Monolith Festival Live Blog, Day 1

Categories: Last Night

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Midnight has finally come.

For 11 hours straight on Saturday, Backbeat Online had Red Rocks surrounded, an army of writers, photographers, and other assorted hooligans braving a piss-reeking media tent to bring you live coverage of Monolith Festival.

Day 1 of the fest starred Devotchka, Vampire Weekend ... pretty much everyone, actually, so check out the lineup yourself, and check back for ear-burning coverage all day tomorrow, starting at 2 p.m. and stretching into early Monday, when Justice finishes the fest with a final, mortal blow.

For now, though, it's quiet. For now, the mayhem lives after the jump, with photos and/or reviews of every show, from Cut Copy to DeVotchKa (above), Holy Fuck! to Del and the Funky Homosapien, and everything between.

Lovelikefire, 1 p.m., Woxy.com Stage
Photos by Jon Solomon

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Dressy Bessy, 1 p.m., Main Stage
Photos by Chad Fahnestock

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What it was like: Attending a cramped, frenzied paean to punk show in a spacious, outdoor auditorium. Lead guitarist Tammy Ealom’s unabashed fervency and steady smile helped to make one of the festival’s premiere performances more intimate, notwithstanding the epic scope and wide-open spaces of the main stage.

The band unveiled several new tunes from an upcoming new release, most of which bore a similar, power-chord infused structure and utterly poppy and easily digestible lyrics (“Baby I’m in need of what you got/And that’s a lot.”)

With a loyal cadre of local fans dancing and singing along in the front row, the band’s opening set helped set a local tone to the festival, as their riff-driven, straightforward tunes made for easily danceable fodder.

Verdict: Dressy Bessy’s flair for post-punk theatrics lent the early hours of the festival an immediacy and dynamism. -- A.H. Goldstein

Colour Revolt, 1:30 p.m., Gigbot Stage

What it was like: It's a beautiful day outside, and I find myself inside for my first show -- typical. Colour Revolt is a five piece outfit from Mississippi. The English spelling of the name implied I should expect something shoegazey, and that wasn't wrong. But I also got some Southern rock, a splash of psychedelia, some yelpy indie vocals and a few other odds and ends. On paper (or a screen, in this case) that might sound like nothing more than big, spastic mess, but it actually mostly worked. It's not everyday you can see a band that can go from a pounding, punk-influenced boogie to a slow, churning shoegaze ballad with smokey vocals in back-to-back songs. Three guitarist might have been a little bit overkill (especially since one seemed to be having too many technical difficulties to contribute much), but they did have some killer tones between the three of them, and the drummer was energetic and solid throughout.

The verdict: The whole kettle could stand to cook down a little more, but their set was solid and I liked hearing such an oddball mix of influences jammed together. -- Cory Casciato

The Veils, 1:45, New Belgium Stage
Photo by Jon Solomon

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What it was like: Although the Veils had to overcome a few technical difficulties, the band delivered a solid set. After playing the new song “Sit Down By the Fire” (possibly from the band’s new album due out next year), the quartet ran through “Calliope!” and “Advice for Young Mothers to Be,” where singer Finn Andrews sounded a bit like Morrissey.

Verdict: Since some of the band’s gear was broken, Andrews said they’d make the last song, “Nadia,” really good. They did just that. -- Jon Solomon

Port O'Brien, 2 p.m., Woxy.com Stage
Photos by Aaron Thackeray

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What it was like: Enjoying the rustic twang of a strident alt-country band in the middle of a science museum. While the Red Rocks Visitors Center bears signs of the amphitheater’s most storied performers – portraits of Jerry Garcia, Sting and Stevie Ray Vaughn line the walls – the close quarters and theatric lighting still lend the small space the feel of a geology display at the Museum of Nature and Science.

Port O’Brien made the most of this inherently dramatic setting, giving a powerful and participatory performance to a packed room. Guitarists Zebedee Zaits and Van Pierzalowski mixed the frenzy of a stadium rock show with the hoots and hollers of a old timey jug band meeting, while the seraphic Cambria Goodwin spelled out catchy melodies on the banjo. An inclusive final number saw members of the audience participating on percussion, banging on pots and pans to the cadence of the band.

Verdict: Port O’Brien’s capable fusing of rock and roll drive and down home sentiment made their performance better than a visit to any geode display. -- Goldstein

The Foals, 2 p.m., Main Stage
Photo by Chad Fahnestock

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What it was like: Even though I left the second Colour Revolt finished and hustled to get to the main stage, I still missed the beginning of the Foals set -- the joys of a festival. At least I was outside. The song in progress as I arrived was a catchy, danceable slice of English indie rock -- think Franz Ferdinand Jr. The next song put me in mind of the Rapture -- not worlds removed from Franz. This trend continued throughout -- angular, spiky sounding and/or ringing guitars paired with danceable, if sometimes herky-jerky, rhythms. The singer seemed to be having some trouble with the altitude which made the vocals a little hard to make out, but you can hardly blame a guy for that (he actually commented that he thought his lungs needed to evolve to play at this altitude about halfway through the set). They ended with an impressive, squalling crescendo of guitar noise and thrashy drums, which was fun.

The Verdict: Since I don't think there's any sin in working a familiar, catchy sound even when it isn't totally original, the Foals get a thumbs up from me. I tapped my feet, nodded my head and enjoyed their English dance-punk/indie rock. -- Cory Casciato

Morning Benders, Gigbot Stage, 2:30 p.m.

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What it was like: Seeing the inherent flaws of a music festival in action. While the Morning Benders boasted a tight sound, adequate lyrics and enjoyable instrumentation, the band fell prey to one of the traps of the festival atmosphere. Compared to Port O’Brien, who immediately preceded their performance next door and delivered an impressively evocative set, the Morning Benders seemed listless and labored.

The slower pace and more understated vocal stylings definitely felt flat, and even the band’s more danceable tunes came off as emotive and indulgent. The setting didn’t help either – the small room that hosted the Gigbot Stage proved a stark contrast to the open air and grand vistas of Red Rocks’ outdoor facilities. While Port O’Brien seemed to take full advantage of the indoor atmosphere, the Morning Benders seemed a bit stifled.

Verdict: While the band was well rehearsed and the sound was well-mixed, the Morning Benders lacked a certain zing. -- Goldstein

The Muslims, 2:45 p.m., New Belgium Stage

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What it was like: A high-velocity tribute to early Frank Black’s guitar riffs.

The New Belgium Stage, located centrally at the apogee of the Red Rocks park, boasts an intrinsic dynamism. With full views of both sides of the valley, and with a wealth of food and beverage vendors within throwing distance, the stage offers a unique vantage and menu of comforts.

The Muslims’ set, marked by frenetic strumming, insistent vocals and fast tempos, took full advantage of these surroundings, as the band’s gritty and dirty tones became bucolic against the breathtaking scenery. While the structure of songs like “Right and Wrong” and “My Time” seemed to share a similarly simplistic structure, the music contained some moments of clever solos and creative turns of phrase like “Your SAT IQ.”

Verdict: While the set itself was more average than amazing, the surroundings helped push the performance above mediocre. -- Goldstein

Cameron McGill and What Army, 3:10 p.m., Woxy.com Stage
Photo by Chad Fahnestock

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Superdrag, 3:15 p.m., Main Stage
Photo by Aaron Thackeray

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What it was like: It’s been over a decade since Superdrag released its awesome debut, Regretfully Yours, but the guys still played quite a few cuts from the album, like “Carried” and “Sucked Out,” which they dedicated to producer Jerry Finn, who passed away last month. The band ripped through a thoroughly energetic power-pop set and played a new cut that will end up on their new album due out next March. Early in the set, the bass player marveled at the beauty of the Red Rocks. “Good God, look at this place,” he said. “It looks like God’s heel.”

The verdict: These guys still rock the cheetah’s ass. -- Jon Solomon

John Vanderslice
3:45 New Belgium Stage

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What it was like: A less funny, guitar-based Ben Folds.

Sometimes an act is more than the sum of its parts -- and sometimes it's less. The difference is, I suspect, largely in the eyes/ears of the beholder. What I beheld at John Vanderslice was, to my ears, less. He's a good guitarist and I heard some tasty licks. His violinist was great, his drummer and keyboard player were solid, and the whole group was nice, tight and cohesive. He had a good voice, his lyrics were kind of clever and everything came together in a very musical way. Despite all that, though, I was thoroughly unimpressed. Vanderslice is essentially a singer-songwriter and, for me, that style is really hit or miss. If the lyrics and voice connect, it's great. If not, I'm bored. And I was bored. His stage patter was nice and he was personable, and I even cracked a smile at a lyric or two (that dance dance revolution thing was clever). But he just left me bored. I could see plenty of people digging it, singing along, nodding their heads -- but just as many people wandered away after a song or two, so I wasn't alone in my disinterest.

The verdict: Probably heaven for John Vanderslice fans, but it felt too much like any other generic, radio-friendly singer-songwriter -- David Gray, John Mayer, even Dave Matthews -- to interest me. -- Cory Casciato

Blitzen Trapper, 3:50 p.m, Gigbot Stage
Photo by Aaron Thackeray

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Rock Plaza Central, 4 p.m., Acoustic Stage
Photo by Aaron Thackeray

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Joel Van Horne, former guitarist for Step Short, backstage, 4:15 p.m.

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Photo by Aaron Thackeray

Cut Copy, Main Stage, 4:30 p.m.
Photos by Chad Fahnestock

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What it was like: Watching a live rendition of the closing credits soundtrack for any number of ‘80s movies.

Australia-based Cut Copy’s beats were synth-friendly, their guitar chords were choppy and sharp and the band’s tonal textures could have been lifted from any Casio keyboard manufactured after 1983. The band’s sound, a mash-up of every major synth-pop band from the 1980s seemed an unlikely fit for Red Rock’s airy, open main stage, but the crowd responded enthusiastically. Indeed, the forum’s wide pews and airy aisles became a makeshift dance floor, as the overwhelming majority of the crowd took to their feet.

While the band’s sparse, simple rhythms electrified the young crowd, the set itself seemed amorphous and lacking in character. Songs bled into one another, as each tune bore the unmistakable mark of its predecessor. All in all, the performance lacked any real distinctiveness, as Cut Copy’s tribute to hordes of synth forefathers failed to stake any new territory.

Verdict: Easy, duple rhythms lent for good dance fodder, but little in the way of originality. -- Goldstein

Holy Fuck!, 5 p.m., New Belgium Stage
Photos by Aaron Thackeray

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What it was like: Neu! and the weirdest bits of Ummagumma jamming with the Chemical Brothers in a deep space dance club.

I am still reeling from this set. These fur guys just fucking blew the stage up. They balsted out a thick, twisted blend of motorik beats, industrial funk, scathing noise and incredible grooves. The drummer was seemingly bionic, pounding out everything from killer Chemical Brothers style breakbeats to hypnotic locked grooves. The bass player had the funk. The other two guys played a bewildering array of ... stuff. Effects pedals, a melodica, probably a synthesizer and sampler or two, and some incredibly distorted vocal effects -- god only knows what. They covered a lot of ground through the set, from some very Krautrock tunes to some crazy, metallic polyrhythmic space-funk that reminded me very much of Congotronics (Google it if you don't know -- it's awesome) to some almost conventional funk -- like P. Funk might sound from the depths of a serious K-Hole. It was a set that shifted me from casually interested in the band to a confirmed fan.

The Verdict: Holy Fucking Awesome -- best set of the festival. -- Casciato

The Photo Atlas, 5:10, p.m., Gigbot Stage

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Liam Finn, 5:50 p.m., Woxy.com Stage

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What it was like: A schizophrenic pop genius -- wait, that's Brian Wilson..

I missed the beginning, due to Holy Fuck running late (there was no way I was leaving that early). When I got there I heard some solid, tuneful pop. It was tinged with soul, a little bit folkie and appealing, if fairly undistinguished. Before long, things took a turn for the weird. With just two people on stage, it still sounded like a full band, a fucking odd one. Songs would take sudden shifts into utterly bizarre bursts of noise, loops of raucous laughter and all kinds of other weird shit. It was distinctively odd -- you'd have this nice, heartfelt tune and then all of the sudden -- blam! Freakout city. I liked it a lot. I mean, you can see a million dudes singing solid, soulful pop tunes, but how many of them insert a mindfuck drum jam in the middle? On the other hand, I could see how this might annoy the living shit out of someone -- not that many in the jam-packed crowd seemed to mind.

The verdict: Very cool, but not for everyone Luckily, I am not everyone, so I really dug it. -- Casciato

Mickey Avalon, 6:30 p.m., New Belgium Stage
Photos by Aaron Thackeray

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The Fratellis, 5:45 p.m., Main Stage
Photos by Jon Solomon

What it sounds like: The Glasgow-based alt rock quartet came on fire fueled by a madman of a drummer. But a few songs later, the energy level dropped a bit and things started getting a tad monotonous and singer Jon Fratelli started sounded more and more like Oasis’s Liam Gallagher. But the guys did ramp things up near the end of the set and got an enthusiastic crowd revved up.

Verdict: The guys managed to redeem themselves near the end of the set.

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Pop Levi, 7:10, Woxy.com Stage
Photos by Jon Solomon

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What it was like: Pop Levi and his keyboard playing sidekick kicked off their set with a synth pop meets Hendrix cut. A guy in the crowd said it was nothing like what he’s done on his albums. While the Hendrix-inspired riffing over the synth-pop beats was intriguing at first, it began to wear thin.

Verdict: Some of the crowd was digging, but he was having a tough time keeping the people there until the set. -- Solomon

Vampire Weekend, Main Stage, 7:10
Photo by Aaron Thackeray

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What it was like: Preppie hipster Afro-pop goodness

This is the second time I've seen Vampire Weekend. The first time, I was pretty well unimpressed (you can dig up the review here on Backbeat Online if you care), since they were so blandly by-the-numbers, straight off the album and uninspired. This was much, much better. I don't know if it is the festival atmosphere, the venue, or just the fact that they've gained confidence by touring more since I last saw them. Whatever it was, they were on tonight. They still played pretty straight off the albums, but there were subtle enhancements -- more energy, a slightly different swing, something. The best-known songs were delivered really well, particularly "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "A-Punk," plus that one about a bus that I can never remember the name of. They even played a bit of new material which sounded solid (nothing radically different, still sounded very much like Vampire Weekend). I was annoyed by a call-and-response tune abut Blake's new face, but otherwise it was a solid, fun set. And the drummer wore a Phish shirt, which takes some balls in front of a jam-band-hating hipster crowd like this one.

The Verdict: A totally solid, really enjoyable set -- this band might have a future after all. -- Casciato

Night Marchers, 7:50 p.m., Gigbot Stage
Photo by Chad Fahnestock

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What it was like: If the Cramps stuck around a few more decades, and added distortion to their guitar tones and vocals to keep up with the times.

The Night Marchers’ heavy doses of distortion, coupled with John Reiss’ gruff vocals, didn’t obscure a heavy influence of pure rockabilly and subsequent alterations to the genres. While the quartet yielded some moments of true originality in their driving rhythms and searing, searching lyrics, their antecedents shone through, albeit in altered form.

The Gigbot Stage suited the band’s musical aesthetic perfectly, recalling the dank and dark clubs where the band’s apparent hero helped to lay the foundations for the Night Marchers’ sound.

Verdict: While the performance failed to reveal any innovative new musical direction, the band’s sound, one that recalled the Cramps with a more ragged edge, suited the occasion and the forum well. -- Goldstein

Del and the Funky Homosapien, 8 p.m., New Belgium Stage
Photo by Chad Fahnestock

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What it was like: A rousing hip hop performance that defied natural elements and high altitude.

Perched on the Red Rock complex’s unofficial apogee, Del the Funky Homo Sapien handled the inherent challenges of the New Belgium stage with equanimity. Though Del complained several times about the effect of the Mile High altitude, and particularly the conditions at the very top of Red Rocks’ seemingly endless stairs, his rhymes failed to find any impediments. Along with his crew, Del seemed to overcome the lack of oxygen with a steady flow of invocative words, lines that spurred the dense crowd to jump and gesticulate without hesitation.

While a wind advisory toward the end of the set stalled the progress of the performance, it did not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd, which together crowed for more and pushed toward the edge of the stage, despite warnings from Red Rocks officials.

Verdict: While most of Del’s words did not touch on any lofty political or ideological messages, the set’s crowd-friendly, sometimes saccharine messages (“Life is a blast when you know what you’re doing), fit the band’s lofty stage atop the amphitheater.) -- Goldstein

White Denim, 8:30 p.m., Woxy.com Stage
Photo by Chad Fahnestock

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What it was like: Hearing a capable jam band riff expansively in cramped quarters.

Of all the bands that were relegated to a spot in one of the park’s two indoor theaters, White Denim was perhaps the most unlikely.

The Houston-based band, touting a distinctive sound of dense, finger-picked guitar lines, rambling bass phrases and explosive drumming, would have played perfectly in the larger, outdoor amphitheater. While their sound owed some credit to the giants of the jam genre like Phish or Leftover Salmon, the trio forged their own unique brand on the extensive solos, the abstract vocals and the meandering rhythms.
Indeed, considering the size of band, White Denim produced an impressively expansive sound, drawing in one of the largest crowds I saw in the small, WOXY theater within the Red Rocks Visitors Center.

Verdict: Despite the disconnect in location, White Denim’s set proved innovative and engaging.

Silversun Pickups, 8:45 p.m., Main Stage
Photo by Chad Fahnestock

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What it felt like: “We’re in the middle of our second record,” said Silversun Pickups frontman Brian Aubert, “but we wanted to say, ‘hi.’” They did a whole lot more than that. They kicked out a brisk set of material from their debut, Carnavas, including stellar takes on “Little Lover’s So Polite” and the set’s closer “Common Reactor.” The great set may have been partly due the band’s first time playing Red Rocks. “This is fucked up amazing,” Aubert said while looking up at the rocks. He also mentioned it was the prettiest show he’d ever played. Another highlight of the set was Nikki Monninger’s whispery vocals on a tune they rarely play.

Verdict: To quote Brian Aubere, the set was damn near fucked up amazing. -- Solomom

The Presets, 9:10 p.m., Gigbot Stage
Photos by Aaron Thackeray

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What it was like: A mix of the Rapture and Does It Offend You, Yeah?, only less interesting than that sounds.

The Presets is an appropriate name for this band. The presets on a synthesizer are the basic sounds that come programmed into the machine. Sometimes a few of them are cool, but everyone has them -- no originality. And that was what you got here. The style was the electro-rock fusion that's burgeoning in popularity, heavier on the rock side than the electro. Generic, boring, repetitive beats -- boom-boom bap boom-boom bap -- over and over again. Dull, leaden, nearly monotone vocals. Cheesy, uninteresting synthesizer sounds, the kind of stuff labeled "Synthesizer Sound 1" on a cheap Casiotone synth. All blended together and delivered with a lot of energy and very little personality. I've been largely unimpressed by the vast majority of efforts to crossbreed rock with dance, and this just left me completely bored. The crowd ate it up though -- the place was packed and everyone seemed to love it.

Verdict: Can you say "meh"? Two of the dudes did have some pretty kickass fluorescent pink suit jackets, which was my favorite part of the band. -- Casciato

Atmosphere, 9:45 p.m., New Belgium Stage
Photo by Aaron Thackeray

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What it was like: A tuneful spoken word performance .

Pound for pound, Slug is one of the most penetrating rappers in the game. His rhymes are always thought provoking and heartfelt. And on record, his languid delivery is as captivating as it is engaging. Live, however, no one's ever going to accuse him or Ant, his partner-in-crime, of being the most animated hip-hop crew. Slug stalks the stage with the casual confidence he approaches his songs with, while Ant lays back in the cut. To be fair, though, tracks like "In Her Music Box," which Atmosphere kicked its set off with (over twenty minutes early!) and "Happy Mess," which followed, from Sad Clown Bad Spring #12, aren't exactly club bangers. All the same, Slug and Ant -- who were accompanied by a guitarist, vocalist and keyboard player -- had the crowd in front of the New Belgium stage eating out of the palm of their hands, parroting the words with a palpable exuberance. After a while, as the wind picked up and a light drizzle moistened the air, the set began to blend and became weighed down by one-dimensionalty.

Verdict: Atmosphere wasn't the most entertaining live act at Monolith, but it was by far the most intelligent. And I'll take brains over brawn any day of the week. -- Dave Herrera

DeVotchKa, 10:30 p.m., Main Stage
Photo by Chad Fahnestock

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Log onto westword.com/music on Wednesday to read Dave Herrera's wrap up of the festival, including his take on DeVotchKa. Read his most recent Westword story on DeVotchKa here.

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