As tailgaters slowly trickled into Red Rocks around 7 p.m. Sunday night, Nathan & Stephen singer Nathan McGarvey, sporting a hot-pink bandana with black stars, looked out at the crowd — which, up front, was thick with current and former Illegal Pete’s employees — and earnestly shouted, “This is Red Rocks! Did you guys know this is Red Rocks?”
At Sunday's concert celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Illegal Pete’s, the beloved local food chain that also supports Colorado music in a big way, it seemed like most of the Denver music scene was in attendance, whether on stage or milling about backstage.
Nathan & Stephen, for its part, can seem like a scene unto itself. The nine-piece emo-indie orchestra has been around, off and on, for a decade — so long that the group’s debut tracks appeared on its MySpace page. McGarvey’s lyrics, about friendship, nostalgia and unity, gelled with Sunday’s theme, which was celebrating the success of a hip little Boulder-born restaurant that’s become a Colorado institution by embracing, and being embraced by, community.
Speaking before Built to Spill took the stage with its Crazy Horse-worthy indie guitar rock, Illegal Pete’s founder Pete Turner said that when his restaurant struggled in its initial years, facing competition from the established “bigs” of Mexican food, a co-worker gave him some advice: “Let’s just keep having more fun than anyone else.”
At first, Turner said, “I had no idea what the fuck that meant.” But facing a packed house at perhaps the greatest outdoor music venue in the world, twenty years after starting Illegal Pete’s — which now has popular locations in Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins — Turner said he’d grown to understand the advice, and suggested that those who’d come to Red Rocks to celebrate his restaurant’s success take it as well.
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While the big Labor Day weekend crowd had fun rocking out to Built to Spill and headliner Lucero, the real musical attraction was the blossoming Denver soul sensation Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. In the last month, Rateliff — who's paid his dues in the Denver scene since virtually the moment he arrived in Colorado as a teenager in the late ‘90s — has found a huge national audience, due in large part to a triumphant mid-summer performance on The Tonight Show.
As the sun set, the Night Sweats took the stage and vamped on the lively opening bars of “I Need Never Get Old,” the opening track on the band’s eponymous new LP, which sold over 21,000 copies in its first week after being released last month. When Rateliff — in his customary all-black outfit — eventually danced his way to the center of the stage, where he picked up his Telecaster, it felt like the triumphant homecoming of a family member.
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Rateliff is known for his sweetly gruff voice, world-weary lyrics and fluttering dance moves, but his fluid lead guitar is vastly underrated, as he showed when he and the Night Sweats energized the crowd with their Van Morrison-meets-Sam Cooke take on modern soul.
At the end of a medley of “S.O.B.” and the Band’s “The Shape I’m In” that’s been a regular closer at recent shows, the Night Sweats exited the stage, leaving Rateliff alone to lead the crowd in singing along with “S.O.B.”’s revival-style coda. Dancing, clapping and singing in a spotlight as he drifted backstage, Rateliff would’ve needed only a stagehand to cover him in a robe to complete a James Brown-esque routine that thrilled the audience.
Perhaps next summer, he and his band will be back at Red Rocks as a headliner to continue the tradition of "having more fun than anyone else."