Reader Beware: In the post ahead I risk sounding like a gushing teenager rather than 53 year old man. Now, Gail and I have been to hundreds of concerts, and have hundreds of concert experiences, quite a few experiences punctuated with a capital “E.” Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Red Rocks on August 5 deserves all the capital letters.
Ron had purchased four tickets – for Gail, me, himself, and, as it turned out, for his friend Rojana. Ron made Rojana an offer she couldn’t refuse: In exchange for a ticket, all she had to do was drive us all in her VW camping van, in which we could pre-game and post-game in the comforts of the van in the parking lot of Red Rocks. The ride from Boulder to Red Rocks is about 45 minutes, and in a van packed with beer, wine, and all sorts of delectables, off we went, Gail and I passengerizing about 12 feet behind the driver and her navigator.
Pulling into Red Rocks is an extraordinary experience. You’re driving from Boulder with the face of the Rockies to your right and flat lands – more like gentle bumpy lands – to your left. You pass signs for roads taking you up into the mountains. You pass signs for Golden, Colorado, and, yes, you can see the Coors Brewery. But the overall impression is space. There are a few weathered eating/drinking establishments on the road, and a couple of recently-built condo developments, and as you’re taking it all in the driver makes a right up into the mountains, and you’re climbing, climbing. Rock formations crop up and explode out of the red ground. Before you know it, you are going into a tunnel carved through the rock. Up ahead there’s a sign. Further there’s a parking area. There’s not a hint of commercialism, and except for the two land blacktop, no asphalt. Welcome to Red Rocks.
From car stereos parked nearby, you hear Neil. Old Neil. You unpack the camping chairs and the coolers. It’s over two hours before show time and you take some photographs and take it all in. The open space, the mountains, the rocks, the distances (yes, you can see Denver, which appears as some distant mirage). You are having lots of laughs, Rojana talking about her years of following the Dead. You’re all reminiscing of where you were and what you were doing the day Jerry Garcia died, the day Elvis Presley died, the day John Lennon died (how did we get here?) All sorts of people walking by . You are relishing in the moment, surrounded by a new friend and two of your best friends.
Walking into the Red Rocks amphitheater is just as otherworldly as entering the parking lot. Our lot was on top of the amphitheater, so we walked along a trail that afforded us the view that you see pictured. You enter from below and we walked right in front of the stage. Since the rows of benches are built onto the cliffside, the stage is not much more than a foot off the ground (front row seaters must feel like the artist is in their living room, or that they’re busking on the street – it’s that immediate. You’re literally staring eyeball to eyeball with the artist). And you can see from the image above that the stage is surrounded by rocks. As Bonnie Raitt quipped to Ron backstage before a show at Red Rocks, “I feel like I’m in the Flintstones.”
After passing the stage, we climbed. And climbed. Huffed and puffed (the air is thinner up in the mountains). When Ron bought the tickets he purposely bought the cheapest seats which would give us the greatest view of the space and place that is Red Rocks. You’re not up close and personal with the artist, but you are up close and personal with the experience of being there: the artist and the environment. This shot was taken during the opening set by the Alabama Shakes, who were great. Transcended being so far away. Soulful, hip-hugging, rocking. They received a standing ovation from the crowd. After returning home I immediately bought their record. They were that good.
And Neil Young. To put this show in perspective, like many of his best shows, over half the show was brand new material. As I’m writing this post, I’m listening to Neil’s live acoustic album “Live in Massey Hall 1971.” At one point, he explains to the audience (this is ’71 Neil I’m writing about) , “I’m going to sing mainly new songs rather than old ones.” Of course these “new” songs played live in 1971 were eventually recorded and released as “Harvest,” arguable his most commercially successful record. And now they’re classics. But at that time the audience didn’t know them. One of my all-time favorite Neil albums, “Time Fades Away” – criminally never released on CD – was a live album of brand new songs, songs that only exist on that live LP. When I saw Neil in 1978, in what would be known as the Live Rust tour, “Rust Never Sleeps” had yet to be released, so they were all new songs. And of course, one of my favorite tours was in 2003 when Neil previewed “Greendale”, playing the album in its entirety to a bewildered crowd at Madison Square Garden. Me: I was enthralled and grooving on every new song. The last time we saw Neil he played songs that were to become his mediocre “Fork in the Road” release. But he keeps challenging his audience.
And, yes, he did the same thing at Red Rocks. Half the set – half the set! was brand new material. I was prepared to hear a lot of “Americana,” the first full NY&CH release in nearly 15 years (by “prepared” I mean I really like the record, but the novelty does flatten things out by the end of the listen, though the band sounds brutally fresh). They played nothing from Americana, opening up with an explosive “Love and Only Love” and then “Powderfinger.” And from that it got weirder. And better. One new song was especially mind-blowing, “Walk Like a Giant.” On the ride up to Red Rocks, Ron was explaining how dinosaurs used to roam this area of Colorado, a large amount of dinosaur bones and skeletons have been discovered on the hills around Red Rocks. And in this stomping, tremendous song, I felt I were living in the time of dinosaurs. Neil and Crazy Horse were KILLING it. The song went on for about 15 minutes toward what seemed like a natural conclusion. But no. The ending became brutal In its descending power chord thrust and chomp, (wait), chomp, (wait), chomp. The three guitar players huddled together davening. Yes, davening, like religious Jews at a temple. And as it chomped on and on, the big red moon slowly rose over the landscape to add an even richer perspective to an already epic experience. Again, at the risk of sounding like an over-excited teenager (and I’m writing about this over three weeks after the fact): OMG!!!
The last ending crunch of “Over and Over” fades. No further encores. The show is over. Since we’re already at the top of the amphitheater, it’s not a long walk to the van where, once again, we take out the camping chairs and coolers and have another great time hanging while all the traffic tries to snake down from the mountain. We wait. And wait. And Ron takes this great shot of the emptied parking lot at show’s end.
“I won’t retire… but I might retread.” Neil Young, “Falling from Above”