Mile High Music Fest Live Blog, Day One

Holy mother of God! It is hotter than July out here at the Mile High Music Fest. Oh, right, it is July. Let me put this another way: Imagine being trapped in a port-o-let in the middle of a Texas inferno. Yeah. It's like that, only hotter. I can literally see the water seeping out of my pores as fast as I drink it. Believe it or not, though, like jumping into an ice cold pool, after a while, the shock subsides and your body totally adjusts. It's amazing. After a veritable technological meltdown (curse you, Sprint wireless card!), we're finally up and running.

Who: Meniskus When/Where: Bison Tent Stage, 11:15 a.m. The very first slot at a festival can be a lonely one. If it’s before noon, forget about it. Everyone is still nursing their hangovers at 11:15 in the morning. The crowd that showed up to see local act Meniskus was indeed fairly sparse, but the band took to their thankless task like pros, giving off plenty of energy for the crowd to absorb. Thanks to an array of effects pedals, they build quite a muscular sound out of just drums, acoustic guitar and violin, and the result brings to mind any number of arena-rock acts past and present (I heard, in particular, the Police, Dave Matthews Band, and Muse) without sounding too much like any of them. While I can’t say they did a whole lot for me, they’ve hit on a sound both unique enough and crowd-pleasing enough that I can see them making a name for themselves here in Denver. -- Kyle Smith

Who: Meese When/Where: Main Stage, 12:15 p.m. Meese was the first band up on the mainstage. Surprisingly, the hometown act played to a very healthy and exuberant crowd. This set marked Meese's first local outing in quite some time. While you'd think the time off -- the guys took a considerable break to write and record the new album -- might've caused the outfit to acumlate at least a little bit of rust, the group sounded utterly stellar. Patrick Meese's reedy tenor was in fine form as his namesake band introduced the crowd to a handful of new tunes from the record, the most stunning of which was a new track titled "Margot," a trademark piano-driven Meese ballad. The song, written about a difficult personal loss he and his wife endured late last year, must've been a challenging one to play.

Although Meese essentially built its name penning earnest, down tempo songs, the newer material is markedly more rocking -- a trait Patrick noted by saying, “You ready to slow it down? We’ve got some slower tunes. That’s how we started out. This rock thing is new to us.” To that end, the band was a lot livelier than I’ve seen them, with Patrick spending a good deal of the set up front playing guitar rather than sitting stoically behind the piano. At the same time, the group exhibited a noticeable amount of restraint, resulting in a much tighter delivery overall. This point was driven home on “Millionaire,” the closing number. When the group played that track in the past, Patrick used to affect this herky, jerky robotic dance, and this time around, his movements were more fluid and subtle. And that’s certainly a step in the right direction; early on, the live show was the achiles heel. It was also nice to see Jimmy Stofer sitting in on bass – though it won’t do much to help the act stave off the Fray comparisons it’s been consistently dogged by.

Random Note: During Meese’s set, the two jumbotrons flanking the stage played footage from one of the other stages, an usual and distracting twist to say the least. The thing that stood the most, though, was the sound, which was great, clear separation (Nathan and Patrick’s guitars were hard panned left and right), good tones and the volume was completely reasonable – no need for ear plugs. -- Dave Herrera

Who: Born in the Flood Where/When: Elk Stage, 12 p.m.

Lead singer Nathaniel Rateliff was the first to admit that the Mile High Music Festival represented a departure for Born in the Flood.

“The stage setup is different,” Rateliff said after the band’s early afternoon set on Saturday. “It takes some getting used to.”

The airy tent stage at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park was a far cry from the cramped bars and intimate clubs that have hosted the band in Denver.

Happily, the transition proved smooth, as Flood’s grandiose instrumentation and epic ballads filled the outdoor festival setting just as impressively as they would any hole-in-the-wall stage.

The bright tonal textures and driving cadence of “Anthem” laid a majestic groundwork for the rest of the set, as Rateliff’s plaintive vocals and Matt Fox III’s expansive chords gave the opening song a driving and insistent effect.

While the crowd in the tent was modest, Flood’s appearance drew an enthusiastic group of core fans, who crowded the stage just as densely as they would at a show at the Ogden or the Hi-Dive.

“I’m sitting here pouring out,” Rateliff screamed to the teenagers lolling on the grass and concentrated packs of loyal fans singing along in the front lines. Buoyed by Joseph Pope III’s syncopated bass lines, the drama of the music stood as a contrast to the easy mood on the grass.

As the set continued, and Rateliff and Fox took alternating shifts hammering out organ lines on the Fender Rhodes, a melodic complement that worked as a light and suggestive contrast to the pounding percussion.

For “Hey,” a brief ballad with a pleading refrain, the band was able to condense all its best elements – Rateliff’s emotion, Pope’s lightness and drummer Mike Hall’s Jeff Linsenmaier's innovative percussion - in the space of two minutes. Rateliff’s vocals and jaunting organ lines played well over the rest of the band and set off the refrain that begged, “just say that you got me.”

Hall’s cymbal-heavy attack with mallets on the closing performance, “A Break in the Silence,” made for an effect that was almost orchestral and an emotional push that would have fit well in any stadium show. “I hear the sound of a hundred thousand horns,” Ratecliff cried over a swelling instrumental buildup.

Flood’s warm tones and insistent vocals will always stand out for me as the perfect musical fare for an downtown outing, a soundtrack that recalls dimly lit bars and too many glasses of cheap beer.

Still, today’s tent show highlighted an entirely different appeal of the band, one that would make the ensemble equally satisfying in an arena or a stadium. -- A.H. Goldstein

Who: Railbenders Where/When: Bison Tent Stage, 12:15 p.m.

I’m not much of a country fan, nor am I one of those people who just dismiss it outright — you know, “I like all kinds of music except country” -- but let’s just say that I haven’t really found my way into it yet. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself completely enjoying the Railbenders. When frontman Jim Dalton asked how many people in the decent-sized crowd had seen them before, he received a large and enthusiastic response. And I can see why: Sporting an excellent lead guitarist who’s the spitting image of Tim Blake Nelson, a bassist who plays his red, glittery upright in all sorts of interesting poses, and featuring Jeremy Lawton from Big Head Todd and the Monsters on pedal steel, the band put on a, well, forgive me, but a positively shit-kicking good show, keeping the tempos up and the lyrics clever in that quintessentially stupid-clever country way. (“I’m gettin’ hammered while she’s gettin’ nailed”). Any country band that can boast a song about the joys of smoking pot -- Willie Nelson notwithstanding -- is all right by me. -- Smith

Who: Hill Country Revue Where/When: Lizard Stage, 1:15 p.m.

After the Railbenders, I left the refuge of the Bison Tent Stage and went on a whim to go check out Hill Country Revue, whose name seemed to promise a good follow-up. The first thing I noticed was the unmistakable figure of the North Mississippi All-Stars’ Chris Chew on bass, and then they announced fellow All-Star Cody Dickinson on drums, followed by All-Stars' associate Garry Burnside (son of the legendary R.L. Burnside) on guitar…so yes, it turns out that Hill Country Revue is a side project for Dickinson and Chew. It sounds, therefore, pretty much like you'd expect -- fiery, jammy blues-rock with a significant southern-rock influence, but a bit more polished and conventional than the work of the All-Stars. That act's sound is nasty enough to distract somewhat from the more typical jam-band tendencies, and my feelings about Hill Country Revue were similar. -- Smith

Who: State Radio Where/When: Bullsnake Stage, 2 p.m.

I left Hill Country Revue a few minutes early to get some water and lament the ever-increasing heat -- despite all my efforts, my neck was already sunburned -- and then headed over to the Bullsnake Stage. I found myself almost totally indifferent to the earnest, topical dub-rock of Boston’s State Radio, which put me decidedly among the minority in the large and enthusiastic crowd. The outfit certainly wasn’t bad -- in fact, bassist Chuck Fay is quite good; he played a couple of solos that displayed the dexterity of a lead guitarist -- but had the group injected a little more punk and a little less faux-reggae and a little more Clash and a little less Sublime, I might have gotten more into it. This was also the first band I had heard to have less than perfectly mixed sound (the bass was a bit overbearing). At one point lead singer Chad Urmston, formerly of Dispatch, announced that Hank Azaria was drumming for them, and I really couldn’t get a good look at him, but I suspect they were joking. If anybody knows whether that really was Hank Azaria, please let me know. (Ed note: It wasn't.) Smith

Who: Steve Winwood Where/When: Bullsnake Stage, 4 p.m.

There are a lot of great acts on the Mile High Festival Lineup, but only a few legends, one of which is Steve Winwood for sure. I hadn't seen him since he opened for the Grateful Dead back on one of their dates in Phoenix, in the early '90s. But after experiencing his amazing live skills again today, I'm definitely going to make this more of a regular thing. From the Spencer Davis Group to Traffic and beyond, this guy has written and performed more worldwide hits than much of the rest of the festival lineup put together, and today he played almost all of them.

Winwood kicked things off with the Spencer Davis Group classic, "I'm a Man," and performed a killer Hammond B-3 Organ solo, followed by an equally burnin' blow by his tenor sax player. At the end of the tune, the band broke down into a funky Latin groove that flowed into its second tune "Dirty City," off Winwood's latest album, Nine Lives.

After that, Steve took us back to '86 with "Split Decision," off of his highly successful album, Back in the High Life and then played another ripping B-3 solo on the Traffic classic, "Light Up and Leave Me Alone," which turned into a sick funk jam session involving the entire group. The group followed this burner with a 1967 Traffic mastercut "Dear Mr. Fantasy."

At the end of his set, me and everyone else around me insisted on an encore. For this, Winwood took us back to 1967, into the Spencer Davis Group archives, with an energetic rendition of "Gimme Some Lovin," which the whole crowd sang and danced along to.

For a sixty-year-old man, Winwood, sang, played, moved and grooved like a man of far younger years, with a stellar sound and skill that truly is timeless. I can only hope I can be half as funky when I get up to that period in life. If this was 1967, I might've picked up and followed him around on tour. The man truly is an absolute legend. -- Tynan

Photo: Brian Folkins
Photo: Brian Folkins

4 p.m. It's still hot out here, man...

If you aren't already here, this is your live, off the cuff survival guide for your visit to the Mile High Festival later today or tomorrow. The party is hot, it's sunny and it's spread over a massive acreage of land, so drink lots of agua, wear your extra comfy shoes and load up on the SPF 99 before, during and during the party. Once you get that business out of the way, you can expect to have a sickass time here at Dick's Park this weekend.

The bands are rockin' it the right way so far. Thus far, I've checked out State Radio, Gavin Degraw and Mike Gordon. Everyone's in a good mood, the grooves are jammin' and the positive vibes are flowin'.

Get out Here if you can, as soon as you can. The promoters have wisely set up multiple hydration and shade stations, so take advantage, enjoy the music and be a part of ringing in what will hopefully be the beginning of a new staple on the American summer festival circuit.

Hope to see you out here tonight or tomorrow. Don't miss your chance to get in on the ground floor of Colorado's newest annual institution.

Random Note: Try biking here next year. I passed miles of grid locked cars on my two-wheeled mobile, and it was only a thirty-minute ride from the city center. And I wasn't the only one. I joined up with a peloton or three of fellow bikers along the way. -- Tynan

Who: Andrew Bird Where/When: Bison Tent Stage, 4:15 p.m.

After catching the last two songs of Josh Ritter’s set, which failed to make any impression on me, I went back to the merciful shade of the Bison Tent, though it was by that point pretty hot inside as well. Andrew Bird, one of the few concessions to the indie crowd, is a bit of a blind spot for me, but I’d heard enough good things about him to be excited for his performance. The stage setup foretold good things; I saw ancient amplifiers, a Rhodes, a glockenspiel, and three oversized gramophone horns, two of which were joined on a turntable and miked. This is more my style, I thought. And indeed, I wasn’t disappointed by Bird’s dramatic, idiosyncratic pop. The man has a fantastic whistle, and he used pedals to layer his violin in all sorts of intricate ways. Drummer/sound artist Martin Dosh made significant contributions as well, playing both programmed beats and an actual drumset, often simultaneously, and adding eerie electronic atmospheres. One of the highlights of the set was a brand-new Dosh-penned piece, which was probably the darkest, noisiest, droniest thing they played -- a safe bet as the weirdest song played on any stage yesterday. I was kinda bummed that the spinning gramophones didn’t seem to do much, but in all, this ties for the performance of the day for me. -- Smith

Who: Andrew Bird Where/When: Bison Tent Stage, 4:15 p.m.

Let me admit to a bias up front: The crotchety old man in me, the one that yells at those damned kids to stay off my lawn and fondly recalls the time when Cab Calloway’s duds represented the risqué in the fashion world, will always prefer Andrew Bird’s earlier material with the Bowl of Fire band, songs from albums like Thrills and Oh The Grandeur! that are deeply rooted in the violin mastery of Stephane Grappelli and the song structure of Fats Waller will hold a preferential spot in my heart.

That being said, Bird’s late afternoon set at Mile Hi, which eschewed the earlier material entirely in favor of the riff-driven, sound loop laden, harder rock approach of more recent albums, boasted a good amount of enjoyable moments. Backed by drummer Martin Dosh, who has carved his own niche with his innovative sound loop and keyboard experiments, Bird’s soaring vocals and frenzied violin lines benefited from the lush instrumentation. What’s more, as Bird himself remarked, this performance marked his band’s first appearance with a new bassist – “This is the first time we’ve been a quarter,” he noted.

The fuller sound added depth to the performance of complex material from albums like The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha. Songs like “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” and “Dark Matter,” which contain tricky melodic twists, odd whistling and xylophone instrumentation and literary lyrics, found full realization in this live setting. As usual, Bird wore myriad hats during the set, playing a violin, switching to the guitar and topping off the effort with a soaring solo of whistles.

As an added sound experiment, Bird’s stage set up featured a revolving pair of conjoined megaphones hooked up to Dosh’s drumset, a feature that added a whirring, resonance to the noisier numbers. An even larger megaphone, one that looked as if it were lifted straight from an old Victrola, faced the contraption.

Gazing at the art deco set piece, my inner old fogey was propitiated at least a little. -- Goldstein

Who: JJ Grey and Mofro, moe., O.A.R. Where/When: Elk Stage, 5:00 p.m.; Lizard Stage, 5:30, Main Stage, 6:00 p.m.

JJ Grey and Mofro played Blues Brothers-style party blues, complete with a horn section doing synchronized dances. There are few things that annoy me more than horn sections doing synchronized dances; they smack of insincere “showmanship.” But the band was certainly tight and energetic.

I then trekked over to moe., whom I watched for about fifteen minutes, which is to say that I saw them play part of one song. When I arrived, one guitarist was playing a solo; when I left, another guitarist was playing a solo. I couldn’t really tell the difference between them.

Then on the opposite end of the grounds, O.A.R. was just getting started. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to O.A.R. (I’ll spare the act the embarrassment of spelling its name out) by playing the first fifteen seconds or so of each of the dozenish songs he had, which, he pointed gleefully out, sounded completely indistinguishable from one another. The two songs I heard didn’t sound quite the same, and they seemed to be a bit harder-rocking than I remembered, but yeah, they basically stuck me as a jam band without the solos. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. -- Smith

5:50 p.m., The Sun Finally Ducks Behind the Clouds, Bison Tent Stage Bodies are sprawled out everywhere inside the Bison Tent Stage, as folks take advantage of some down time to catch a few minutes of shut eye. The vendor row is piled up with people like rush hour traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. And the sun has, thankfully, finally ducked behind a patch of clouds, cooling things off for a while. Motown's finest is being pumped through the loudspeakers and people are steadily streaming in to claim their piece of turf in sweaty anticipation of Spoon's set, which is slated to take place in forty minutes. It's smiles for miles here. -- Dave Herrera

Who: Spoon Where/When: Bison Tent Stage, 6:30 p.m.

The Bison Tent was pretty packed for Austin indie-rock institution Spoon, and it made me wonder why, with the band's eminently accessible but certainly not boring sound, the act hasn’t been able to cross over like fellow indie veterans Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. Or maybe it has and radio just hasn’t noticed it yet.

Anyway, Spoon played what appeared to be a perfectly executed set, peppered with selections from throughout its career, that nevertheless failed to really move me -- perhaps because I’ve never been that big of a fan but also perhaps because the group's sound really hasn’t changed much over the years. As exciting as it might be at times, an hour and a half of Spoon can be just a tad monotonous.

Overall, Spoon's performance was quite good. Just the same, it just reminded me that while I dig the act well enough, I don’t love it.

Random Note: Encores are kinda stupid in all cases -- like tips, they were a better idea before they became institutionalized -- they seem especially pointless when we can all look at our schedules and see exactly how long your band is supposed to play. I can understand if you need a break, but do thirty seconds really count as a break? -- Smith

Who: Michael Franti and Spearhead Where/When: Bullsnake Stage, 7 p.m.

Here’s a fun drinking game that my friend suggested: Take a shot every time Michael Franti asks the crowd, “How you feelin’?” during a live performance.

I was a bit disappointed as the sun sunk behind the horizon and the sweltering heat of the day subsided. By the time the band made it an hour into its set, Franti had only posed the question eight times.

Enough to have an effect, I suppose, but still far from overwhelming.

Even so, Franti’s apparent overwhelming concern with his audience is appropriate. Say what you will about the vapidity of his lyrics (“You’re so friggin’ beautiful,” “Keep walkin’, keep talkin’”) or the sometimes mind-numbing simplicity of the musical structure, Franti knows how to connect to a crowd and get them dancing.

As a backup band, Spearhead catered to Franti’s mass appeal, keeping up straight 4/4 tempos and busting out an impressive solo for every song. A steady and predictable blend of G-rated hip-hop and generic reggae seemed designed to involve the crowd at the Bullsnake Stage.

The formula worked, as the masses that packed onto soccer fields seemed to move and jump in unison.

Easily digestible and danceable songs like “Yes I Will” and “Clean Up Man” weren’t the only concession thrown to the sizable crowd -- Franti and the band offered a menu of localized touches. Franti emerged on stage kicking a soccer ball (Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – get it?), the drummer’s set sported a bass drum cover decorated with a bison (a nod the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal and sanctuary) and Franti managed to fit a rousing chorus of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” into his own “Everyone Deserves Music” as a preamble to the event’s headliner.

It’s a festival atmosphere here, folks, so while I can say with confidence that I’d be disappointed with a Franti show at an independent music showcase or in an upscale concert hall, his straightforward and Everyman approach fit the ambience on the grass quite well. -- Goldstein

Who: Lupe Fiasco Where/When: Elk Tent Stage, 7:30 p.m.

After another quick break, I caught the last half of Lupe Fiasco’s set. Fiasco is, again, a bit of a blind spot for me, and while he immediately annoyed me by feeling it necessary to point out that Food and Liquor won a Grammy (forgive me for being an insufferable snob, but since when is that something to be proud of?), and though his female vocalist’s mike was a bit overdriven, he won me over with little trouble. Backed by a crack band, Fiasco put on the other best show of the day, with everyone literally jumping up and down on stage and Fiasco and his fellow vocalists belting out terrific songs like their lives depended on it/the world was ending/they were going to die tomorrow/etc. The guitarist even played a solo with his teeth at one point. Who does that at a hip-hop show? I'm sold.-- Smith

Who: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Where/When: Main Stage, 9 p.m.

Seeing a pop music legend in person can thaw the hardened heart of even the staunchest music snob. I speak from firsthand experience here. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ performance at the end of Mile High Music Festival’s first day appealed to all that is mainstream and commercial. The set list comprised radio-friendly pop tunes, audio pieces of pop culture that are common currency for even the most casual music consumer. For anyone who has built up pride in the obscurity of their musical references, such mass appeal can be an anathema.

For all my mistrust of easily hummable melodies and large-scale sing-alongs, I have to admit to being carried by the solid performance, the well crafted pop songs and the sheer nostalgia inspired by the Heartbreakers’ set. I added my voice to the chorus of thousands for songs like “Free Fallin’,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Refugee” and “American Girl.”

Petty and the band showed an unmatched skill in retaining a measure of freshness to these well-worn standards, some of which are almost thirty-years old. For all the time that’s passed since these tunes were first recorded, the band reveled in the performance and managed to keep a vibrant energy in their renditions.

With all the familiar appeal of the set list, Petty managed to throw some obscure and unexpected ingredients into the set list. He dusted off “End of the Line,” a jewel from the Traveling Wilburys sessions of the late ‘80s. While Saturday night’s performance lacked the stunning vocal range of Roy Orbison and the impressive backup chorus of George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan, Petty managed to recreate the spirit of the original recording.

An impromptu appearance by Steve Winwood, who had played earlier in the day, was another curve ball. With the Heartbreakers as a backup band, Winwood performed “Give Me Some Lovin’,” a song he co-wrote with Spencer Davis and Muff Winwood that was first recorded by the Spencer Davis Group in 1967. Even more impressively, Winwood gave a stirring rendition of “Can’t Find My Way Home,” a song he recorded with supergroup Blind Faith in 1969.

By drawing on special guest Winwood and throwing some lesser known numbers into the hit parade, Petty tempered the performance with a tasteful amount of obscurity.

Even so, his mass appeal is inescapable. However loudly you decry the corporate music structure, however much you insist on buying only independent music, I have a suspicion that if you were among the huddled masses at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday night, you knew the lyrics by heart and you were singing along with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. -- Goldstein

Who: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Where/When: Main Stage, 9 p.m.

After what had already been a ten-hour day, I couldn’t begin to fathom trying to fight through the crowd for a decent spot to watch Tom Petty, so I decided to hang far enough back so that I could sit -- or maybe even lay -- down, which turned out to be far enough back that even the giant screens were hard to see clearly.

Oh well. I didn’t really need to “see” Tom Petty. I just wanted to kick back and listen to him play the hits, which he and his band did. And did well, with the almost complete lack of surprises that one expects from a band that’s been playing the same ubiquitous songs for over thirty years. At one point, Steve Winwood got on stage and they played “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and the band also pulled out a Traveling Wilburys song that I recognized but couldn’t name. Other than that it was all “Refugee,” “Free Fallin’,” “Breakdown,” “Even the Losers,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” and all the rest. There were a couple deep cuts, but the crowd ate it all up.

When Petty and company left the stage before the encore, a woman behind me yelled, “Play all night, Tom!” at least three times. Oh god, I thought, no, please don’t. After two hours on stage, the band finally played the one song I really wanted to hear ("American Girl”) and took a bow. -- Smith

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