Josh Ritter rocks the Mile High Music Festival on Saturday. Photo by John Moore.
Music festivals are a pain in the ass. By nature. If it’s not the ticket price, it’s the traffic nightmare, or the $11 beers, or the sketchy outdoor acoustics, or the 100-degree heat, or the 50,000 obnoxious CU frat boys (OK, some are surely, by now, frat alumni), or the underwhelming lineup of radio-friendly pabulum, or the preponderance of hippie Dave Matthews jam-band wannabes.
The inaugural Mile High Music Festival was guilty of all of the above, and worse. It’s not that 88,000 of the 90,000 who came paid good money to watch music a mile away on a video screen. Worst was the unconscionably non-existent traffic plan.
Photo by Laurie Scavo.
By the time I finally arrived at the fest each day, I was adorning supremely cranky pants. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that they moved the Capitol Hill People’s Fair to Commerce City, injected it with steroids and renamed it the Mile High Music Festival. (I had plenty of time to come up with cheap shots like that while I was sitting in my car: On Saturday, while it took me 30 minutes to move three blocks on 64th Avenue, and again on Sunday, while it took me 95 minutes to drive the 6 miles from my house because traffic was stop-and-go all the way back to I-25 and I-70.)
How bad was it? The British funk bandsters The New Mastersounds were dead-stuck in traffic (like the rest of us) on Quebec Street, and needed a police-escort rescue just to make it to their set (close to) on time. “So that’s what your tax money is going for,” the drummer said with a laugh. Oh, the truth, it does hurt so.
Problem was, no one was directing street traffic until AFTER you got onto the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park property. On the way in, that is. When you tried to leave, oh yes, cops were out in force diverting traffic in whatever direction they pleased. I was involuntarily shuttled north, which took me another 20 minutes out of my way.
Photo by Mark T. Osler.
So … crankypants? After two full days in sweltering temperatures? You bet. And considering how far you had to walk to see a roster of bands that couldn’t be more safe or unimaginative? You bet.
But here’s the other thing about music festivals: You pretty much have to be dead — or a critic — not to be able to carve out a good time for yourself eventually.
I have no place to complain. I was not attending the fest not as a fan, but to work. I got in free, and I got to bypass those distant dry lots and park on the clean asphalt of the VIP lot right next to an entrance. And once there, the festival treats working stiffs like me very, very well. I don’t disrespect that — unlike that gross moron in the car with the McCain bumper sticker in front of me who hopped right out of his VIP car and immediately pissed right there on that nice asphalt — even though he wasn’t 50 feet away from a wall of about 300 portable potties. I thought, 1) ewe; and, 2) I really must keep my own crank in my pants.
It would be easy to go on and on about the food lines (they were long), the heat (it was hot), the row after row of merchandising crap (it was crappy), the bands (they were mostly dull), the scheduling (the lineup offered disappointingly few simultaneous live choices). Still, you couldn’t help but think you were in the midst of a very special event in Denver music history.
I mean, hell, there were 50,000 people there on Sunday just to smoke dope in the presence of Dave Matthews and Leftover Salmon — bringing the two-day total to a boggling 90,000. (And there was a lot of dope. Seriously, I haven’t seen that much grass since … well since before this fest killed all the green grass that previously adorned the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park).
This was an event, and I’m glad I was there. So, what, if the festival targeted the laid-back and chill doper set, to the great and sad expense of (much) real rocking. They got whatever it was that they came for, whether that was breezy Jason Mraz or Colbie Caillat singalongs, or a taste of local bands like Photo Atlas, Meese or Born in the Flood, all of which played before decent-sized crowds. As a local music-lover, I swelled with pride seeing the ultra-earnest and likeable local hip-hopsters The Flobots making their first big Denver return since their new CD vaulted them into the big-time.
Again, I need to emphasize that I was there to work — my task was to take as many pictures of as many bands as I could get to, and write up this elliptical, endless nonsense about the tunes and atmosphere. With the exception of John Mayer starting his set 20 minutes EARLY (!), the thing could not have run on a tighter clock. People were wandering through crowds picking up trash as fast as it got dropped, and especially helpful were numbered poles to help friends find one another.
Though, I do have one major vending beef. You had three outdoor and two (thankfully) tented stages. I left one in search oh hydration, and I walked a half mile, passing eight beer vendors, to find one that simply sold soda. Not smart planning to have all that beer available to those boys in Greek T-shirts, in those temperatures, without also having the occasional Coke stand.
There were a couple of fountain areas where people could fill up their water bottles, and boy, was that like horses to water. If the pushing, swarming and encircled hordes weren’t so coiffed and well-dressed, you might swear you had stumbled into some kind of surreal, natural disaster. Oh, the humanity.
But sure enough, that thing that happens at things like these went and happened to me. The longer you’re there, the more old friends you randomly run into and, despite yourself, the more fun you end up having. Even though I went through my massive DMB crush in 1992-93 — and, unlike the rest of the civilized world, outgrew it — I left the second day with a big smile on my face. (But seriously, how many times do you have to hear “Satellite” or “Stay” or “Sledgehammer” covered in concert before it starts to sound old? Don’t answer, that, DMB freaks; it was rhetorical. But if you wanna keep me interested in the old stuff, Dave, why not play “Lover Lay Down” for a change?)
Still, the thing that hooked me on Dave 1992 it still true now — he’s one passionate and sincere and hard-working live performer. His three-song opening salvo alone, including “Don’t Drink the Water,” was evidence that he’s as committed and sincere as ever. If only the guy would smile once in a while.
At any fest, all you only have to find a few bands you really dig, and it will make up for a lot of the banality surrounding you. For me, that one-two combination was Josh Ritter (the undisputed champion of Mile High Music Fest I), and Andrew Bird. Ritter’s “Other Side” and his other white-Motown grooves actually got pulses racing for a bit. Bird was kind of dull compared to his own previous live efforts, but compared to all the safe and unimaginative dreck going around him, he blew the tent off his roof. Just seeing those spinning Janus Horn Speakers dispensing sound all around like an oscillating fan was all I needed.
Then there was Steve Winwood, finishing with my favorite Traffic song (“Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”), followed by a rare fest encore (“Gimme Some Lovin’). The next day there was the unabashed sweaty fun of Irishmen Flogging Molly. So, yeah, I had fun despite myself.
Festival bands, especially the circuit ones, often jam through their sets in their sleep, and so I tend to most appreciate those moments of spontaneity or unexpected banter. It was fun watching Flogging Molly sear through “Whistles the Wind,” then hear the lead singer dish on the Broncos (he called Glasgow Celtic a real football team — “and not this Broncos (bleep!)” When Dave King sang the lyric, “Can winners be losers?” he interjected the mid-verse aside, “Just ask the Broncos!” Ouch, Dave. Ouch. Let them play a down first before we bury them. Then, we’ll be right there with you.
I try not to like John Mayer for monopolizing the radio with all those … songs … of his, but when he covers Eric Clapton’s “Crossroads,” you gotta give him his musical due. The guy’s just so damn likeable. And, yes, he is one handsome son of a so-and-so. The ink is now spreading throughout his infamously tattooed body in ways that had everyone talking, emphasized by his sleeveless shirt. OK, so what really had everyone talking was whether Perez Hilton was right with his report last week that he cheated on Jennifer Aniston, which you might regard as juicy if you knew that John Mayer apparently is dating Jennifer Aniston in the first place. (Isn’t she still dating Tate Donavan?)
“Do you think Jen won’t be here now?” a girl I know asked me. “Um,” I said, “I dunno. But I don’t think she’d be wandering the fields of Commerce City this weekend, even if he hadn’t cheated on her.”
The Flobots were among many bands that were unadulterated in their election-year political rhetoric. The call for change was so strong, you’d swear everyone in attendance (with the expectation of that McCain whizzer) is expecting an Obama victory in November.
For many, Tom (Petty) and Dave’s headlining sets were worth the ticket price alone. After Dave’s fest-closing set, my unabashed 18-year-old nephew texted from the other side of the world (field) with the news that he was “sweaty and deeply in love with Dave.” Awwww…. That’s sweet.
We were all a mile high. Well, some a lot higher than others.
John Moore is the theater critic for The Denver Post.
Day 1 slideshow:
Here’s yet another look at Day 1 of the Mile High Music Festival. In this slide show, the photos are taken by John Moore.
Day 2 slideshow:
Here’s a look at bands and other sights John Moore came across on Day 2 of the Mile High Music Festival.
Video: Andrew Bird
Video: Colbie Caillat