It's 4/20 weekend on Colfax. The Replacements just finished a set at the Fillmore, and there didn't seem to be much in the way of carousing. Other than some curious daytime rush-hour action, Denver's streets were pretty mellow and mild, with temperatures in the 40s when the time for the Sleep show came along.
In the Company of Serpents, the excellent Denver-based doom band, opened the show alongside the death-grind Primitive Man. The latter's sound seems to be flowing in a more atmospheric yet no less heavy and abrasive direction. And the crowd seemed to be into both groups in a way that was refreshing to see. Some groups of people are there to see the headliner and don't care about the opening acts.
Two truly noteworthy local openers and then a legendary headliner: That is the stuff great shows are made of. What seemed really intangible at first but became increasingly apparent as the night went on was that, coming into the show, people were surprisingly polite. Even as it seemed crowded, for the most part it wasn't difficult to navigate around and find a good spot inside the Ogden. Yes, some people got a little stupid down front for part of the set, but it was out of enthusiasm and not malice, and it didn't last the whole show. After all, it's a little difficult to keep some low-rent circle pit going for an hour and 46 minutes.
The last time I saw Sleep, it was high comedy, seeing how many people had to be dragged out of the room from overindulging in cannabis and other substances. Going into this show as someone who has been sober all his life, I was anticipating a body count on the intoxication express out of the Ogden Theatre. But this time, there didn't seem to be the same degree of amateur-hour chemical excess that made that first Sleep show in Colorado following the legalization of cannabis for recreational use such a circus. Which is too bad for some people, who will talk about seeing Sleep but not seeing Sleep one day the way some people saw Hendrix but remember nothing because they were too altered at the time.
Were a lot of people high on something at the show? Probably. But it seemed like more people were there to genuinely enjoy the music. The last Sleep show in town was January 3, 2014 — a Friday. This was a Sunday night. While 4/20 seems to be some kind of holiday for some people, most people have to go to work the next day, and getting obliterated, even for the occasion of a Sleep show on 4/20 itself (Sleep started the set at 12:01 a.m.) wasn't really in the plans for many of the people that showed up. That the show went until 1:48 a.m. was enough of breaking work curfew for a lot of people, and adding getting fucked up on top of that? Some could probably do that, but not everyone. The result was a relatively low-key but enthusiastic show on the crowd's end.
From the stage, Sleep seemed so focused. As the godfathers of modern "stoner" and "sludge" metal, you might be excused for assuming the music would be a little sloppy, but that was never Sleep's thing. The exhilarating onslaughts of intertwining rhythms between guitar, bass and drums happened, as did the slow, drawn-out passages of the various sections of Dopesmoker. But amid all of this, you could see Matt Pike, Al Cisneros and Jason Roeder looking at each other and keying into the song with perfect timing and fluidity. Everyone got to shine, and no one got buried.
The sound of the band is legendarily monolithic and crushingly heavy, but at this show there seemed to be an emphasis on the elegance and diversity of dynamics and tones that has set these guys apart from so many of their peers over time. It's not just hard and heavy, and the band's songwriting has long had an appeal for anyone who appreciates music that dares to go beyond the tropes of the genre. On the surface, it's something like Black Sabbath and St. Vitus worship. But as with those bands, there's more here than just dark, bluesy riffs. Cisneros and Roeder often play rhythms that are not the standard 4/4 blues-rock fare. Pike's proclivity for establishing a rhythm and then bringing together seemingly disparate tones on the guitar also establish that psychological space you're used to hearing in African music. But you don't have to be consciously aware of that to enjoy a great, hypnotic groove that takes you on a journey.
Even leaving this show seemed to be less of an ordeal than usual, and there wasn't an ambulance with lights going off outside as proof that things got out of hand with the substances. You could smell the obligatory weed you smell at any concert, but it wasn't a fog bank of the stuff like one might have expected at this show in particular. There weren't too many over-partying, wild people at this show tonight, thankfully bucking expectations.
Bias: Before I got back into metal after more than a decade hiatus, I was still into bands like Neurosis, Isis and Sleep because it's a little different.
Random Detail: Ran into former Nicotine Fits and Conjugal Visits singer Pete Sisson at the show.
By the Way: Of the three times I've been able to see Sleep, this was the best one, because it seemed both focused and loose at the same time, thus giving the performance a freshness that comes from experience and ease between musicians.
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.