&F, they didn't inspire us to stick around and listen in the cold weather. We also noted their lead singer as the arrogant guy we saw fighting with the security guards earlier. What is it with terrible guitar rock bands that have over-arrogant lead singers?

The Antlers

The Antlers played the indoor stage to a packed house. Whether this was due to the souring weather or their recent "Best New Music"-stature courtesy of is up for debate. At first, I was taken aback by their loud & powerful sound that seemed a departure from their often acoustic & gentle album. The resulting sound slightly reminded me of The Walkmen. Once I got past the new sound, I was treated to one of the most openly emotional and heart-wrenching shows in my memory. Sure, the album itself is devastating, but its all the more so powerful in a live setting. "Two" in particular was intensely amazing. Seeing The Antlers live made me want to revisit their album, which is one of the better & more practical compliments of a live show I can think of.

Thao With the Get Down Stay Down
While the weather briefly let up, we headed down the myriad stairs to check out Thao With the Get Down Stay Down on the main stage. I only caught a couple Thao songs, but they all sounded pretty darned good. Her ecstatic on-stage presence & expertly malleable voice propelled their intricate pop-rock on the main stage. Worth checking out, especially at a smaller venue I would imagine.

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

My friend Alex had turned me onto Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros during his visit to Colorado a month ago, so I was somewhat excited to see their hippie collective in person. The large, free-wheelin' band provided perhaps the most carefree & energetic live show of the day despite their repeated claims of being frozen (they're from L.A. and seemed to have every piece of clothing from their tour bus wrapped around themselves). The crowd lapped up their positive, genre-spanning songs that seem to be a fusion of Arcade Fire & Devendra Banhart. An elderly gray-haired couple in front of me held their hands to the sky during the whole show, earning themselves a place on my short list of heros. How could you not love this guy?:

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have released one of my favorite albums of the year to date, so excitement was high going into this set. They didn't disappoint as they played most of their album cuts and few new songs that all sounded great live. I was pretty pumped after their set, but I couldn't help but wonder how I would have felt if I knew none of their songs and had just stumbled onto their show.

Cymbals Eat Guitars
It was too cold & wet outside to check out The Walkmen, so Heather & I stayed inside to view Cymbals Eat Guitars, another Pitchfork "Best New Music" recipient.

Let's check the notes: "I like 2/5th of each song" - "Talented, but not my bag" - "Don't want to give their album a 2nd chance". That pretty much sums up their live show for me. Sure, they have the chops, but shouldn't that make me give their album another listen? My buddy Chad (KBUT's Music Director) added, "Too much screaming", while my friend Kelly (another KBUT DJ) thoroughly enjoyed their show. Decide on this band at your own peril.

Cotton Jones

Cotton Jones have quietly released one of my favorite albums of the year, so I was sure to get a front row spot at the stage for their show (it didn't hurt that it was cold & wet outside, and due to fire capacity, we probably could not have left the underground and been let back inside in time for their performance). All in attendance were treated to great songwriting combined with woozy country & blues inspired indie rock. In retrospect, this was probably my favorite performance of the day. These videos of them performing live for My Old Kentucky Blog / Laundromatinee don't quite do them justice (where's Whitney's organ?), but they're worth checking out to hear their accomplished sound. Their debut Paranoid Cocoon is the kind of album I'd like to own on vinyl.

Girl Talk

Yep, it was raining. Having seen Girl Talk before in a small venue, I was somewhat disappointing in how his act translates at a big venue. Sure, the weather sucked and I wasn't close to the stage (or dancing on it), but the energy of his party atmosphere just didn't translate for me. Furthermore, he seemed to be doing more actual "DJ-ing" since I saw him last summer, which is to say that he mixed up his pre-made vocal & instrumental tracks rather just slapping together things that worked on his albums. I'm not sure if this procession towards more live control is a good thing or a bad thing in his very unique case.

Of Montreal
It wasn't quite as enthralling as their show at the Ogden last fall, but I'll take a live Of Montreal show over pretty much any other every day of the week. It was a crazy, silly, loud, & energetic set featuring a short version of the bizarre stage theatre from their last tour (tiger-headed tuxedo men, scarlet-robed demon priests, bejeweled ninjas, & body-suit muscle men all populated the stage). The set list centered heavily on their last two albums, with "She's a Rejector" providing the climatic spirit needed to send the large crowd into a frenzy. Who cares that it was bitterly cold & raining, or that my ears were practically bleeding? It was a great time. Go see Of Montreal.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Headed down to see Saturday headliners the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the main stage after Of Montreal. They sounded incredibly polished & professional as they played a nice mix of both new & old songs. My only complaint: pretty much every song utilized a repeating, pedal-looped guitar pattern from Nick Zinner which sounded great until everyone else stopped playing and all you heard was the repetitive buzzing until he walked over to his pedals and turned it off. This seriously happened on every song. Can't they get someone backstage to fade out his pedals? It got to be really annoying & made for poor segues in between songs. Still, they sounded great overall & Karen O was a joy as a jubilant & mildly out-of-control front woman.

Final Thoughts
While last year's Monolith festival left me with wider questions about electronic-based bands in a live setting (which I never did write about, dang), this year's fest left me wondering about the future of the festival. Don't get me wrong, its a great event, but its almost getting too big for its venue, and the venue is one of its strongest selling points in the first place. What are they going to do about the constant fire-capacity issues at the underground stages? How are they going to book "indie" bands that are fully capable of a transcendent performance on the massive main stage? How can they better handle the ever-present Colorado-in-September weather issues? Can they figure out anyway to allow on-site camping? How about re-entry (its an 11 hour festival and they won't even let you go back to your car, which is a real issue when the weather is bad)? It seems as though the Monolith Festival is going through some growing pains, and I surely hope the good people that run the event can come up with some creative ways of solving these issues which will only get worse in coming years.

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