While 2012 will be remembered as the year that Red Rocks hosted the most shows in its history, it's also going to go down as one of the best years for concerts in Colorado in general. As we reflected on all the incredible shows we took in this past year, there were an astounding number of what we'd consider must-see shows. Out of all the shows we reviewed, we've somehow managed to narrow it down to the thirty best concerts of 2012. Keep reading to see which ones we picked, and as always, feel free to weigh in if you think we left out one of your favorite shows.
30. MICHAEL KIWANUKA @ BLUEBIRD THEATER | 8/7/12 Judging by the instrument setup on stage, you could have guessed what sort of music Michael Kiwanuka would be playing: congas prominently pushed to the front of the stage, a classic sparkle drum kit reminiscent of something Ringo might play, an organ and a handful of acoustic and electric guitars with stained wood-grain finish. Santana could have waltzed out of a time machine and begun playing at any minute. Instead, Kiwanuka and five other musicians crowded the instrument-packed stage, and without any introduction launched into their set. Already-familiar chords of his newish single, "I'll Get Along," filled the room, hushing a crowd made up largely of couples -- so many folks on dates to see Kiwanuka, which makes sense: His folk-pop music seems geared toward them, and they ate it up.
29. SANTIGOLD @ OGDEN THEATRE | 5/29/12 "There were horses and what looked like buffalo skins, elaborate umbrellas and a rhythm-perfect band dressed in...we don't know what. There were striking red, blue and green lights, with plenty of space for Santigold to emerge, flanked by two synchronized-singing, back-up-dancing drummer gals, wearing absolutely blinding smiles. Starting the show with "Go," Santigold (aka Santi White) opened up a can of weird for Denver last night. As the opening strains of "Go" played, the dancers came out with militant fervor, high stepping and jumping, taking their places on either side of Santigold, who mimicked their movements with a cool style of her own."
28. DEVOTCHKA @ RED ROCKS AMPHITHEATRE | 9/20/12 DeVotchKa played their first show with the Colorado Symphony in February at Boettcher Concert Hall, moving longtime fans and enthusiasts to a state of tearful and awe-inspiring bliss. Last night, the rare and remarkable collaboration played for a larger audience at Red Rocks Amphitheatre -- and the unexpected, yet perfectly natural musical chemistry between the two groups proved transcendent once again.
27. THE LUMINEERS @ BLUEBIRD THEATER | 5/11/12 The whole show was a bit of an unexpected display of a communal musical experience that you don't often see. People knew this music and so many people sang along to songs that they've obviously come to love with a band that encouraged the audience participation not in an aggressive, desperate way but with a gentle nudge and grace. Clearly, this band has played this material countless times both in Denver and beyond, at small venues and large, but there was no pretense and these people were very much swept up in the moment last night at the Bluebird.
26. PEACHES @ the SUMMIT MUSIC HALL | 10.13.12 With champagne, campy German dancers and enough fake boobs to smother an elephant, Peaches' show at the Summit was a roofied cocktail of grimy beats and erotic theater. Putting on a show that was both grand in scope yet refreshingly minimal in its DIY simplicity, the queer, electro-punk goddess offered up a ninety minute set that put to shame the million dollar operations of today's top rated DJs, giving the audience a primal does of 21st century punk rock. Like a hologram Grace Jones fronting Gwar before a live Victorian orgy, the show left us all a little pulled inside out.
25. WOVENHAND / MICHAEL GIRA @ ORIENTAL THEATER | 3/24/12 One song into Michael Gira's set at the Oriental Theater and he told the crowd, "Okay, shut up. Shut the fuck up. Time to shut up." He'd opened with brooding and droning "Jim" from Swans' latest effort, 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, and while the people near the stage looked focused, there was talking in the back of the venue. A few more songs into his brilliant and intense hour-long set, which included Swans, Angels of Light and solo material, Gira got a bit fired up again at the crowd. That seemed to work, and the crowd hushed, which was a good thing since Gira's lyrics and vocals demand attention. While Gira delivered a heavy set, Wovenhand brought a completely different kind of intensity. Fronted by David Eugene Edwards, former leader of 16 Horsepower and one of the most powerful frontmen in the state, Wovenhand opened a fierce set with "The Beautiful Axe."
24. MACKLEMORE @ OGDEN THEATRE | 12/6/12 All Macklemore has to do is pose dramatically to induce the same frenzied reaction from an audience that a slightly lesser MC would draw with their signature song. Granted, a very sizable portion of his Denver audience comprised easily riled high school girls, but that should truly take nothing away from the fact that the stories he tells are utterly compelling, and his performance at the Ogden was not one iota short of exhilarating. His stories are deeply personal, universally relatable and delivered with such poignancy that it becomes impossible not to be moved.
23. KENDRICK LAMAR @ OGDEN THEATRE | 10/8/12 The stage was set by an erupting smoke machine, thundering bass and a massive light spectacle, all in preparation for a dynamic, five-foot, six-inch MC in old-school high socks and a voice that seems too powerful to come from such a little body. The second that Kendrick Lamar strutted onto the stage in his grey hoodie and loose shorts, looking like he had just finished an afternoon jog, the rapper held the sea of people that filled the Ogden to capacity in his little hand. He spoke his opening bit and then launched into "HiiiPoWeR," and his words were no longer his own, but shared by the entirety of the venue.
22. BIG GIGANTIC @ RED ROCKS AMPHITHEATRE | 9/29/12 With the first ever grand-scale visual mapping on both the flanking rocks of the venue, Big Gigantic's Rowdytown show, featuring Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Dillon Francis, GRiZ and Raw Russ, easily earns top honors. Performing a healthy dose of new tracks and old hits, the Boulder-based electronic duo more than delivered on its debut headlining show at Red Rocks.
21. JAPANDROIDS @ BLUEBIRD THEATER | 11/18/12 Brian King said that while he and David Prowse had had a blast at the Larimer Lounge this past June, they were going to do even better tonight. As promised, the pair proceeded to do just that with every single one of the seventeen songs of their set with a display of raw power and passion the likes of which you almost never see. Appropriately enough, the show got off the ground with "Adrenaline Nightshift."
20. DIVINE FITS @ BLUEBIRD THEATER |12/14/12 Picking a high point of a show as thoroughly enjoyable as this one would be tough, but when Alex Fischel started playing the synth intro to "You Got Lucky" by Tom Petty -- which could have gone either way, kitschy or funny -- and Dan Boeckner started singing (turns out he's one of the few people who do Petty believably and with conviction) and then Britt Daniel and Sam Brown joined in, these guys turned a mere cover into a song that they could've written, playing it as though they owned it. Boeckner even rattled out the guitar echoes at the end of the song. For a band that made a virtue out of layered and dynamic simplicity the whole show, the attention to detail on this song, which it didn't even write, was quite impressive.
19. DEATH GRIPS @ LARIMER LOUNGE | 11/23/12 Most bands that get hyped rarely live up to it. Death Grips was better than any hype could convey. Zach Hill and MC Ride put the amount of energy into this less than hour-long performance equaling what you'd have to sustain for a five hour show of almost anyone else's music. Hill and Ride were streaming with sweat and as they thrashed about, those of us near the front were speckled with sweat.
18. ROB ZOMBIE & MARILYN MANSON @ 1STBANK CENTER |10/2/12 Throughout the show, Marilyn Manson maintained a great balance between sardonic jocularity and the intensity of the consummate showman he is. Almost every song, there was an inspired costume change or a slight change in the set with subtle use of effects and props on stage throughout the show and those brought on for specific songs. At one point, Manson had on an outfit like he was a bishop decked out in red, including the mitre. Throughout his portion of the show, Rob Zombie pumped up the crowd and cajoled when it seemed people were acting like they were at home watching TV. But instead of just harping on that like a lot of performers seemed to, he just encouraged involvement and earned it with the sheer enthusiasm and energy he brought to this show. Maybe it was that Manson had had such a great set that he felt he needed to make his own just slightly more exciting, but one got the impression that Zombie just does this all the time regardless of with whom he's touring.
17. DEAD CAN DANCE @ TEMPLE BUELL | 8/19/12 "There was nothing gimmicky about any aspect of the show. It was like seeing something dignified and respectful without being stuffy, and the audience truly returned the favor. While the music had clearly struck a chord with many people and the crowd's enthusiasm was palpable, even the more exuberant members of the audience waited for song breaks to shout out things at the stage."
16. TREY ANASTASIO @ BOETTCHER CONCERT HALL | 2.28.12 The soft, beautiful and, at times, elegant side of Phish's musical catalogue shone last night as frontman and songwriter Trey Anastasio took the stage at the Boettcher Concert Hall backed by the 65-piece Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Outside, fans dressed in suits, ties and flat-brimmed baseball caps mingled with friends over cocktails and joints until the ushers rang their bells signaling the fifteen-minute warning. Slowly the crowd climbed the various staircases to their seats in the beautiful auditorium. As you'd expect from a symphony hall, every noise is detectable. After Anastasio took the stage to ear-piercing whoops from the crowd, it got so quiet that you could hear chairs creaking on stage and Anastasio stepping on one of four pedals he had in his array -- itself a major departure for a man who layers loud effects over his playing during Phish's electric concerts.
15. MUMFORD & SONS @ RED ROCKS | 8/28/12 "Perhaps more impressive than the group's harmonies was the intimacy the group created in such a massive space. Fans standing what seemed a couple miles away in the top rows were just as much a part of this as those in the VIP section. Anyone who's spent time in a ratty college apartment knows the best way to create a vibe like this is with Christmas lights. Mumford & Sons had those, too."
14. TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS @ 1STBANK CENTER | 4/19/12 "Tonight, we thought it would be fun...," Tom Petty said a few songs into two-hour set, "we're going to go pretty deep into some deep tracks for you tonight." Sure enough, Petty & the Heartbreakers ran through a number of hits during the second night of the band's two-night stand, but they delved into a few rarities as well. Petty himself admitted later in the set that while people ask him all the time what his favorite song is that he's written, he answers, "There are far too many for me to pick out one, and they're very often not ones that were really well known."
13. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & E STREET BAND @ PEPSI CENTER | 11/19/12 Bruce Springsteen fused pure rock and roll, Pentecostal fervor and Celtic bravado in the course of three hours. He collected signs from the audience bearing requests for obscure tunes and played at least three; he brought a twelve-year-old onstage to sing the chorus of "Waitin' on a Sunny Day"; he crowd surfed and hammed it up while wearing a coonskin cap. There were too many of these memorable moments to count. The effect was dizzying, inspiring and intoxicating, all at once.
12. LEONARD COHEN @ 1STBANK CENTER | 11/3/12 There were no low points in Leonard Cohen's perfectly paced show at the 1STBANK Center -- impressive, considering it went on for three and a half hours. The high point came when Cohen and his band went into "Hallelujah." The crowd sang along; they had done so during other parts of the performance, but not like this. They were excited, and their response seemed to have a subtly visible impact on the people on stage -- like they knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they had connected with people this night, and that the music they were performing had been affecting people for years and had become part of their life story.
11. ICELANTIC'S WINTER ON THE ROCKS @ RED ROCKS | 1/27/12 Under a star-speckled sky and with freezing temperatures, Atmosphere delivered a greatest hits compilation at Red Rocks Amphitheatre for the inaugural Icelantic's Winter on the Rocks. Nostalgia aside, when he greeted everyone at the venue and opened into "God Loves Ugly," 10,000 winter-ready people joined in the lyrics and seemed to appreciate the beautiful chance of a lifetime to see raw, independent hip-hop displayed for the first time, during winter, at one of the most famous venues in the world.
10. SKRILLEX @ RED ROCKS | 8/9/12 "The request from Skrillex for everyone to pull out lighters, cell phones, glow sticks or whatever they had capable of illuminating was met with feverish enthusiasm. Once the entire place was singing along with Gary Go's lyrics, the waves of energy began to rise from the bottom to the top. What else could trump lasers, fire blasts, fireworks and confetti streamers? A full wall of fucking fireworks blasting from the top of the stage, that's what."
9. PHISH @ DICK'S SPORTING GOODS | 8/31/12-9/2/12 "Telluride '88, Red Rocks '94 and Denver '97 -- these aren't just places and years to Phish fans. They're monuments, pivotal parts of Phish's Colorado legacy. Out of nearly eighty concerts that the band has played in the Centennial state and more than 1,578 shows in all, they represent high points of the band's career and various peaks of their musical eras. This past weekend, Phish showed over three nights that after nearly 24 years touring in Colorado, they still have the stuff of legend."
8. RYAN ADAMS @ TEMPLE BUELL THEATRE | 2/4/12 With such bountiful charisma, Ryan Adams would be forgiven if he were merely a marginal performer. He's not, of course -- not even close. There's a reason he can pack places the size of the Buell on his own with just a guitar and keep everybody engaged for two hours: If you haven't seen him live, Adams is every bit as compelling on stage as he is on record. From beginning to end, the set -- which pulls songs from all parts of his catalogue -- is profoundly enjoyable thanks to Adams's masterful sense of dynamics and his mellifluous vocals, which are in absolute top form on this evening. Hell, even when he's goofing, Adams is still better than approximately 99.5 percent of the other songwriters clogging the airwaves.
7. AFGHAN WHIGS @ OGDEN THEATRE | 10/30/12 The band played the hits you'd hope to hear, but it also switched things up with covers for intros or outros, as mentioned previously, including "Who Do You Love?" into "Fountain and Fairfax," and, during the encore, Pegboy's "Jesus Christ" into "Somethin' Hot." It was seamless, and the Whigs made everything its own. With a lot of sonic variety from bluesy, blustery rock and almost torch song pop to proto-emo fireballs of soulful ballads and smoky R&B, the Whigs put on an impressive display of emotional delivery... If this was just a reunion, at least the Afghan Whigs came and showed us what rock and roll could be -- and more often should be.
6. RADIOHEAD @ 1STBANK CENTER | 3.13.12 From the moment Radiohead opens the show in front of a towering, two-story wall of LEDs, with giant flat screens simultaneously descending from the ceiling and pointed every which direction, like a deck of cards tossed indiscriminately in the air and gently floating back down to earth, until the band eventually finishes nearly two hours later with "Idioteque," backdropped by Day-Glo-colored psychedelic fractals, it's like a giant Windows Media Player visualizer. And as the music twists and turns, the visuals follow suit. During "Bloom," the blue-green hue and aquatic pattern evoke the sensation of being under water, fitting for a song that makes references to jellyfish and the ocean blooming. Elsewhere during the set, the spectrum of colors matches the mood, and the visuals range from soothing to erratic, with Matrix-like displays that conjure twitchy, nerve-damaged Times Square scrolls. As Yorke and company soldier through their set, which itself veers from subdued moments of tranquility to manic blasts of bludgeoning bass lines, they keep their light man busier than a Galaga junkie with a backpack full of quarters.
5. BON IVER @ RED ROCKS | 5/31/12 "Justin Vernon's compositions are even more drastically transformed in concert; far from the sparse, layered, vocal-driven basement ballads of his recordings, they were suddenly huge swaths of arena-rock dynamics. There was a sort of engineered cacophony in Bon Iver's set that brilliantly became elegant as all the instruments blended in and out of each other, intermittently creating walls of sound or cutting out completely in favor of a spotlighted violin solo."
4. DELTRON 3030 @ CERVANTES' | 9/16/12 It's been nearly fifteen years since the release of Deltron 3030, the group's only effort until recently, and it still carries the same weight it did when it was originally played. Granted, in those fifteen years a lot has changed, but this album is a staple in most hip-hop heads' collections. Each track is beautifully crafted and tells of life as it happens in the future. Interpreted, it's sort of an Orwellian prophecy on the future of hip-hop with claims that "in the year 3030 everybody wants to be a DJ" -- which, if you examine our pop culture, happened about 1,018 years early. Del and Dan have still got it, and at Cervantes' they delivered a perfectly blended set of tracks off their first album along with some of the new tracks on the forthcoming Deltron Event II. As the set progressed, Del did his Del-thing and remained motionless between some tracks, catching his breath in order to focus on the next effort. As the set grew amplified, the energy followed suit.
3. REFUSED @ OGDEN THEATRE | 8/22/12 From the very beginning, we knew we were in for something special when we saw the name of the band spelled out in giant, translucent white letters as members of the band were taking stage. Before the curtain dropped, a low ambient swell coursed through the Ogden like a sense of building anticipation. When Refused were revealed and went right into "Worms of the Senses," it was like getting hit with a wave of inspiring energy that didn't really end until the show was over.
2. JEFF MANGUM at OGDEN THEATRE | 4/26/12 Jeff Mangum's voice took a toll on his audience, whose members swayed lazily and sweatily with palms over hearts and cell phones happily relegated to pockets. (Crowd-wide goosebumps broke out during the world's eeriest sing-along, hundreds of voices breathlessly in sync with Mangum's wail on "Two-Headed Boy.") And it took a different toll on its owner; by song ten, he had removed the throat spray from his khakis. By its followup, he was making sense of the night's end. At almost an hour on the dot, the set was everything it had to be and exactly nothing more, the kind of show where you wish you had someone to call in the middle if you could somehow just bring yourself to interrupt the spell and hold out your phone. But that action might have earned a frown from its inspiration.
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1. JACK WHITE @ ISDAJO AUTOMOTIVE | 8/8/12 "White, with his solo touring band, rolled through a thunderous cover of Dick Dale's "Misirlou" and a squealing, feedback-drenched rendition of the White Stripes classic "Ball and Biscuit," among other crowd-pleasers. The second White struck his final guitar chord and snapped a split-second "thank you" to the audience, he and his band quickly leaped into a nearby limo-bus and drove away, leaving a sweat-drenched crowd to gawk at each other, wide-eyed, mocking those who rode up just too late."