By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
It's been a tough summer for live music. Lilith Fair was ultimately cut by more than a third. The Limp Bizkit reunion tour was canceled entirely (though no one seems too broken up about that one). And here in Denver, there will be no Monolith. Which makes Mile High Music Festival, now in its third year, the undisputed highlight of big-name live music in our city.
Last year, the festival drew some 50,000 — a challenging number to beat in the best of circumstances. But MHMF organizers have gone to impressive lengths to ensure that this year's event will top its predecessors. The infrastructure is improved, with an expanded shuttle system including stops at the Pepsi Center, 1stBank Center and the Boulder Theater. They've also added a fifty-foot ferris wheel, tethered hot-air balloon rides, more misting stations and a massive water playground at the newly added, Beta-curated dance stage. You can also come and go as you please this year, and you can bring your own food and (non-alcoholic) drinks.
Then there's the festival's ceremonial first attendee, a ten-ton statue of the Egyptian dog-god Anubis, there to promote the Denver Art Museum's King Tut exhibit. And Anubis isn't even the most impressive art-related installation scheduled to make an appearance on the grounds of Dick's Sporting Goods Park. That would be Christian Ristow's "Hand of Man," a giant hydraulic hand that will twist and crush junk cars.
There's also apparently live music at this thing. And while you already know plenty about headliners the Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson, there's surprising depth on this year's undercard. We've picked out a few of the acts we're most excited about, and we didn't even have room for Z-Trip, Drive-By Truckers or Cypress Hill. Get your red pens and schedule printouts ready:
Phoenix (Saturday, 6:45 p.m., Bison Tent): What a year it's been for French synth-pop outfit Phoenix (profiled on page 45). The group released Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in May 2009, and at that point, their biggest claim to fame was probably frontman Thomas Mars's wife, Sofia Coppola. But Wolfgang caught on like none of the band's previous three albums had. Singles "Lisztomania" and "1901" started showing up in car commercials and movie trailers and on prime-time TV, and the album won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. All for good reason: Beloved by hipsters, frat guys and soccer moms alike, Wolfgang hasn't lost any of its shine in the past year. This stuff is built for summer festivals, too. Sure, the outfit's set last year at Monolith wasn't the best, but its gear didn't make it from France to Colorado, and the guys were forced to use backups. Somehow, we doubt this will happen at Mile High Music Festival. Call it a hunch.
My Morning Jacket (Sunday, 5:45 p.m., Kyocera Main Stage): The band is labelmates with the Dave Matthews Band, but other than an ability to anchor big festivals with even bigger headlining gigs, the groups don't share a whole lot. While DMB has remained remarkably consistent over the years, MMJ is actively wary of remaining static. The act followed 2005's sprawling pop opus Z with a three-year studio hiatus before releasing the decidedly restrained Evil Urges. It wasn't a move met with much critical support, but the band's live shows just got more ambitious. At one of the more famous sets in Bonnaroo's history, MMJ played for four hours, with guest appearances by Zach Galifianakis and Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. The set featured covers of songs by Kool & the Gang, James Brown, Bobby Womack, Mötley Crüe and the Velvet Underground. The guys probably won't have the freedom to do all that at this year's MHMF, playing setup for DMB, but an hour and a half is plenty of time for some surprises.
Weezer (Sunday, 6:45 p.m., Wolf Stage): Remember when Rivers and company were the coolest nerds on the planet, shooting videos with Spike Jonze and obsessing over Asian chicks? It's been a while, but "The Blue Album" and Pinkerton still sound awesome. And while the band's ensuing work has been understandably maligned, the dudes haven't forgotten how to write a hook or laugh at themselves. Recently, the act has turned into a sort of blank pop-culture sounding board, playing with Kenny G and Chamillionaire, selling Snuggies with copies of its most recent album and collaborating with giant hitmaker Dr. Luke. Which is all sort of interesting or whatever, but none of that cracks the top five reasons to get a good spot for Weezer's set. In no particular order: "Say it Ain't So," "Buddy Holly," "Undone," "Surf Wax America" and "El Scorcho."
Atmosphere (Sunday, 5:45 p.m., Elk Tent): Minneapolis's finest hip-hop act is made up of MC Slug and DJ Ant. Atmosphere started doing emo rap about lady troubles long before Drake started rap-singing, and Slug may actually have them (lady troubles, that is). But they've changed their tune lately: 2008's When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold marks a clear turn from introspection to something like wisdom. And Ant's production has gone forward, from samples to instrumentation, which is obviously a boon to the live show. For all its seriousness, Atmosphere has always made very immediate music. So when you're standing there in the heat, feel free to contemplate the complicated web of metaphor in the lyrics – or just nod your head and enjoy.
Nas & Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley (Saturday, 3:45 p.m., Kyocera Main Stage): Nas has never sounded happier than he does on this year's joint album with the youngest Marley. His rapping seems to have been reinvigorated by the crusty, hurried reggae around him, and his boilerplate New York flow is a mesmerizing counterpart to Damian's Jamaican "toasting"-style chatter. Now, just because they seem comfortable doesn't mean their album, Distant Relatives, is an hour of hip-hop "Don't Worry, Be Happy." The themes here are huge and heavy: poverty, tribal warfare in Africa, global ghettos, domestic woes. In spite of the subject matter, they have created a predominantly inspiring album. And this tour is getting rave reviews: Both artists have time for their big solo hits and the best of the album.
Locals: MHMF has been an admirable champion of the local scene since its inception, and this year the fest is featuring a half-dozen or so breakout acts. Get there early and you'll be rewarded with the golden rock of Houses, the electro-pop of The Chain Gang of 1974, the ass-kicking Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, the prickly charms of Danielle Ate the Sandwich and a reunion show from The Samples, just to name a few.