Morrison — When Lana Del Rey was younger, back when people still called her Lizzy (or Elizabeth Grant), she was volunteering on a Native American reservation in the western United States when she had an opportunity to visit Colorado – and the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Even though she says she had never done anything like this before, she left a note in the venue’s famed bleachers.
It read, “One day I’m going to play here.”
As the singer told this story at Red Rocks on Monday to an adoring crowd dressed in flowy dresses and handmade flower crowns, she revealed a young woman’s dreams and a little girl’s humanity — something that helped remind the crowd that her relatively new-found character isn’t the only chapter in this book.
The sold-out audience showed up to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on a gorgeous Monday night so they could check out their hero live, many for the first time. Del Rey has already seen the full spectrum of reaction to her art, the highs of selling more than 5 million records to the lows of being ostracized after her first “Saturday Night Live” performance.
Del Rey has clearly learned from it all, and her lush, if imperfect, performance on Monday showed an artist confident in her direction, even if that direction is still somewhat in transition.
Dressed in a mod green-and-cream sleeved dress that would make Megan Draper jealous, Del Rey took the stage with four musicians and immediately set into “Cola.” The stage was dressed with five artfully twisted dead trees lining the backline and a large throne made out of natural fibers in the middle.
Del Rey’s vocals were nervously inconsistent in that first song, but as she made her way through “Body Electric” and “Blue Jeans” – which started out with guitar problems but finished out strong with Del Rey holding the mic out to fans singing her choruses – she found her groove. And that groove has more to do with moody vocals than perfect vocals.
Her music has been called every synonym of “cinematic” out there, and while it’s become a cliché it also makes sense: Her music is alluring because of its moodiness, because of that thing inside her voice that makes your ears perk up and ask the person next to you, “Who is that?”
Del Rey often sang flat and cheated some of the more demanding vocal runs throughout Monday’s show. (And yes, the band was playing against a pretty thick vocal track of her vocals, mostly harmonies; The pianist and bass player also provided some skilled back-up singing.) But she never gave up the character’s voice – that undeniably haunting element inside her music – that makes you question her persona.
Nailing down her character’s persona, which can come off as arrogance or aloofness, is a thin-line dynamic that made for fascinating pre- and post-show conversation. And while her character could likely be the subject of novels and her voice deserves much of the worship it receives, Monday was really about the powerful songs this young woman has crafted in a very short time.
There were two song-runs on Monday night that were proof enough for this critic that Del Rey is the real deal I hoped she might be. (True, I was cheering for LDR; “Born to Die” was my No. 1 record of 2012, and Red Rocks marked my first time seeing her.) The first run started with new track “West Coast,” which soared with its surf guitars and hushed “ooh babies” and proved that there’s much more water in this well. The track will appear on her next full-length “Ultraviolence,” due in June.
The first run continued through the noir of “Born to Die,” which sent the crowd into a frenzy with its funky, percussive intro and her cheesy joint-smoking hand gestures as she sang “let’s go get high” in the chorus. And it closed with a solemn but touching “Million Dollar Man,” one of her most charismatic vocal performances of the night.
The second big run of songs – which included “Radio,” “Summertime Sadness” and “Young and Beautiful — was startlingly potent and also home to the show’s highlight. Monday’s weather was calm and cooperative until the middle of the show, when Del Rey’s crew flooded the Red Rocks stage during “Gods and Monsters” to lower the hanging video screen and turn the trees and throne on their sides because of strong wind gusts.
Two songs later came “Summertime Sadness” and its big synth intro, which happened to coincide with the night’s biggest gust of frigid wind. As Del Rey held down her dress and bits of paper and fabric blew across the stage’s proscenium, the crowd knew it was the perfect kind of live-music moment that can only ever happen at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
“Such a perfect song for tonight,” Del Rey said after finishing “Summertime Sadness,” and she was right.
Regardless of her unapproachable persona, Del Rey turned out to be a woman of the people on Monday. It was adorable when she quickly borrowed a hair tie from a woman in the front row and later bummed a smoke from a different audience member.
But when she took an unannounced 10-minute break between “Million Dollar Man” and “Gods and Monsters” to sign autographs, shoot selfies and say hello to her fans in the front, it lacked cuteness and served as an unnecessary break in the middle of what could have been the show’s most compelling act.
Seth McConnell is a member of YourHub at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.