Written by Jane Ponte
One of the main reasons why I moved to Texas from the Midwest in 2012 was because I wanted to live closer to where so many of my musical heroes—(and she-roes)–reside and play on a regular basis. Since relocating, I have seen countless performances from living legends in both large venues and tiny watering holes. I’ve experienced the magic of gritty icehouse shows, festivals such as SXSW, and college auditorium shows across the state. I’ve seen everybody from Willie Nelson to Ray Wylie Hubbard to The Mavericks, and tons of other phenomenal Texas artists wedged in between. I’ve traveled the highways and back roads to catch these shows, and I’ve even trekked out of state to see a few performances elsewhere. That’s exactly what I did last week, when I journeyed to Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado, to catch the legendary Patty Griffin with one of my very favorite artists, Amos Lee.
If you’ve never seen Patty Griffin, I’m about to tell you why you should. And if you’ve never seen a show at Red Rocks, I’m about to tell you why you simply must. And—if you’ve never experienced the magic of Amos Lee…well, I could pretty much write a ballad about that guy, and why he’s a force of nature and a bucket-list artist for any music lover on the planet. But I’m trying to remain rational as I write this, so I’ll keep my innermost thoughts about Amos to myself—for now. Let’s talk about Patty Griffin and Red Rocks instead.
The stage at Red Rocks is nestled into gigantic, maroon-colored rocks for which it was named. This was likely a part of the territory inhabited by the Ute Indian tribe long ago, prior to the mid-1800s. The tribe lived and practiced many of their spiritual ceremonies on the very land where the amphitheater now sits. It is, quite frankly, one of the most magical places on earth. It’s an open-air amphitheater carved into a rock formation that has nearly perfect acoustics. Not only did this natural amphitheater take over 200 million years to form, but its walls contain artifacts and data dating back to the Jurassic period, as well as fossil fragments of sea serpents. Spiritual and epic, indeed.
When Red Rocks first opened as a performance venue in 1941, it was common to see operatic and big brass band performances on its massive stage. The tilted, disc-shaped rock behind the stage, along with the huge, vertical rocks that comprise the amphitheater’s walls, provided stellar acoustics for these types of performances. Eventually, as the completed construction of the amphitheater took place, opera took a back seat to rock n roll, and it has essentially remained this type of venue ever since. The first notable rock n roll performance in the amphitheater was by The Beatles, in 1964. Other shows by legendary artists include Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, and Texas blues icon, Stevie Ray Vaughn.
I’ve been attending shows at Red Rocks for many years, and I always feel a bit more grateful and a lot humbler each time I experience its majestic and wondrous essence. You just can’t help but feel like you’re a part of something special when you’re there.
Seeing Patty Griffin there last Monday evening was just about as perfect of an evening of music as one can ask for. The Austin-based songwriter, who took the stage for about 45 minutes and played a beautiful set in support of her self-titled 10th album, was nothing short of spectacular. Accompanied by Dave Pulkingham (guitar, piano) and Conrad Choucroun (bass, percussion), the 7-time Grammy-nominated songstress opened her set with “Up to the Mountain,” a song she wrote in 2005 that pays homage to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech from 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The song, which has also been recorded by Solomon Burke, Kelly Clarkson, and Jeff Beck, has a gospel-infused feel that instantly set the tone for the rest of Griffin’s set. At times, Griffin’s angelic vocals almost seemed a tad gritty, but that was a good thing. It reflected the honesty and purity with which she always delivers her songs, and as she continued to gift us with several more noteworthy gems, including “The Wheel,” “River,” “Hourglass” and “The Boys From Tralee,” all from her newest release and delivered expertly with assistance from Choucroun and Pulkingham, I watched the sun set over Red Rocks and knew I was exactly where I needed to be at that particular moment. Griffin’s new material is catchy, tender, and thought-provoking; I couldn’t help but pick up on the subtly autobiographical lines in several of her songs and the references to the current political uncertainty and division in our country through the passionate way in which she so poignantly delivered them.
Griffin always displays a sort of ease and calmness as she performs, and the friendly manner with which she speaks between songs while sharing their significance evokes the feeling that you’re visiting with an old friend who hasn’t been in town for a while. Before launching into “Ohio,” (American Kid, 2013) Griffin explained that it was inspired by the Toni Morrison novel, “Beloved,” a story about the Underground Railroad and people escaping slavery to go north. She then played “Move Up,” (Downtown Church, 2010), a rollicking gospel-infused tune that had everyone on their feet, before effortlessly sliding into “When it Don’t Come Easy,” (Impossible Dream, 2004), which showcased her tender, almost plaintive vocal prowess once again.
Griffin’s 45-minute set was a perfect segue into what was to follow. Amos Lee took the stage about a half hour after Griffin’s set and the audience was perfectly primed for what Lee had to offer. A masterful entertainer and an absolute joy to be around, Lee kicked off his set with the soulful, jazzy “All You Got is a Song,” (My New Moon, 2018) written after the passing of his beloved grandmother, and instantly had the crowd on their feet. Equal parts sweetness and swagger, he greeted his enthusiastic crowd briefly before offering up “Supply and Demand,” from his 2006 release of the same name. And because he has the uncanny ability to engage his crowd and hold them in the palm of his hand, he had no problem sitting them back down as he launched into the thought-provoking protest song of sorts, “Crooked,” (My New Moon) which lamented the political unrest in a greatly divided country and how, perhaps, real change begins with each one of us doing our part to make things better for all of us as a whole.
Next up was a crowd favorite, “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight,” which had the crowd singing along and showcased Lee’s vocal prowess and the amazingly talented band that accompanies him out on the road and often in the studio. Along with veteran bandmates Zach Djanikian (guitar, mandolin, saxophone, vocals) and Jaron Olevsky, (piano, vocals, arrangements), several new members round out this remarkable, fairly new ensemble and make it seem more like family than a group of musicians working together to support Lee’s material. Jay White (bass, vocals), James “The Unicorn” Williams (drums), David Streim (keyboards), and Ryan Hommel (guitar) are all accomplished musicians, and often hit the road and studio in support of other artists or their own projects. But from my seat in the 8th row, it was obvious that Lee considers these players to be his musical brothers, and the playful vibe between them added to the depth and warmth of the entire performance as the evening progressed. Lee occasionally turned the vocal duties over to various members and showcased their individual prowess through several solos, adding to the feelings of mutual respect and admiration that are so seamlessly entwined throughout this incredible ensemble.
Having seen the band too many times to count, I was still impressed by how much they have grown, both as individuals and as a unit. I was happy to kick back in my seat and enjoy the band for the rest of the evening exactly as they were, but Lee decided to up the ante by introducing the Red Rocks Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lee’s friend Andrew Lipke, and the end result was one of the finest evenings of music I have ever had the privilege to witness. I have always adored Lee for his own songwriting and story-telling, his generous heart, and his flawless delivery and phrasing, but this was the first time I’d seen him pay homage to the musical genius of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, and I was completely blown away. After a beautiful rendition of Lee’s “Violin,” (Mission Bell, 2011), Lee and company kicked off the next batch of tunes with Garcia’s “Black Muddy River,” followed by “Sugaree,” which had the crowd singing, dancing, swaying, and revisiting magical memories of seeing Garcia and The Dead in the very same place years before. It was as if Garcia himself was in the venue with us, smiling down from the heavens with pride and approval. Musical magic like that just doesn’t happen every day, and I couldn’t help but pinch myself as I basked in the beautiful Red Rocks vibe, and the band that was making it happen.
The rest of the evening seemed to fly by as Lee launched into one great song after another. Taking it back to his own compositions, Lee performed the gospel-infused “Jesus,” (Mission Bell), a crowd favorite that he wrote about the passing of his beloved grandfather, Bobby Black. This was followed by several other Lee classics, “Black River,” (Amos Lee, 2005), “Sweet Pea,” (Supply and Demand), and “Flower, (Mission Bell). Then it was time to take the crowd on a cosmic journey back into the music of The Dead, as Lee launched into a stellar, in-your-face rendition of “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!” >” Franklin’s Tower” (Blues for Allah, 1975). By this time, everyone was on their feet and basically stayed that way for the remainder of the night. The singer/songwriter vibe had instantly turned “jam band,” proving once again that Lee and his top-notch bandmates are multi-talented, visionary, relevant artists that are virtually impossible to pigeonhole, much to the approval of his loyal fans.
As the evening drew to a close, Lee brought Griffin back out to finish the evening with “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song,” which he wrote in 2012 to honor the passing of The Band’s beloved singer and drummer, Levon Helm. As the two harmonized together, I could not help but feel gratitude as I sat with friends and family and soaked up the love and beauty that was all around me. I felt a lump in my throat as Lee went into “Arms of a Woman,“ and then got us all on our feet again with “Windows are Rolled Down” (Mission Bell). As the crowd sang along, the lump was replaced by happy tears. And then, just a quickly as it all began, another otherworldly evening at Red Rocks was over.
If you’ve never been to an Amos Lee show, do yourself a favor and go. And if you’ve never experienced the sacred magic of Red Rocks, do that, too. And if the musical stars align just right and give you a chance to see Amos Lee and Texas legend Patty Griffin together at this most mystical place, count your lucky stars and plan a road trip. Magic like this just doesn’t happen every day, and, as Amos would say, “…we all need a place we can go/to feel over the rainbow…”. So, “keep it loose, keep it tight,” and make it happen. You deserve it, and you can thank me later. Heck–I might just be in the seat right next to you.
~ Jane Ponte