IMAGINE DRAGONS @ RED ROCKS AMPHITHEATRE | 5/16/13 On stage at Red Rocks last night, Dan Reynolds couldn't get over the emotional weight of the moment. "This may be the greatest night of our lives," Reynolds declared after "Round and Round," the band's energetic opener. Later, he marveled, "This is the first time I've ever played a show and been able to see the moon." And then, right before a casual take on "Stand By Me," he thanked the crowd clumsily but sincerely for allowing the band "to do what we love."
The superlative of the night came right before the final tune, an encore rendition of "Nothing Left to Say," when Reynolds announced: "This is our favorite show we've ever played." Thanks to a dynamic, energetic and heartfelt performance from Imagine Dragons, it was a pretty good night for the audience, too.
The obvious significance of Thursday's show for the band was endearing, if only for the fact that it spoke to an unlikely humility. As Reynolds talked about the band's struggles in the past four years, he said the band members were simply "nerds" and that the music was the most important part of the presentation.
But judging simply from the grandeur of last night's show, it would seem that playing a venue of nearly 10,000 would be no big deal for the band. The outfit came to Red Rocks prepared with a well-honed, big-budget stageshow that would have fit neatly into any stadium or any glitzy room in its native Las Vegas. The stage featured a massive screen that served as the backdrop for the entire stage, with a smaller, semi-circular scrim just behind the drum kit. Fake trees that boasted lights as leaves lined the back of the stage, while drums of all sizes dotted the front.
The scenery played a role before the band played a single note. As the lights dimmed, the leaves on the trees blazed, and the amplified sounds of crickets and wildlife rang through the rocks, and pairs of glowing eyes popped up on the semi-circular scrim. The theatrics felt designed for Red Rocks, tailor-made to summon the feel of the wilderness surrounding the amphitheatre.
The cricket chirps morphed into a brief instrumental introduction from the band after they rushed onstage. The crowd rose for a catchy and captivating rendition of "Round and Round," and spot-on, danceable versions of "Amsterdam," "Tiptoe" and "Hear Me." Wayne Sermon's guitar and Dan Platzman's drums were infectious, and Ryan Walker's keyboard work and synth effects were bright and compelling.
All the stagecraft helped keep the energy up. The screens bore different images for each song. Scenes from a night sky, camera shots from a speeding train, underwater vistas and landscapes featuring lone trees all beamed behind the band. During "Tiptoe," Reynolds exhorted the audience to sing along to the chorus and offered visual aids. The line "Nobody else can take me higher" flashed in giant font behind him.
Those touches only got more complex as the night wore on. Reynolds ran around the stage, banging on the different drums and moving up front to greet the crowd in the first row. After the first strains of "Radioactive" sent the audience into a frenzy, the screens turned red with scenes of burning suns and explosions.
After belting out lines about a "new age" and the "apocalypse," Reynolds suddenly took flight. Hooked up to a wire attached to the lighting rig, the singer flew into the air and rose to the top of the theater. He came to his apogee before hitting the stage lights, but not before unveiling yet another drum hidden by a black tarp and attached to the top of the stage. He banged out some rhythms for the guitar solo before descending to finish out the tune.
Reynolds took to the sky again for "On Top of the World" and "Nothing Left to Say." During "Underdog," the band released giant balloons filled with confetti into the audience. In a rare lull between songs, Reynolds encouraged the entire crowd to forget their woes and invest themselves fully in the moment. All of it had the feel of a well-rehearsed and carefully planned stadium show, a spectacle that's likely wowed plenty of big crowds in the past.
But somehow, the carefully constructed effects and well-rehearsed antics felt entirely new. That came entirely from the obvious wonder of the bandmembers themselves. They beamed when they looked into the tiered sea of fans; their words of appreciation were heartfelt and off-the-cuff. When Reynolds confided, "This is a night that we'll never forget as a band, I promise you that," it felt genuine. That constant sense of awe from the stage helped create the same effect in the crowd.
Continue reading for a Critic's Notebook and more on the opening acts.
Imagine Dragons weren't the only ones impressed with their surroundings last night. Opening acts Paper Route from Nashville and Los Angeles-based Nico Vega seemed similarly wowed by our state's signature venue. Paper Route's brand of synth-pop served as a catchy first act; the quintet delivered strong tunes marked by grandiose synth lines.
Like the headlining act, Nico Vega drew on the power of scenery during their frenetic and frenzied set. A squat, painted pyramid sat in the middle of the stage when the group kicked off their performance (it had the look of a closed metronome). Lead singer Aja Volkman (the wife of Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds) delivered some falsetto-tinged vocals rooted in traditional African music to kick off the performance.
The bombastic vocal delivery found a compliment in impressive bass work by Jamila Weaver and drummer Dan Epand. The work of guitarist Rich Koehler was tougher to appreciate, thanks to an odd open tuning and an even odder tone. Still, the band's sound became more cohesive as their set wore on. The purpose of the odd pyramid piece quickly became clear. Volkman spraypainted the band's name on its front and unfolded the top to reveal a kind of pedestal.
Between her explosive dance routines and jaunts around the stage, she climbed atop the set piece and belted out furious vocals. Koehler also stood on the pedestal for a final guitar solo. The band had a presence that was compelling and a confidence that was convincing. Even so, Volkman admitted to being nervous, and gushed, "This is the most amazing place we've ever played." Like her husband, Volkman couldn't get over the majesty of the amphitheatre.
Personal Bias: It may be one of Imagine Dragon's most popular and commercial tunes, but the live version of "It's Time" was a high point of the night. Combined with the theatrics of "Radioactive," it was a perfect kickoff to the Red Rocks season for me.
Random Note: At one point, Reynolds exhorted the crowd to clap their hands. Unfortunately, he couldn't join in due to a broken hand.
By The Way: Reynolds can do some mean backflips when he's attached to the wire rig and floating above the stage. If this whole music thing doesn't work out, he may want to apply for a gig with Cirque de Soleil.
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