In January 2018, I did a post about Bad Company’s album Live at Red Rocks. It keeps getting views, with the most recent occurring just a few days ago. This gave me the idea to write about what must be one of the most magnificent outdoor performance venues. Plus, my last post in the venues category dates back to August 2019 – another good reason to look at one of the places where the ultimate thrill in music takes place: The live experience!
Red Rocks Amphitheatre has a long history, something I had not been aware of and frankly had not thought about. How long? It somewhat depends where you start. Construction of the facility near Morison, Col., 10 miles west of Denver, began in 1936, though the first concerts there were produced by John Brisben Walker as early as 1906. Brisben, a magazine publisher and automobile entrepreneur, had the vision to leverage the site’s natural acoustics for entertainment purposes.
The next important milestone in the venue’s history occurred in 1927, when manager of Denver parks John Cranmer convinced the city to acquire the area of Red Rocks from Brisben. The price? $54,133, which is the equivalent of approximately $797,920 today – quite a bargain, if you ask me! Denver architect Burnham Hoyt was brought in to design the facility. After a five-year construction, Red Rocks Amphitheatre opened to the public in 1941.
What’s truly amazing to me is the age of the rock formations. It took the natural amphitheater more than 200 million years to form. There are traces dating back to the Jurassic period 160 million years ago, including dinosaur tracks and fossil fragments. In one of the less glorious aspects in Red Rocks’ history, the area around it was inhabited for hundreds of years by the native American Ute tribe, until they were displaced in the 19th century, according to this collection of facts about the venue, published by the Denver Post in June 2016.
Now let’s get to the fun part: Music performances at Red Rocks. And as you might imagine, there have been many. The challenge, however, is to find live footage from there, capturing artists I truly dig, especially old gigs from the ’60s and ’70s, such as Jimi Hendrix in September 1968 or Jethro Tull in June 1971. The latter unfortunately led to a confrontation between non-paying fans who had arrived to the sold-out show without tickets and the police. It resulted in a five-year ban of rock concerts at the venue.
The first show I’d like to highlight dates back to August 26, 1964, when The Beatles played Red Rocks as part of their U.S. tour that year. While according to The Beatles Bible, only 7,000 of the 9,000 tickets were sold, making it the sole show of the tour that wasn’t sold out, the Fab Four still set a box office record for the facility, marking the earliest notable rock & roll performance there. Here’s some historical footage I found, which includes concert snippets. It’s impossible to verify whether were actually captured at Red Rocks. In any case, it’s a nice illustration of the insanity of Beatlemania.
For the next gig, I’m jumping ahead 19 years. On June 5, 1983, U2 recorded their concert film U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky, which also yielded their live album Under a Blood Red Sky released in November of the same year. The following clip captures the first 15 minutes of the film directed by Gavin Taylor. U2 almost looked like high school pals, but they sure as heck didn’t sound like a high school band. The energy they brought is just infectious. Appropriately, the boys from Dublin kicked it off with Out of Control, a tune from their October 1980 album Boy. It was a rain-soaked evening! This was followed by two other tracks from Boys: Twilight and An Cat Dubh.
While I couldn’t find a clip of the above noted Jethro Tull gig from 1971, here some footage from a show they played at Red Rocks on August 12, 2008: Aqualung, the title track of the band’s fourth studio album from March 1971. It was the only song on that album that wasn’t solely written by Ian Anderson. His first wife, English photographer, actress, playwright and life coach Jennie Anderson (born Franks), is listed as a co-writer.
The last clip I’d like to include captures one of my all-time favorite rock artists John Fogerty who played Red Rocks last year as part of his My 50 Year Trip tour, which is still ongoing though currently on hold because of you know what! Here’s Fortunate Son, a tune a wrote for Willy and the Poor Boys, the fourth studio album by Creedence Clearwater Revival released in November 1969. I can tell you one thing: I consider myself as fortunate to have seen the man in May 2018. He continues to kick ass!
Obviously, Red Rocks Amphitheatre is currently closed, and their website lists the many shows from April through October that have been cancelled or postponed/ rescheduled due to COVID-19. While this sucks for live music lovers like myself and creates a lot of pain for artists, the venue and all the connected vendors, it’s the right thing to do. Catching the bloody virus spreads many hospitalizations and lots of death, as this country has painfully witnessed over the past few months.
I’d like to wrap up this post on a more cheerful note with some additional Red Rocks facts noted in the above Denver Post article, which was updated in November 2018.
Red Rocks has seen nearly 2,700 shows through the end of 2016.
While the above Beatles gig may have marked “the earliest notable rock performance,” it was Ricky Nelson who played the venue’s first ever rock show in 1959.
The band that has performed at Red Rocks the most is Widespread Panic.
Huey Lewis and the News are the band with the record for most consecutive shows in a row, with four gigs performed from August 9-12, 1985.
Electrical transformers were moved outside the venue, after Neil Young noticed they were causing feedback on his tube amps.
While Red Rocks has been successful in attracting big names, one of the biggest has yet to book the venue despite constant rumors they are going to do so: The Rolling Stones.
Sources: Wikipedia; Denver Post; The Beatles Bible; Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre website; YouTube