The Red Rocks lots were understandably mobbed before Friday night's sold-out STS9 show; the atmospheric improvisational group is always a huge draw in Denver, and the act proved why it continues to sell out shows on the first night of its two-night run. But first, Alex B of Pnuma Trio and the incomparable Thievery Corporation warmed up the crowd.
I arrived just as Alex B was wrapping up his set, but what I heard of it was gorgeous -- eerie ambient beats resonating from the unusual instrumentation. It took a few minutes to set up the stage for Thievery Corporation -- who have two percussionists, a guitarist, a bassist, a DJ and a sound engineer/live PA artist -- as well as a roster of five to seven vocalists who are part of the group, and other instruments that get thrown into the mix depending on the song.
The Corporation took the stage at 8:30 p.m. for their first-ever Red Rocks show since the group formed in 1996, and opened with "Mandala," in all its deep-bass-and-funky-tribal-drums glory. The guitar player snaked across the stage on his tiptoes while a sitarist twanged and allowed his instrument to sing through the melody. This merged into "Lebanese Blonde," the down-tempo grooves juicy and thick, before the band played "Shadows of Ourselves," a song sung in French.
Thievery Corporation is equal parts '70s funk, reggae, down-tempo/trip-hop, world and hip-hop, blended effortlessly together via the sound engineer. The outfit always brings the energy when it plays; 99 percent of the crowd around me was dancing furiously as the group played songs like "Until the Morning," "The Numbers Game," the blissed-out down-tempo French number "La Femme Parallel," "All That We Perceive," "Hare Krishna," "Exilio (Exile)," "Vampires" and "The Heart's Lonely Hunger" before finishing off with "Warning Shots," which included a sample from J-Kwon's "Tipsy."
You never know where Thievery Corporation is headed next, and whether the act is singing in French, Spanish, English or some other language, the audience is equally engaged and shaking ass to those sweet, funky grooves. The group put on a fabulous show every time that's a pleasure to watch. And it's damn near impossible to keep still while the music is playing. The set was over too soon, but Theivery got the crowd going for STS9.
The set change took about half an hour, understandable considering the ridiculous number of instruments and equipment used by both Thievery Corporation and STS9. Red lights splashed over the stage while STS9 opened with an array of computerized nonsense: Children's voices and mechanical noises making it sound, indeed, as though we were tuning into a radio station barely accessible from Earth.
The group's ambient, deceptively simple grooves are upheld by the deep bass lines, paring everything down to basics. The bass and drummers keep STS9 from venturing into New Age Yanni territory -- but just barely. The trance-y keyboards, up-and-down beeps and atmospheric tones work best together when the group allows one member to break out into more complex melodies.
It's a great show to watch: The fractals and kaleidoscope on the giant screen create seriously trippy patterns in tune with the music. That said, I almost felt sorry for STS9 having to follow such an uplifted, energetic group as Thievery Corporation. There's an element that STS9 is just missing -- a groove, a funk, an edge, the lack of which continually prevents them from being flat-out amazing and keeps them in the merely "good" category.
Still, the light show is truly spectacular, and when combined with the driving beats and old-school techno effects, it's easy to see why the group attracts such a following. They play well together, trading off melodies and rhythms, allowing one member to lead the collective before another member takes over.
Each musician is superb on his own and sounds best when weaving in spooky noises -- like a haunted-house organ sound -- instead of the traditional tranced-out keyboard effects used for most of the songs. The guitar lines are ballad-worthy and searing, mixed with booming, hardcore bass and squealing beeps. If this band could be said to play a type of electronic music, it would be almost entirely trance, with a little bit of electro thrown in for good measure when the outfit is really doing things well.
In summary: It's very mechanical, predictable music, super-synthesized and not always (or even usually) very interesting. Where Thievery Corporation takes you on a journey to places you've never even heard of before, to me, listening to STS9 play is like getting really excited to embark on an ultimately disappointing adventure: You're ready to go and psyched to see where you'll end up, but at the end of the day, you realize that you never actually left the parking lot where you boarded the bus.
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Still, there's a certain crowd that loves STS9 -- evidenced by their ability to sell out Red Rocks the last few times they've played -- and the group managed to keep the fans they had, who thoroughly enjoyed dancing to the meandering-without-actually-going-anywhere tunes; their set lasted into the early hours of the morning, and attendees were noodle-dancing just as devotedly toward the end as they did when STS9 first took the stage. There's certainly something to be said for that level of devotion, even when you don't share the taste of the devotees.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Thievery Corporation is one of my all-time favorite musical groups; I especially love watching them play live, and I listen to their albums all the time. By contrast, I couldn't name a single STS9 song if pressed. Maybe I just listen to too much dark, dirty electronic music and funky downtempo to truly appreciate STS9 ...
Random Detail: To the girl in Row 24 who made me give her a hug in exchange for letting me pass by: You made my night.
By the Way: During the switch between Thievery Corporation and STS9, the screen that creates the trippy light displays behind STS9 was ordering, in tall white letters across a black background, "No Laser Pointers Please." Is that a big problem at STS9 shows?