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Last night: Punk Rocks at Red Rocks

Punk Rocks: Offspring, Alkaline Trio, The Vandals, Street Dogs, Frontside Five
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Better than:
Attending a purported punk festival at the Pepsi Center.

It was an unlikely forum for a punk show. Red Rocks Amphitheater isn't the first venue that pops into my mind when I think of an ideal setting for a live punk experience. Indeed, the amphitheater's airy expanses and grandiose feel almost contradict what I've always thought of as some of the fundamental ingredients of a good punk performance. But while there was no cramped club and no densely packed dance floor, the quintet of bands managed to make the most of the spacious setting. I'll admit, some of the musical dynamics of the show did seem a bit forced and somewhat inept for the epic ambience of Red Rocks. But the groups ultimately succeeded in filling the grand space of the theater and engaging the thousands of audience members in attendance. This overall success was aided in part by the diversity of the lineup. While the roster of performers included the Vandals, a group as defiantly old-school punk as you can get, many of the other acts offered music that diverged from a strict definition of the genre. While the Street Dogs, the Alkaline Trio and the Offspring's music boasts speedy cadences, distorted tones and confrontational lyrics, their sounds also include a poppier appeal. It's a quality that's lent for no small amount of commercial success for both of the groups.

While this element helped the performance fit the venue and win over the diverse crowd (I saw a sampling from all age ranges in the audience), it made the show's title seem a bit hollow.
Sure, the sounds on display had some ingredients of punk genre to offer. Sure, the bigger name groups included plenty of iconoclastic attitude in their performance - heck, they even snarled a few times. But at too many moments, the music seemed too commercialized, too stadium-friendly to qualify as true punk.

Denver-based quartet Frontside Five opened the evening with their frenzied rhythms and energetic choruses. I arrived late in the set, and when I finally found a seat and settled down for the show, the band was finishing up their final tune, "Skate to Hell." While I didn't get to catch their entire set, the group set a solid foundation for the rest of the evening. The audience, which was still trickling in as they wrapped up its set, responded quickly and enthusiastically to the native Denver band on the mainstage.

What's more, Frontside Five's fusion of varied punk rock elements would serve as a fitting preview for the main acts that would follow. Songs like "Skate to Hell" and "Killing Time" included the old-school attitude that was so abundantly clear in the Vandals' performance as well as some of the more modern, skate-punk and hardcore elements that marked the Alkaline Trio and Offspring performances. What's more, the band made an early effort to engage their crowd, a push that would find a parallel in the exhortations from the lead players for the Street Dogs.

The effort was buoyed by the band's energetic sound, but also by the members' engaging chemistry. Vocalist Brandon Stoltz, bassist Brooke Crawford and guitarist Shane Henry did an especially impressive job in building up the energy early in the evening, trading speedy licks and reaching out to the growing crowd. It was gratifying to see a Denver band set such an enthusiastic mood at the beginning of the night, and also showed why the Frontside Five was asked back to the main stage after their appearance at last year's Punk Rocks festival.

Frontside weren't the only local representatives of the punk scene to contribute during the show; the 3 Kings Stage at the other end of the amphitheater saw input from local bands Forth Yeer Freshmen, Boldtype, the Outta Controllers and Red Stinger.

The effort to encourage audience involvement was almost immediately taken up by Boston-based Street Dogs. The quintet made a quick effort to involve the audience and build up the feel of a small punk show. Indeed, Street Dogs lead singer Mike McColgan made several direct appeals to the crowd to raise their fists, to sing along and to dance in their seats - even if meant only hopping. "We know this is a big stadium, but this is a punk rock show. Make no mistake about it," McColgan declared before the band broke into "Final Transmission." Tunes like "Toby's Got a Drinking Problem" and "Not Without a Purpose" included enough speedy riffs and incendiary lyrics to help set the night's defiant musical mood. At the same time, the songs were approachable enough to lure any novice to the genre - a middle-aged man who was attending the show with his teenage sons declared there was enough of a traditional aesthetic in Street Dogs' sound to appeal to his classic rock tastes.

While the sounds of Street Dogs seemed to offer some concessions to commercialism, the Vandals' subsequent set flaunted the band's punk purity. For a band that helped define the second wave of punk in the 1980s, the group has lost none of its confrontational energy, nor its apparent determination to rile feathers. This callback to the music's early day made the evening feel more authentic, and also provided some of the most enjoyable moments of the evening. Lead singer Dave Quackenbush mocked the grand scope of the setting ("Who built a concert stadium out here in the fucking mountains," he wheezed at one point), while finding time to skewer pop punk like Blink 182 between songs.

The roster of tunes stood as a journey through the band's almost thirty-year history, and included "And Now We Dance," "Oy to the World" and "Anarchy Burger." They even included a cover of "America, Fuck Yeah," the theme song from the film Team America. Quackenbush, along with guitarist Warren Fitzgerald and bassist Joe Escalante, set a tone that was simultaneously synchronized and chaotic during the set, alternating between confrontational humor and breakneck musicianship. Their pure energy seemed to shrink the size of Red Rock's grand setting; Fitzgerald turned "Don't Stop Me Now" into an aerobic exercise, clambering on top of amplifiers and performing an acrobatic dance.

While the two acts that followed might have outdone the Vandals in terms of stagecraft, they didn't match their manic energy or their faithful adherence to the tenets of old-school punk.
The Alkaline Trio served as an appropriate transition between the grittier sounds of the Vandals and the more radio-friendly feel of the night's headliner, the Offspring. Songs like "If We Never Go Inside," "Private Eye" and "Found a Way" engaged parts of the crowd who hadn't heard the Vandals before, or who had been put off by their antics. The Trio's performance was more straightforward, both in term of tunes and in terms of stage presence. Matt Skiba, Derek Grant and Dan Andriano stayed rooted in their spots, with Skiba and Andriano exchanging turns on lyrics. While the Alkaline Trio did include a tribute to the forebears of the punk genre in their cover of the Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away," their sound was much more pop than punk. What's more, the large-scale scope of the venue detracted from their performance, which seems more apt in a smaller club setting.

While the Offspring's set boasted a similar amount of commercial appeal, the band managed to fit the demands of Red Rock's large size much better. By the time the band went on at about 9:30 p.m., the full crowd had arrived and it seemed as if most audience members were there to specifically see the headlining act. The band did not let the masses down. Lead singer and guitarist Dexter Holland led the group through a consistent set of the band's most popular songs, including "Total Immortal," "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)" and "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)," the sound of the audience singing along was audible.

The band still found chances to mix up the formula. Holland took the stage solo for a piano performance of "Gone Away," and the group took up some acoustic instruments for "Kristy, Are You Doing OK" and "Spare Me the Details." The group maintained a constant energy for all the instrument shifts - specifically, rhythm guitarist Noodles kept up a rapport with the crowd the culminated in a compliment to the Denver audience during the encore.

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"This is the fucking sexiest crowd we've played to all year!" Noodles averred right before the band broke into its finale performance of "Self Esteem." The crowd ate up the compliment with raucous cheers, and the subsequent performance of one of the band's biggest songs was spot-on.

But as the masses sang along and the Offspring seemed to go through the motions again for one of its top selling hits, I couldn't help but thinking, "This isn't very punk rock." And an image from earlier in the night of the Vandals' Warren Fitzgerald climbing on the speaker deck and balancing on the guardrails during "Don't Stop Me Now" suddenly popped into my mind. It seemed a much more authentic moment, one that worked in Red Rocks' large setting, but one that would have been just as appropriate in a small, stinky punk club in the late 1970s.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: When I was in high school, I played the video game Crazy Taxi a lot. I mean a lot. When the Offspring played "All I Want," a song that was featured prominently in the game's soundtrack, I got hit with an especially stirring sense of nostalgia for my awkward, teenage years.
Random Detail: In addition to the Alkaline Trio's cover of "The KKK Took My Baby Away," the night included another tribute to the Ramones: the Street Dogs' Mike McColgan revealed a Ramones t-shirt for the band's last song and declared that the band "invented punk rock."
By the Way: The Vandals bemoaned the lack of a dance floor at Red Rocks.

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