This Weekend: Monolith Festival @ Red Rocks, Friday, September 14

Monolith festival, Day One September 14, 2007 Red Rocks Amphitheatre Better than: Any other reason to climb roughly sixty thousand stairs.

There are a lot of stairs at Red Rocks. Usually, once you make it through the grueling hike into the place, you’re done. You settle into a spot and maybe take a riser or two up or down to grab a beer. Monolith demanded more. With five stages spread throughout the venue, it made for painful treks up and down hundreds of stairs mandatory to get the full experience. And despite the aching feet and back, the experience was worth it.

Stopping to catch my breath once I made it in, I caught the start of a set from Everything Absent or Distorted (a Love Story) on the main stage. The band looked and sounded right at home on the big stage, and, as usual, the bombastic pop sound put a smile on my face. As much fun as it would have been to sit and listen, I had to head to the singer-songwriter stage to catch Ian Cooke (above).

There wasn’t really anyone around when I got there, but at almost the precisely the moment Cooke was to go on, a respectable crowd materialized. With his cello, voice and a little help from a sampling/delay effects unit, Cooke held them spellbound. Smart, funny lyrics and great playing were evident throughout, but the highlights were “Vasoon,” a song built around a word Cooke thought was real but turned out not to be, and “Rot,” a tour-de-force performance built around layers of loops built in real time.

My next official stop was Born in the Flood, but with hours to spare I played the part of the average festival goer, wandering around sampling various stages. Finally tired of walking up and down stairs I sat down to watch Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who played most of the best material from its debut album, with a few tracks off the new one thrown in. The songs sounded good and the band was pretty tight, but the sarcastic, coy “I’m bored” undertones to the stage patter were kind of a turn off.

Born in the Flood played inside to a packed room. As usual, its set was awesome -- harness that energy and you can power a city. There were a few miscues and the odd technical problem but it did nothing to derail the show. From the opening notes to the last echoing throb of distortion, it was searing, balls-out rock and roll that left me in awe, not to mention sweaty and bouncing off the walls with newfound energy. Halfway through the day, Born in the Flood was my second wind.

Another long, long walk put me in front of Bela Karoli. The set was a shift down in energy from Born in the Flood’s rock apotheosis, but it didn’t suffer for it. Three women on standup bass, accordion and violin, plus a CD player delivering some trip-hop beats made space and time disappear for while. It was a beautiful, captivating and sultry set of sci-fi cabaret gypsy folk with a literate twist. And it made the accordion sexy, something I thought impossible.

Cake finished the night, but was anticlimactic at best. To give proper credit, the band delivered a solid, journeyman performance and played most of its best material, but it all seemed airless, bloodless and unengaged. It sounded too comfortable, too rote -- a little bored even. Cake has always been about dry wit and cleverness, always cultivated an aura of cool detachment, but there is a thin line between cool and dispassionate and they crossed the line.

A quick take on the stuff I took a quick listen to:

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club sounded and looked like a Jesus and Mary Chain tribute band -- albeit a good one.

30h!3 didn’t really impress me with its electroclash-tinged hip hop for and by privileged white kids. No, thank you.

The Decemberists are a band I’ve never paid attention to, but the half dozen songs I heard made me think maybe I should. It was a little twee, but enjoyable, and the quality songcraft was immediately apparent.

Cat-A-Tac suffered through a bad mix that seemed to throw them off their game a bit.

The Editors didn’t do a lot for me. Despite sounding fairly solid, it was a little too derivative. The friend I was chatting with called it best: Interpol meets Bloc Party -- uh, no, please.

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band had a great, wild-eyed hick look and shtick and an interesting, jug band punk-folk sound, but I was headed elsewhere and they failed to dissuade me from getting there.-- Cory Casciato

Critic’s Notebook

Personal Bias: I don’t love festivals. Too much going on to really absorb anything. Random Detail: I was there alone, but ran into someone I knew roughly every twenty minutes over the eight hours I was there.

By the Way: The local bands got a lot of love, in the form of substantial audiences, despite the draw of big-name touring acts. Good job, Denver!

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