By Team Backbeat
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Earlier this month, Bret Dowlen, the man who designed the sound system for the Fillmore Auditorium, formerly known as the Mammoth Events Center, warned me not to make any judgments about the acoustics of the building for several weeks. After all, he said, every room needs to be tweaked. But based on Trey Anastasio's appearance there on May 19, its first night of operation, Dowlen's cautions were misplaced. From a business standpoint, the Fillmore is a strategic attempt by the Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents promotion firm to weaken or destroy its competition (see "Peace and Love, Nineties Style," published last week, for more details). But when viewed simply as a place to hear music, the auditorium emerges as a fine addition to the Denver concert scene. A few bugs remain, but it's a vast improvement over the rotting eyesore that was the Mammoth.
The decision to book Anastasio, the Jerry Garcia of the neo-hippie set, to break in the Fillmore makes sense from a historic standpoint: The Grateful Dead are the most famous alums of the original Fillmore, located in San Francisco. But it resulted in an invasion of Phish-heads that had many of the neighbors in the area silently fuming, and the lack of centralized parking for the facility only exacerbated the situation. I had to drive around for more than ten minutes before finding a curbside spot a good five blocks from the venue--and when I headed back to it after the show, I encountered some interesting wildlife along the way, including a small group of enthusiastic crack aficionados and a drunk whose ability to stand clearly violated the law of gravity. I'm accustomed to such sights, so they didn't bother me, but I'm guessing that a lot of the folks who showed up to see Vince Gill the next night were not quite so experienced.
Because of the anti-bathing policies practiced by some Phish fanatics, my beloved, who accompanied me, joked that we wouldn't need earplugs as badly as we'd need nose plugs. But the scent inside the Fillmore was more than tolerable everywhere except in the balconies, which were transformed into saunas because of problems with the Fillmore's much-ballyhooed ventilation system. In addition, the place was clean for the first time since, in all likelihood, the Eisenhower administration, and the crew seemed dedicated to keeping it that way. I even saw a guy walking around with a dustpan and a whisk broom--an incongruous sight considering the location. (At the Mammoth, a dustpan the size of a Buick wouldn't have made a dent in the grime.) Better yet, the new layout made the most of the space available. The west side of the room, which used to be all but unusable, is now a de facto art gallery, with plenty of room to chill, and walkways to the east make getting to and from concession areas and bathrooms a snap. Plus, the free apples in the beautifully refurbished lobby were as sweet as sweet could be. They might have been dosed, but if they were, I didn't mind.
Anastasio was equally jazzed by the surroundings. In the midst of the first half of his set, a solo acoustic turn, he noted, "You always hear people talk about being at the Fillmore West when it first opened--but now you can say that you were here!" Cue shrieking and rapturous applause.
The music during the opening segment was somnolent by comparison: I've heard of sleep-apnea tests that were more exciting. Spare renditions of ditties like "Billy Breathes" and "Guyute" were so gentle and unobtrusive that many of the crowd's members gabbed right through them, as if they were at a coffee shop, prompting impassioned shhhhhs from true believers. At one point, Anastasio had to bargain with the audience to shut up. And although people were considerably more attentive during the electric portion of the proceedings, during which Anastasio was accompanied by a two-man rhythm section, that didn't make the cumulative effect any more interesting. Without the other members of Phish to play off of, Anastasio noodled aimlessly for what seemed like months. But that didn't matter to his disciples, who did the "If I Only Had a Brain" dance until they were ready to drop. Standing next to one especially devoted boogie queen was like being locked in a phone booth with a spasmodic.
In the long run, of course, Anastasio's performance was merely an excuse to discover if the Fillmore sounded better than it had when it was called the Mammoth--and it did. The guitar and Anastasio's vocals could be heard well throughout the solo segment, and while things got a bit muddier during the electrified jam, the results were still a vast improvement over the unrelieved boominess that Mammoth vets knew all too well. Furthermore, the sound was relatively consistent--best in the balcony and on the sides, but more than acceptable on the floor.
Because of Anastasio's basic instrumentation, his show didn't truly test the space: There's no telling if the music made by a ten-piece band will turn to noise. But it's already obvious that unlike the Mammoth, the Fillmore isn't the worst place in the world to see a concert. Stop the presses.
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