I was sitting more than halfway up from the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheater when a murmur in the crowd began to snowball into increasing applause and cheers. James Taylor was midsong and appeared perplexed by the growing roar. He turned and looked behind his band, but a giant rock—a permanent fixture at the natural wonder in the foothills outside Denver—blocked his view.
What Sweet Baby James couldn’t see was a full moon rising from the ground over the distant Great Plains—an incredible sight I haven’t forgotten decades later. Red Rocks can do that to you, and not just when the moon ascends from the flatlands. Red Rocks’ two huge 300-foot sandstone monoliths that flank the audience—and other red rocks behind the stage—are stunning. The grass-covered mountains behind the rows of seats at the top of the amphitheater provide a dramatic backdrop, and the big-city lights of Denver to the east glisten on the ground below. On a clear night when the sky blackens and stars emerge, the place feels so surreal and otherworldly.
To me, with apologies to other acclaimed places I haven’t seen, there is no better place on the planet to see and hear live music. Red Rocks’ acoustics are superb, and its wide, seatless concrete rows with wooden benches are surprisingly comfortable.
Of course, the numerous great artists who play there each year add to the venue’s magnificence, and many openly admit to the audience that they are filled with awe playing in such a wondrous setting. Besides James Taylor, I’ve seen many memorable shows at Red Rocks, which accommodates 9,525 concertgoers and is nestled in a 738-acre park at 6,450 feet above sea level. Last month, I caught Jethro Tull backed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and though cold winds kicked up, a nimble 69-year-old Ian Anderson pranced around the stage for more than two hours and gave us many warm moments to remember. Anderson struggled with his singing, often failing to reach the high notes, but his flute playing was superb, and the beauty of songs like “Budapest” from 1987’s Crest of a Knave album was transcendent. The classical strings and other orchestral instruments added so much color to Aqualung and other famous Tull songs, as Ian and his mates unabashedly rocked out.
Some of the best shows I have seen at Red Rocks were Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, the Grateful Dead, the Kinks with Cheap Trick as the warmup act, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Stephen Stills Band.
The Springsteen show on June 20, 1978, was the Boss’s first visit to Colorado, and I remember lining up about four hours before the much-anticipated general-admission show to get the best seating location. The line stretched down behind the stage, and we cheered when we heard Bruce and his band starting their soundcheck. We couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see any of the crowd waiting to get in, and then he shouted, “This is for all you people behind the rocks.” Bruce and the E Streeters broke into rocking Beatles songs, and we were ecstatic. He didn’t play a single Beatles song later that night at the actual concert, but his own catalog, filled with typical Springsteen freneticism, floored us. It also was the first time I saw a performer climb on the precarious metal slats between the stage and the audience and jump into the crowd wailing away on electric guitar.
I vividly remember other special Red Rocks moments. By chance, while driving there from Boulder along the foothills on Highway 93 in summer 1990, a motorcycle with a long-haired biker and a woman were in front of my car. In the motorcycle’s mirror, I noticed it was David Crosby and his wife, Jan, enjoying the mountain scenery on a warm afternoon. I followed them for many miles to the venue, where Crosby showed his backstage pass and zoomed past security and parking personnel. Later, between songs during the show, he remarked how beautiful Colorado’s mountains were while taking a ride during the day.
Colorado’s beauty and Red Rocks’ majesty truly came to life at a 1975 show with the Stephen Stills Band. Stills, who a few years before had lived in the mountains west of Boulder, put on a great show with former Flying Burrito Brothers’ lead singer Rick Roberts in the band. Roberts, who later became the original lead singer and songwriter for Firefall, sang his incredible song “Colorado,” which was on the Burritos’ third album and covered by Linda Ronstadt.
It was not so long ago
I left your mountains to try life on the road
But I'm tired of that race
It was much too fast a pace
And I think I've found my place
Colorado, I want to come home.
Roberts today recalls that magical night from his home in Longmont, Colorado.
“My first visit to Red Rocks was in the summer of 1975,” Roberts tells me. “Strangely enough, it was as a performer. I had heard about the amazing place many times, but, believe it or not, I managed to survive without a car from the time I moved back to Boulder in 1973 until early 1977. So lack of transportation getting all the way to Red Rocks was a problem. And, in a Murphy's Law kind of twist, the shows I most wanted to see usually happened the same night my own band, the newly formed Firefall, was playing somewhere else.
“Then, in 1975, I was asked to do Stephen Stills' summer tour, playing rhythm guitar and singing. I accepted, and around two thirds of the way through the three-month tour, we hit Red Rocks. I was astonished by the magnificent natural acoustics of the gorge that formed the venue. We had been playing my song ‘Colorado’ from the Burrito Brothers since the beginning of the tour, but it took on a much greater meaning that night. All in all, it was one of the most satisfying nights of the whole tour and the beginning of six straight years when I was fortunate enough to play at Red Rocks, the next five with my own band, Firefall.”
Firefall was inducted two years ago into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, which is located in Red Rocks Park just outside the amphitheater. Another inductee, Chris Daniels, the leader of Chris Daniels & the Kings and a member of acoustic jam band Magic Muse, also remembers magical moments at Red Rocks—as a spectator and a performer.
Daniels, who also teaches music business as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus, says he has attended 20 or more Red Rocks concerts as a spectator. He thinks the first one was a Joni Mitchell show with legendary bass player Jaco Pastorius in the 1970s.
“It was over-the-top fantastic,” Daniels exclaims. “Her songwriting was the draw, but Joco prowled the stage in bare feet. He was up on top of his amp and did this incredible 10-minute Joco solo that tore the place up.”
Daniels cites a Keb’ Mo’ show about eight years ago as the best and most influential Red Rocks concert he has seen.
“He was with Bonnie Raitt,” Daniels recalls. “Bonnie was great, but Keb' has a way with an audience that is about communication. Not flash and strut—actual communication. That has always impressed me.”
Daniels has performed five times at Red Rocks.
“My favorite times were singing a song (recorded on the 1992 Chris Daniels & the Kings album In Your Face) called ‘An American Tragedy,’” Daniels tells me. “There are moments at Red Rocks—you saw it with the iconic U2 video that changed their career. There is a frequency in that room that, if you hit the right note with your vocal, the whole amphitheater becomes a sympathetic. It's like the way drone strings vibrate on a sitar. When you hit a certain note, all the air in that little valley vibrates in perfect harmonic agreement. There is a note I hit and hold in that song, and the whole place lit up. It’s like the star-chamber door opening or something. It's happened about three times. You can't make it happen, but, if you’re right there singing before the audience, and it all clicks, that note, that door, opens. It is truly awesome in the original sense of the word.”
To Daniels, Red Rocks “has several meanings,” he says. “As a musician, it is the pinnacle of a career moment—our Carnegie Hall—and a gas to play. As a college professor teaching music business, it is the model of a city-artist-promoter partnership. And it is the home of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame and the home of the exhibit about me. I was inducted in 2013, and Judy Collins, the Dirt Band, John Denver, Joe Walsh, and others were inducted. So, after I'm gone, in one of the most iconic places in Colorado and the U.S., I will be a small part of it.”
Singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters, who lived in Boulder 1970-1987, estimates she has seen 30-35 shows at Red Rocks. She says a Jackson Browne concert about 1977 was the best one she attended at the venue.
It was a much different scene than the Springsteen show in 1978, when ticket holders were not allowed in during the soundcheck.
“We got there in the afternoon, because you could sit on the rocks and watch the band’s soundcheck,” Peters recalls. “Jackson was touring for the Running On Empty album, and it was a gorgeous, warm August afternoon in the mountains. Lots of Frisbees were flying around, and Jackson soundchecked without a shirt on. That made a big impression on 19-year-old me! Just the quintessential Colorado in the ‘70s scene.
“The band was phenomenal. I remember (backup singer) Rosemary Butler and, of course, David Lindley. When Lindley broke into the chorus of ‘Stay,’ the whole place just came undone. It was a blissful, perfect day and evening, and maybe it was just us, but the band didn’t seem to want to leave. We always knew that bands coming through Colorado looked forward to playing Red Rocks, it was, and still is, a really special gig.”
Peters, who now lives in Nashville, has other endearing memories of Red Rocks shows.
“The artist I probably saw most often in those days was Bonnie Raitt,” Peters says. “She came to Colorado at least once a year, most often to Red Rocks, and I never missed a show of hers. At one of those shows, she was quite late coming onstage, and, when she finally walked out, she apologized. She said she had been about to go on stage when her guitar strap broke. The guitar fell on the rocks, and the neck snapped in two. She was in shock and devastated about the guitar, but she went on to give a great performance. I also saw Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jesse Colin Young, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Carole King, Arlo Guthrie, James Taylor, Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Those are just the ones I can remember.”
Bonnie Raitt’s shows influenced Peters as a musician more than any other artists’ performances at Red Rocks.
“She was such a strong role model for me,” Peters explains. “Along with Jackson Browne, her music was the soundtrack to my high school years. And there weren’t that many women who played the guitar, you know. As a teenager, I was very determined that I was going to be a musician first. I wanted to earn the respect of other musicians and not just be in the band because they needed a girl singer. In a lot of ways, she was the open door through which a lot of us later walked. There was a very narrow idea of what a woman fronting a band should be, and do, and look like. She was different, and it made a big impression on me.”
Red Rocks leaves a big impression today on everyone—concertgoers, musicians and tourists—as it did in the 1970s, Colorado’s musical heyday.
“In the ‘70s in Colorado, music and nature seemed inseparable,” Peters says. “And Red Rocks was a sort of church where you could worship both. It has a very cathedral-like feel, from the drama of the rocks, to the sunsets, to the steep pitch of the seats. Everyone is wowed by the beauty of the place their first time there. I think Red Rocks really sums up what’s special about Colorado, and Coloradoans are quite rightly very proud of it.”
Peters played Red Rocks once in the late 1990s, opening for Dan Fogelberg after her first album came out.
“My whole family and friends were there, and that was really special,” she says. “I remember thinking how incredible it was to come back home—I’d been living in Nashville for eight or nine years—and play the most beloved venue in the state. It’s something you’d fantasize about when you were knocking about in the clubs or playing in bars in Colorado. I brought them backstage, and I think it was at that point my mom stopped worrying about whether I was going to do okay in the music business.”
G. Brown, the Colorado Music Hall of Fame’s executive director who covered popular music at the Denver Post for 26 years, may have more memories of Red Rocks concerts than anyone. He says he has attended more than 400 shows there.
“I fell in love with U2’s music when I heard the Boy album in 1980,” Brown tells me. “The guys performed twice at the 1,300-seat Rainbow Music Hall when they came through Denver on their virgin U.S. tours, and I wrote several pieces for the Post. Despite my enthusiastic reviews and features, the band remained college-radio underdogs. When they returned to Colorado in 1983 to perform at Red Rocks, I was thrilled—and almost shamefully lacking in foresight. It was the dawning of the MTV era, and I didn’t comprehend the significance of filming the show, as no rock act had ever attempted such an undertaking at the renowned outdoor venue.
“On the day of the show, miserable weather moved in and threatened to ruin the entire scenario. Temperatures dropped to 40 degrees at showtime, and a day’s worth of drizzle evolved into a deluge. It was no place to be holding a concert, but, with all the investment in the lofty plans, canceling it was out of the question economically.
“Bono went on the radio, calling every rock station in town to tell fans they were going to go through with the Red Rocks show and implored them to attend,” Brown recalls. “Four thousand, four hundred, ticket holders showed up to deal with the nightmarish elements. Of course, the show has gone down as one of U2’s defining moments. The drama made its way to the Under A Blood Red Sky video and live album and turned the band into A-list rock heroes. Bono immortalized his holy gladiator profile during ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ unfurling and waving a huge white flag in the crowd against the hellish, large flaming torches high on the cliffs surrounding the stage. It’s doubtful that any other band could have turned the operational nightmares at Red Rocks into its favor so convincingly. I was the only reporter on the premises. In my overnight review of the show, I wrote, ‘A lot of things had to go so wrong for U2’s show at Red Rocks Amphitheater ... to come off so right.’ It turned into a popular quote from the historical concert.”