Before Friday evening’s concert at Red Rocks, my concert buddy and I sat on a tailgate in one of the amphitheatre’s lower parking lots, sipping wine and beer and speculating about which groups of passersby had primarily come to see Kamasi Washington, and who was there to see Vulfpeck.
Washington, a tenor saxophone titan who’s arguably the West Coast (or maybe national) jazz scene’s current torchbearer, and Vulfpeck, a four-pack of earnest but nerdy white dudes from Michigan whose funk grooves have earned them a sizable following, already made for an odd pairing. I was curious about the cross-over between them, because although both are talented music acts, Vulfpeck is more mainstream and accessible to the masses (just see the most recent iPhone commercial featuring Vulfpeck song “Back Pocket.”) and a lot of Washington’s experimental music can be an acquired taste. I realized that it would say something about both groups if they succeeded in winning over an entire Red Rocks crowd of 9,000 plus fans: that Vulfpeck had earned high art nods from jazzheads primarily there to see Washington, and that Washington was achieving mainstream appeal.
From my perch on the tailgate, I wondered: What was the ratio of fans for each artist at this strange combination of a show?
Some yelling at the parking lot entrance caught my attention. “Bus arriving!” a red-bearded and over-eager parking attendant shouted into a walkie talkie.
Minutes later, a faded gray school bus with tinted windows that looked like it belonged to the Colorado Department of Corrections rolled into the lot. Out of it poured bro after bro, frat-level wasted and whooping in that way that’s only possible after you’ve done a handle pull or five.
“Definitely here for Vulfpeck,” I noted.
Then again, just about everyone who walked or stumbled through the parking lot shared similar characteristics with the bros from the bus: They were mostly young, white and ready to rage.
(This, by the way, was turning into a stressful crowd for the aforementioned parking attendant to handle. When one of those box-shaped Scion cars pulled into the lot and turned the wrong direction, he was on its tail like an angry interceptor, running and bellowing, “STOP!” “NO!” “NO!!!” “I SEE YOUR BUMPER. I’M GOING TO REMEMBER IT!” This parking attendant wasn’t kidding around.)
So without many clues to go off from people watching, it was into the venue to see how both acts were received. After an opening set by KNOWER, Washington took the stage, looking like a saxophone colossus in a long, flowing tunic and flanked by dueling drummers on elevated platforms.
Since exploding onto the national stage with his double album The Epic in 2015, he’s clearly racked up experience playing outdoors sets before thousands of faces, including appearances at Coachella and other huge festivals. He knew how to cater to a Red Rocks crowd: Almost all of his set was up-tempo, groovy and generally avoided the Eric Dolphy-like moments in some of his recorded catalogue – the atonal and dissonant passages that create a trippy sensation like your head is being split into two (which I personally love, but totally get that it sounds grating to a lot of people who aren’t into the fringier parts of jazz).
There was no doubt: The crowd was digging Washington’s set, locked into the beats like automatons and giving the jazz man rousing cheers after each song. It was rather amazing to watch a saxophonist stand front and center of his band and command a full-capacity crowd in a way that usually requires a charismatic vocalist or pop star. This seemed to prove what I suspected: Well aside from Washington’s popular music collaborations – like his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN – he can hold his own at the nation’s largest venues. Expect a headlining show from Washington at Red Rocks within the next couple of years. (It also bodes well for his return to Colorado this fall to the Ogden to support his forthcoming double album, Heaven and Earth, due out in June).
And so, given this enthusiastic response to his hot saxophone licks, I figured a large proportion of Friday’s crowd had indeed coughed up a minimum ticket price of $45 to see Washington first, Vulfpeck second.
Boy, was I wrong.
When Vulfpeck came on and started running through their hits — “Tee Time,” “Animal Spirits,” “1612” — with choreographed lighting and some great supporting vocal work by collaborators, including Antwaun Stanley, the crowd went absolutely nuts.
“Wow, this feels like church,” my friend noted during a moment when Vulfpeck had the crowd sing in unison. Doing a quick 360, I could see what she meant. The reason why everyone looked like the young lads we’d seen get off the booze bus was because everyone seemed to be there for Vulfpeck. The mood du jour was adulation. A group sitting next to me had even driven from North Dakota specifically to catch Vulfpeck at Red Rocks.
So, for what it's worth, this provided the answer to my curiosities about the odd pairing: It was a Vulfpeck show, at which Washington happened to play.
It means a few other things:
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— Vulfpeck is way bigger than I’d thought. The band is positively blowing up, and could probably sell out Red Rocks on its own, especially if the musicians continue their current trajectory.
— Not as many hardcore jazz fans decided to shell out the dough for a Red Rocks ticket just to see Washington in a supporting role (I suspect many are waiting to see him headline a full set in October at the Ogden).
— And finally, that it was a fun, but also basic night at Red Rocks. Friday’s show was about dancing and getting a little fucked up, but not really a performance that challenged listeners or fed the soul in a deeper kind of way. As a trend, those light-hearted shows do seem to be what easily sells out the Amphitheatre.
I make that last point more as an observation than a criticism. Sometimes, a basic night is its own kind of reprieve, when we just want to take a momentary break from our complicated lives, store away worries, and have some lighthearted fun. That was what the Vulfpeck show with its decidedly Vulfpeck crowd seemed to be about.