The opening act of that show, busking-heroes-turned-protest-marching-band Brothers of Brass, made it through most of its set, and the group got to pay homage to Krishnaswami Ramachandran Azad, a member who died earlier this year. The sky cried, lightning raged, and the crowd and musicians chanted "Black Lives Matter" — but then the venue shut down for the night.
Flobots fans wandered back to their cars, playing the classic “Handlebars” on iPhone speakers.
A few weeks later, Flobots returned and opened Fourth of July weekend with a powerful take on what the United States has been at its worst and could be at its best. The timing of this July 2 show couldn’t have been better; it should become an annual tradition at Levitt.
So many Independence Day celebrations are jingoistic displays of grotesque nationalism, paying tribute to the ghosts of long-dead slave owners without a blink. These festivities ignore centuries of brutality and struggles for justice. Orchestras blast militaristic music, drowning out the dream of a good life for all, one not built on the backs and graves of the oppressed. The powerful bulldoze the powerless out of the narrative, distracting us with sparklers, hot dogs and a case of beer. Fireworks splatter the sky. Happy Fourth of July, kids. Isn't America grand?
But on July 2, Flobots fans heard something radically different, something that people across the country should be able to get behind, regardless of identity. Work toward joy, witness each other, and care for those who suffer. Rise up and grasp our collective power. Embrace each other’s humanity — imperfections and all. Fight injustice with tools. Wrestle with hard ideas and complexity through the power of art. Lift up the power of the people. And be happy together — as the band, joined by a few members of Brothers of Brass, sang in its finale, a remix of the Turtles classic “Happy Together."
Happy together? Why not? We were happy together all night long; maybe the country could work that way, too — if we learned to share and show enough humility to listen to each other.
The evening started with Denver’s revolutionary hip-hop act 2MX2, accompanied by the powerful singing of Jon Shockness, aka Kid Astronaut, and Flobots masterful monster of a drummer, Kenny O, delivering danceable messages of solidarity, anti-capitalist resistance and eco-justice — in English and Spanish. Lolita sang her banger, “Toda Mi Gente,” an anti-fascist anthem written during the Trump years. Then, to beats produced by DMD, she and fellow rappers Owen Trujillo and Juice E.T. Hugo pumped up the crowd, teased Flobots’ set, garnered cheers and reminded us all why it’s great to be alive and struggling — even when things are bleak.
The rising band took a break, and Kid Astronaut sang a riveting single from his soon-to-drop album. Once again, he showed himself to be one of the city’s most talented artists, an under-recognized voice capable of tapping deeply into our existential angst and the struggles we have to connect.
Then the members of 2MX2 returned, and with loose choreography and wide grins, they led us toward liberation through dance.
Flobots were gonna follow that? Good luck, I thought.
But from the moment that Kenny O, backing singers and sisters Larae Edwards and Chrissy Grant of the gospel group Spirit of Grace, violinist and violist Sarah Hubbard, trumpeter Joe Ferrone and bassist Sean Blanchard took the stage, Flobots turned Levitt into a space of ecstasy, a place to embrace our power, rise up and make this world just.
Stephen Brackett, aka Brer Rabbit, opened the set with all the fire of an old-time preacher, reciting the opening lines on the first track of the band’s album Fight With Tools, “There’s a War on Your Mind,” and ensuring that nobody in the crowd thought they were at some concert where they could sit back and groove to the music. Flobots was on stage to challenge us, to upend our entire worldview, to push us to see where we are flawed and wounded, to forgive and engage ourselves and others about those flaws. And then to "stop the apocalypse," as the members chanted.
When Jamie Laurie, aka Jonny 5, came on stage and began rapping, “Stand up, we shall not be moved. Except by a child with no socks and shoes,” the crowd went into a frenzy that burned through the night and lingered even as we walked to our cars after the show. And with good reason. Yes, Brackett and Laurie are rigorous thinkers, emotionally engaged and committed to change, and they demand — and inspire — the same from fans. But the revolutionary musicianship of the band, the magnetism of the backing singers, and even the venue’s mastery of lighting and sound brought all the power of the holy spirit to Levitt, moving the crowd to wake up, to feel, to connect with each other, to witness others and be witnessed themselves.
“America is a beautiful contradiction,” preached Bracket. “It is a dream...it is a curse.” Changing anything for the better is impossible, as he explained it, if we can’t embrace that contradiction. We are on stolen land, he continued, noting that some in the crowd were descendants of people who were enslaved. Meanwhile, most of the largely white crowd could have come from ancestors who owned or even fought for slavery. All were welcome to examine themselves, unite and struggle together.
Clashing over ideological differences on Facebook is a waste of time, Brackett added. Flobots has discovered a better way: through song and art made in community. While Brackett acknowledged that Flobots is not a band that generally covers other people’s music, he used this sermon about embracing contradiction to introduce a medley of songs, many of which are often misinterpreted as patriotic jingoism.
There was the radical anti-fascist Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Juanita Dominguez’s Chicano movement anthem “Yo Soy Chicano,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The mix also included the labor classic “Which Side Are You On,” in which Laurie rapped about the struggles of Amazon workers, U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up,” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” The covers put Flobots’ own work in the tradition of political musicians of the past, all pointing toward tomorrow.
Hubbard, Flobots’ charismatic string-player, bowed a wizardly attack on “The Star-Spangled Banner” that nodded to all the complexity and fury Jimi Hendrix brought to the song when he performed it at Woodstock, but also hinted at Appalachian music and Eastern European stylizations. Few on earth have mastered their instruments as well as Hubbard, grabbing a crowd with their sound and whirling it around with frenetic musical twists that turn into euphoria.
Yet in Flobots, she's far from alone. No performer held back. They all put every ounce of sweat and energy and love and rage onto the stage, sharing it with us. Ferrone’s magnificent trumpet drew us in, embellishing on the poetics of Brackett and Laurie, providing all of the gravity words fail to capture. And through Guerrero’s guitar, O’s drums, Blanchard’s bass and the backing vocals of Edwards and Grant, this Flobots show became epic, bridging anthem rock, spoken-word, hip-hop, gospel, mountain music, revolutionary jazz, punk and more.
There are plenty of bands out there that talk about spanning genres; very few do so within one bar of the same song. But Flobots did. With an explosive and endless clash of cultural ideas, musical styles and contradictions within political discourse, the band created an anarchic dialectic, a fireworks of the political imagination, revealing a possible future for this country that is at once inclusive of difference, willing to wrangle with hard ideas and personal failure, and unwilling to push out people because they — no, we — are flawed.
Flobots created a big-tent revival with a big-tent vision of a United States in which Christianity and patriotism are dedicated toward neither colonization nor persecution, but harnessed to take us toward a much more noble cause.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.