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Cage the Elephant's Antics Wear Thin at Red Rocks

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With the lights of Denver in the background and Red Rocks’ iconic natural beauty surrounding him, 31-year-old Kentuckian Matthew Shultz shook and spun and generally ran around the stage last night as his Southern alt-rock band, Cage the Elephant, entertained a sold-out young crowd. The former construction worker and plumber, who has said he discovered punk music a few years after Cage the Elephant (with its southern-fried 2008 blues-funk single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”) became famous, showed a smidgen of raw power a la Iggy Pop while racing around the big Red Rocks stage and into the crowd. However, Cage the Elephant’s inherently pop sensibilities ultimately made Shultz’s act – preening haphazardly like he and his mic stand might both fall over and break at any moment – look mostly like a Some Girls-era Mick Jagger fronting Bush.

Unlike the night’s co-headliner, the sweetly dark Alaska psych-pop outfit Portugal. The Man, Cage the Elephant portends an element of danger in their live performances. You know: Axl Rose might jump into the audience and punch you out; Rose might also decide an audience member looked at him the wrong way and call it a night; G.G. Allin might defecate and throw it around; Glenn Danzig might grab, and toss, your smartphone if you take his photo; and the baby-faced Shultz, a stagehand frantically following him around to give the microphone cord slack, might get too close and bob his shaggy hair in your face.

About that stagehand – he’s a busy guy. With how much exercise Shultz gets running all over during Cage the Elephant shows, his stagehand’s job – making sure Shultz’s extra-long microphone cord doesn’t get stuck on a monitor or elsewhere – appears not unlike a cat following a string it will never catch. Multiple people around me wondered aloud why a band co-headlining Red Rocks doesn’t have access to a cordless microphone, but the consensus was that it’s all part of the show, ostensibly part of the “danger” façade.

Portugal. The Man, however, played a set that was relatively reserved and refined, its best songs, such as “Modern Jesus“ and “All
Your Light,” mysteriously beamed somewhere between Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral” and tastes of Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.”

The moment it hit me that the aforementioned creatively dark combination equals T. Rex, Portugal. The Man wowed the capacity Red Rocks audience with a patient, gratifying Phish-esque jam into T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution,” simultaneously giving the metaphorical light bulb over my head a soundtrack. It also made me feel old – for the thousands of teens in the audience, Cage the Elephant’s sing-along performance of its claim to fame (“Aint No Rest for the Wicked”) no doubt seemed like a window into classic rock.

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK?

Personal Bias: When my show-mate and I saw a young man with a baseball cap over an obvious gaping head wound, blood running down his face as he nonchalantly balanced two beers and a hotdog while walking up the challenging Red Rocks stairs before the Mowgli’s early set, it was a little tough to focus on the music. When he sat down, the guy’s friends didn’t even say anything at first, as if it was normal for him to return from grabbing pre-show beers looking like “Massive Headwound Harry.” Eventually I was convinced they’d taken him to find assistance.

Random Detail: Frank Zappa’s “I Could Be a Star Now” famously said of rock ‘n’ roll, “In this business you either gotta play the blues or sing with a high voice.” Needless to say, Cage the Elephant does not play the blues, and Shultz’s soaring voice (even higher than that of Portugal’s John Baldwin Gourey) sounds remarkably similar to that of Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken, just less soulful and extraordinary. It’s as if McMicken was raised on Ray Charles and the Dead Milkmen and Shultz was raised on Ray Charles and Fall Out Boy.

By The Way: Cage the Elephant’s jangly 2014 single “Cigarette Daydreams” – with its “looking for the answers in the pouring rain” chorus – sounded downright meaningful and magical at Red Rocks. But doesn’t everything? Maybe; but no, I’m not testing that theory by going to see Ed Sheeran later this month.

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