Honestly, is there any live music experience as prized in the U.S as seeing a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre for the first time? Sure, there’s South by Southwest, Austin City Limits, Billy Bob’s, the jazz of New Orleans, and the blues of Memphis, but none quite compare to the myth and majesty of this historic amphitheatre, cradled in natural wonder and overlooking the city lights of Denver.
No immersive music experience other than Red Rocks has been fine-tuned and lovingly curated by Mother Nature herself.
Where Dinosaurs Roamed
What has for the past 113 years been the intersection of contemporary music and the world’s geological history actually dates back millions of years, when the earth’s forces slowly raised two monolithic sandstone ledges from the ocean floor.
Over the years, these immense walls took on slopes, tilts and cracks, showing how successive freeze-thaw cycles can chip away and shape formations. Today these monoliths have names. “Ship Rock” is the amphitheatre’s stately southern wall, gently jutting towards the sky and resembling a ship wreck. “Creation Rock” looms closer to the stage, almost acting as an arrow narrowing down the rows of steep stone steps, following the curve of the formative bowl-shaped arena which culminates in this epic stage, behind which sits the disc-like “stage rock”.
Between the stage and the very top row of those steep stone steps, there’s a 100-foot difference in elevation.
“Creation Rock” and “Ship Rock” tower not only in height, but hold immense prehistoric tales dating back to the Jurassic period. Nearby dinosaur tracks are still evident, this being the site of many fossil findings, most notably fragments of the 40-foot long sea creature Plesiosaur. It’s these historic walls that now serve as the amphitheatre’s tuning fork, crafting what is widely known as the most acoustically perfect natural amphitheatre in the world.
Music’s Proving Ground
Whether it’s a 25-piece brass band filling the air with dense soundscapes, or a solo singer wistfully sending their voice flying through the funnel-like venue, Creation Rock and Ship Rock have honed a sound so pure and crystal that seeing a concert here is a singular experience. The band I saw, jam legends O.A.R, were perfect to showcase just how the venue handles complex layers of multiple instruments. Each were easy to pick apart, truly soaring and piercing through the night sky. Needless to say, the drum solos were intense.
The acoustics can – unfortunately for them, and us – work against artists as well. And perhaps this is a better way to highlight just how brutal they can be. The support act was an experimental singer-songwriter, and her voice was grating at best. With no muddled sound to mask her shrill, the eccentric vocals from this artist were sharp, stinging and inescapable. Red Rocks is a genuine proving ground, and not everyone succeeds.
Although these impressive sandstone beasts are credited with the amphitheatre’s exceptional acoustics, mother nature still holds substantial sway over how a concert can go down. Like most mountainous parts of the world, Colorado can both benefit and suffer from its multitude of microclimates. Weather at Red Rocks is unpredictable, and its not just the elevation you have to be careful of (remember, stay hydrated). Between support and O.A.R there was an extreme weather warning, with heavy rain soon flowing by.
Most of the audience just scurried to the nearby Visitors Centre, which hosts an underground museum on the history of Red Rocks and how it was formed, plus the Southwest-style Ship Rock Grille. It was only an hour or so wait until it was safe to head back out to the steps.
Clearly playing here as an artist is also a special occasion, and the view from the stage must be incredibly inspiring. Whoever is on stage gets to see the sun set between the rims of this rocky cradle, casting all sorts of amazing hues over the sea of heaving bodies.
As an audience, we not only get to see down to the stage, but also beyond to the city of Denver where nightfall brings about hundreds of distant lights that appear to blink constantly through the waves of air.
It’s hard to say who gets the better view.
More Than Just A Music Venue
If you’re planning to see a gig at Red Rocks, then keep in mind the multitude of other, year-round activities this park offers.
Numerous hiking trails snake around the amphitheatre, with the most valuable bringing you to nearby Dinosaur Ridge. It’s a four-mile backtrail which is an experience in itself, featuring around 300 Cretaceous dinosaur footprints, a few dozen Jurassic dinosaur bones and other prehistoric points of interest. Arrive well before the concert starts and explore.
During the gig, there’s also two nearby museums opened to learn about the history of music that’s inseparable from Colorado – an incredibly diverse state known as one of trendiest in the country.
First, the aforementioned Visitor’s Centre, located at the entrance of Red Rocks, is a must-see thanks to its walls lined with the names of each and every act that has ever played on the stage. There’s also a bunch of memorabilia, and stacks of awards. In fact, leading music industry mag Pollstar awarded Red Rocks Amphitheatre the “best small outdoor venue” so many consecutive times that they had to re-name the award after the place just so other venues could have a chance.
A short walk east of the stage will also bring you to a Trading Post with the free-entry Colorado Music Hall of Fame, a completely different and very comprehensive museum dedicated to tracking the many landmark musical moments attached to the state.
Outside of music, the amphitheatre sees action from sunrise thanks to the many local runners who make use of its steps. There’s also a summer workout series, a film series dedicated to cult classics, and the famed Yoga on the Rocks.
Some Tips For Your First Time
Heading to Colorado in the New Year and plan on seeing a gig at Red Rocks. Keep these few points in mind.
Don’t settle for festival food: Just before you descend the steps into the amphitheatre, numerous pop-up bars and restaurants are scattered about in the open-air. Don’t eat here, unless cheap and tacky is your thing. Instead head along to the Visitor’s Centre because the aforementioned Ship Rock Grille does takeaway, so you can get one of their delicious elk hotdogs and take it out to the gig with you.
Dress in layers: As mentioned above, weather can be quite unpredictable thanks to the microclimates. Dress like an onion, and make sure you have plenty of layers so you’re prepared for anything that comes your way.
Stay hydrated: They don’t call Denver the ‘Mile-High City’ because of Colorado’s legalized recreational marijuana. The city is exactly one mile above sea level, and everything nearby sits at a similar elevation. This means you’ll get less oxygen, which means you’ll need to closely monitor your water intake if you want to stay in tip-top shape for the concert. For every beer, have a glass/cup of water. And speaking of alcohol, it’ll effect you faster just like it does on an aircraft. The benefit of this is that it takes less (and costs less) to get a buzz.
Remember where you parked: It’s easy to get lost in the absolute rapture of seeing your first concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It’s also just as easy to get lost in the dark in the exodus after the gig. There are numerous parking lots at different elevations on either side of the amphitheatre. Remember where you parked, and maybe try and leave a bit earlier than the inevitable encore (bands will try and milk every second they can out of their time on this magnificent stage).
The writer travelled to Colorado as a guest of Colorado Tourism.
Feature image credited to Stevie Crecelius
Most other photos by @chrisdsingh.