Monolith, Day Two September 15, 2007 Red Rocks Better than: Another boring workout on the Stairmaster with your iPod
The first thing everyone has mentioned about Monolith so far is those infernal stairs. I, too, sweated and panted my way up the ramp into the park, then up that interminable staircase to the New Belgium stage, then down the back stairs to the WOXY and Rock Room stages, and, yes, it was hard. However, my friends, we live in Colorado. Suck it up. If you spend each spare moment crammed into dingy rock clubs and never manage to get out into the natural beauty of our state, where you find yourself winded from the thin air and exertion rather than from your 16th Parliament of the day, then shame on you, shame on me, and shame on us all. We owe a debt of gratitude to the good folks of Monolith for reminding us of the unyielding and unconquerable grandeur of the Rockies. We should count ourselves lucky to live in its shadow.
While we’re at it, let’s count ourselves lucky to be hosting a festival like Monolith, which was executed far better than I’d ever imagined and which was so much fun to be a part of. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was skeptical about the logistics and sound quality of multiple stages in that setting, but the reality was remarkably successful. I especially enjoyed the inside-outside aspect, which – along with the capacious tent next to the New Belgium Stage – prevented Monolith from being another sunstroke fiesta. If any of the festival’s five stages was lacking, it was the Main Stage, which was just far too big for most of the day’s performers. It can’t have been fun for bands like Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s -- who are likely accustomed to playing tiny, packed clubs -- to look up and see most of the amphitheaters seats empty. The other stages, however, were well-conceived and sounded great. Even the Acoustic Stage -- which was situated right at the South Gate, so that everyone approaching from the south lots had to cross in front or stop to enjoy the artists -- looked and sounded phenomenal.
Speaking of the Acoustic Stage, I was excited to begin my day with Gregory Alan Isakov and the Freight in their opening slot at the unrocking hour of 2 p.m. The crew, including violinist Jeb Bows, drummer Jen Gilleran and a cellist, played Isakov’s moody Americana with intensity and commitment. Gilleran, who usually favors a cajon in place of a bass drum, commanded a full rock drum kit to crowd-pleasing effect, and set the tone for slightly more rock-oriented interpretations of the songwriter’s often spare, haunting and emotive tunes. Though Laylights’ sound from the New Belgium Stage occasionally threatened to overtake Isakov, the outfit kept the audience rapt with its honest and passionate performance.
After Isakov’s set, I skittered up the aforementioned staircase of death -- wondering which drunken hipster would be first to faceplant on the unforgiving stone -- to catch Bob Log III’s set. If it’s ever acceptable to chatter during a music performance, it’s at an outdoor festival, so I took this opportunity to catch up with friends under the tent while enjoying BL3’s impressive performance. (Check out Jon Solomon’s blog for a review).
After the Log, it was time to return to the Acoustic Stage for Tim Barry, whom most folks know as the lead singer of DC-area hardcore band, Avail. Barry’s acoustic incarnation takes cues from a lineage that stretches from Steve Earle back to Woody Guthrie, with plenty of punk indignation and honesty. At one point during his heartfelt set, the singer-songwriter apologized for getting “all emo,” but his style couldn’t have been further from the mewling masses who have adopted that epithet in recent years. In fact, Barry looked as if he could down a fifth of bad bourbon, eat Chris Carrabba whole, and then sit down to write a beautiful song on his road-weary guitar. He was joined on stage by his sister on violin and guitarist Josh Small -- a Suburban Home labelmate and impressive singer-songwriter in his own right. The three musicians rocked a forceful combination of country, blues and folk, while Barry’s gruff, unapologetic lyrics suggested an upbeat Bukowski. The artist introduced several songs by simply saying, “Here’s another song I wrote at work.” This underscored the artist’s blue-collar esthetic, though he later admitted that his job is driving trucks for a ballet company. “I love ballet,” he declared, almost defensively.
After Barry, I caught a few uninspired songs from Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s and then an infectiously inspired set by the irrepressible Matt & Kim. (Check Sean Cronin’s blog for more on this duo’s exuberant electro geek-fest). Let’s just say the cute-as-kittens Brooklyn pair made me want to break out those Atom & His Package records again.
Riding Matt & Kim’s wave of musical bliss, I careened down the back stairs and found my way to the aptly-named Rock Room for a dose of Nathan & Stephen’s brand of melodic ecstasy. The grinning ten-piece -- dressed, as usual, in matching outfits -- played a little sloppily, but made up for their technical gaffes with irresistible alacrity and flawless pop songs that had most of the packed room singing and smiling along. This was my first time catching the group with new drummer, Jared Black (who was in Black Black Ocean with Stephen Till), and I was thoroughly delighted with the energy he added to the show.
While the Rock Room was packed elbows-to-earholes, the WOXY Stage was even more crowded for the White Rabbits’ darkly dramatic performance. The presence of two full drum kits -- and two drummers to man them -- gave the New York sextet an impressive appearance, but it was the music that really carried this affecting set. It was almost distracting to try to keep track of dueling vocalists Greg Roberts and Steve Patterson, as well as the flying limbs that were drummers Matt Clark and Jamie Levinson, but since my status as a height-challenged American rendered the band mostly invisible, I was able to focus simply on the chiaroscuro beauty of the outfit’s note-perfect renditions of the playful-yet-foreboding tunes from its debut record, Fort Nightly.
I had to fight my way out of the Rock Room, up the back stairs, and back down the main staircase to catch Art Brut’s act, but it was well worth the struggle. Eddie Argos and crew ripped through a long set of tracks -- drawn from their two fantastic LPs -- with bar-band abandon and a heaping helping of curmudgeonly hipster-hating. One of Argos’s many improvised interludes found the Bournemouth-born speak-singer riffing on a theme from “Formed a Band,” calling for more records to be placed in video game and DVD stores rather than the current, opposite trend. The cavernous amphitheater began to fill in anticipation of superstars Spoon and Flaming Lips, but much of the crowd seemed to be Art Brut adherents, shouting Argos’s cheeky lyrical barbs right back at him and matching his zeal. During the glorious “Modern Art,” the far-from-athletic ringleader ventured deeply into the audience, abandoning his microphone to simply shout the song’s chorus through his cupped hands, and returned to the stage visibly strained. Though Art Brut pretends to be aloof and indifferent, its performance last night was anything but, as the quintet attacked its songs with ardor, anger and expert musicianship.
Though I had to leave before the big names took the Main Stage, I felt more than satisfied by the seven impressive performances I was able to catch. Kudos to all the performers and to Monolith’s organizers for making the day an unqualified success. -- Eryc Eyl
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Critic’s Notebook Personal Bias: Too many to count, in this case, but it’s worth mentioning that Art Brut has been in heavy, heavy rotation on my hard drive for the past few months, largely due to “Pump Up the Volume,” an infectious tune about choosing between heavy petting and the transcendent pleasures of pop music.
Random Detail: As I made my way out of the Main Stage area, I overheard a festival-goer say to his friend, “This is the exact spot where I once met Stephen Malkmus from Pavement’s guitar tech.” Talk about a brush with almost-greatness.
By the Way: You can catch Gregory Alan Isakov later this week as part of A Moveable Feast at the Walnut Room. Meanwhile, Art Brut will be returning to Colorado in November for back-to-back Boulder and Denver gigs with the Hold Steady, a match made in erudite rock-n-roll heaven.