Red Rocks giveth, and Red Rocks taketh away. The sprawling amphitheater is so storied at this point that it tests performers playing it like few venues in the country -- and not everyone passes. That was certainly the case on Friday night, when two of the four top acts on the bill traveled through the fire unharmed and even enhanced by the experience, while the other pair wound up a little crispy around the edges.
The scene along the narrow roadways and lots arrayed at the foot of the main bowl was so happily chaotic that I didn't reach the seating area until 8:10 p.m., ten minutes after the announced start time -- and by then, the opening group, Attracted to Gods, had already come and gone. The apparent brevity of its set suggested that the concert would offer a modified version of KS-107.5's annual Summer Jams, with early artists given just ten or fifteen minutes to connect with the crowd before being hooked off the stage. But no: Eyedea & Abilities stuck around for at least 45 minutes -- and seriously overstayed their welcome. The Minnesota duo's take on alterna-rap pivots on the psychodramatic readings of frontman Eyedea (Michael Larsen), whose delivery is closer to feverish recitation than traditional emceeing, thanks to his frequent moments of near hysteria. But while this style can be effective in close quarters, where attendees can witness the eccentricity in a close-up-and-personal manner, it felt mondo-strained for anyone beyond the first ten rows -- and at Red Rocks, there are a lot of rows beyond that. Numbers such as "Man Vs. Ape" and "Burn Fetish" came across like anti-melodic meanders, and Eyedea, who spent most of his time either bunny-hopping in place or hanging with the audience -- which left DJ Abilities (Gregory Keltgen) alone on stage for minutes at a time -- didn't provide nearly enough visual stimuli to compensate. There were two musical highlights: a prolonged, quasi-psychedelic workout on the turntables by Abilities, and the unexpectedly hooky tune "Spin Cycle," which should have ended the set but didn't. Eyedea also got a big response when he mocked conscious hip-hop by announcing, "Walmart is a fucking awful place to shop" -- before undercutting the assertion by adding, "for guitars. They've got a bad selection." That kind of irony may kill in a club, but it induced indifference on the Rocks. Thank goodness for Murs, who immediately shook the throng out of its Eyedea-induced torpor with his opener, "Everything," which was more forceful and persuasive than anything heard during the previous hour. Murs (born Nick Carter) was working with the same limitations as did E&A: He had to try and fill the entire stage by himself, since his DJ was tied down to his console. But he met this challenge with an effortlessness made even more surprising by his mid-set confession that he'd recently undergone hernia surgery, and his doctor had recommended that he refrain from rapping for a month. The Red Rocks gig being only two weeks removed from his slicing, he made it through with a little help from his good friend Vicodin. The opening portion of his spotlight session was the strongest, featuring "Hustler," during which audience chants repeatedly helped him spell out the title, plus "Bad Man!," "Silly Girl" and the irresistible "Me and the Jawn." And although the pace and excitement briefly flagged during the prolonged sensitivity showcase "The Pain," Murs had a secret weapon to bring his show home with power: a cameo by Atmosphere's Slug, his partner in the side project Felt. After name-checking Lisa Bonet, to whom the second Felt album was dedicated (Christina Ricci took the honors the first time around), Slug and Murs tore through an inspired "Dirty Girl." Moments later, Slug teased the arrival of a third Felt offering. He didn't say what femme would be in the tribute position, but he did confirm that the producer who'd follow in the footsteps of The Grouch and Atmosphere's Ant, who helmed the initial pair of releases, respectively, was Aesop Rock, who rushed the stage seconds later -- where he failed to maintain the momentum Murs had re-established. Why? Hard to figure at first. After all, Aesop Rock (Ian Matthias Bavitz) has a new millennium's worth of widely heard material and a following that rivals Atmosphere's. Moreover, he was accompanied by Rob Sonic (Rob Smith), who added a much-needed element to the otherwise visually starved stagecraft. Problem is, most of AR's material, with the exception of "Keep Off the Lawn," which opened their segment, and "None Shall Pass," which closed it, don't overflow with aural dynamics. They tend toward the musically monochromatic, relying on Aesop Rock's staccato wordplay for color. But at Red Rocks, the precision necessary to make every phrase stand out was lacking. The passion of the moment muddied the vocals, transforming them from insightful observations to random, undifferentiated babbling for anyone who hadn't committed every line to memory. Just as problematic, Aesop Rock's stage presence didn't prove indelible enough to carry amphitheater-wide -- from a distance, he looked like Jimmy Fallon pretending to be a rapper, as opposed to the real thing -- and stereotypical bits like a scratch-a-thon co-starring DJ Big Wiz merely stretched out the set, as opposed to boosting it. In the end, the Rocks easily defeated the Rock. The same thing could have happened to Atmosphere due to a series of risky creative moves. Instead of making due with the usual two-turntables-and-a-microphone set-up, Slug (Sean Daley) and Ant (Anthony Davis) added live musicians: a guitarist, a keyboardist and a background vocalist, whose inspired whoops and swoops provided the gift of gospel-inspired soul. The first song, "God Loves Ugly," partly disguised the impact this instrumental lineup would have by dint of its show-starting aggressiveness. But as the set rolled forward, it became clear that the likes of "Puppets," "The Rooster," "Shoulda Known," "Blamegame" and "Saves the Day" were significantly altered from their recorded versions and past liver performances. Smoother. More sophisticated. Mellower. The arrangements certainly undermined expectations of the mob spread out before Slug and company. The seven or so people among the nearly sold-out crowd who weren't packing their own weed definitely had a major contact high by that point, and they weren't alone; given the plumes of smoke drifting skyward by then, the entire city of Lakewood probably had a contact high, too. As such, Atmosphere's ventures into jazz and R&B could have gently rocked everyone to sleep. But something unexpected happened on the way to a good night's doze. The artistic choices were so successfully implemented that even if they weren't designed to light the party aflame, fans appreciated them anyhow. That's a tough trick to pull off in a theater, let alone an amphitheater -- and Red Rocks' size increased the difficulty exponentially. Yet Slug's obvious delight at the turnout provided a notable counter-balance. At one point, he declared, "You have no idea how big a deal this is to me," and he wasn't just sucking up to the crowd. Booking Red Rocks for an Atmosphere headlining gig took some hefty stones, and it could easily have resulted in a venue that was partly or mostly empty. Instead, the people came -- thousands of them -- and Slug and Ant won them over with a surprisingly mature approach that provides a road map for the combo in the future.
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For that reason, Atmosphere, as well as Murs, emerged from the night bigger than they were that morning. And Aesop Rock and Eyedea & Abilities? Not so much.