Thoughts on great venues
I spent the last ten days in the Denver area, exploring some national parks, visiting family, relaxing. One of the side trips we took during that time was to Red Rocks.
Red Rocks Amphitheater got its start around 1906, when magazine publisher John Brisben Walker had the wild idea to present some concerts in a park near Denver. Thanks to the jutting red rock formations around where he placed the stage, the park’s natural acoustics were astonishing. Walker’s booking of live music in the park continued for four years, emerging into a vision for live music there which would eventually shape the construction of the amphitheater.
It wasn’t until 1927 that the Manager of Denver Parks managed to convince the City to purchase the land and develop it. According to Wikipedia, the park was purchased from Walker for a whopping $54 (about thirty bucks more than settlers paid for the island of Manhattan). The City of Denver agreed to build on Walker’s vision of live music and entertainment in the park, and they put the Civilian Conservation Corps and Work Projects Administration to work, employing a number of workers throughout the Great Depression. Over the course of five years (1936-41), the CCC and WPA built what would become Red Rocks Amphitheater. The venue was so remarkably well-designed as to earn architectural recognition across the country. They kept rock outcroppings to the north, south, and east (Creation Rock, Ship Rock, and Stage Rock, respectively), preserving the place’s remarkable acoustics.
As I stood on the stage at Red Rocks looking up over the rows of benches, there was a certain sense of majesty in the place – a sort of diluted version of what I’ve felt before at the feet of Niagara Falls. It’s a commingling of beauty and utility, a combination of natural formation and human ingenuity which is humbling. The singer in me wanted to light into a verse just to test the acoustics, but years of being offstage have shied me to performance. There were too many people there. Besides, breath isn’t easy to come by in Denver, and singing requires breath.
(Kudos to all you people out there who make your living singing, who roll into Denver for a day and make it through a whole set. Do they pay a higher rate for singing at high altitude?)
Red Rocks was voted best venue in Pollstar so many times, they renamed the category to the Red Rocks Award. Standing onstage, I could see why. From an audience perspective, it’s certainly beautiful. I imagine at night you can see the entire sparkling, dotted landscape of light, stretching out across Denver’s remarkable sprawl. Like stars on the ground. Like you’re somewhere up in space, looking down on the stars, and onstage there’s music.
From the artist’s perspective, though, the venue is even more extraordinary. Your view is that of rock outcroppings and actual stars. The way the venue is situated, you have no choice but to sing up and out. It’s a whole different vibe than somewhere you’re singing straight at people. A different kind of music happens. And then there are the acoustics – one of the easiest ways to distinguish a good venue from a bad or mediocre one.
I thought about the great venues I’ve experienced – the Gorge Amphitheater was an easy comparison. I’ve seen everyone from Pearl Jam to Nine Inch Nails, to the Avett Brothers, Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, and more at that venue. The audience has the advantage at that venue. Nothing beats sunset over the gorge as one of your favorite bands is onstage.
Then, of course, there’s Carnegie Hall. The Ryman. The Kennedy Center. Telluride, I imagine (one of these days…). Even on a smaller, less dramatic scale, there are places like Eddie’s Attic, where it just feels good to make music, and it feels good to listen.
We don’t give enough credit to great venues. We celebrate artists like they’re nearly otherworldly, but the architecture of a great venue has so much to do with the way music happens there. It was moving to me to consider Red Rocks was part of what the CCC created, during Roosevelt’s attempt to provide jobs for the millions of unemployed during the Great Depression. As so many people were fleeing the southwest for brighter prospects in California and elsewhere – the folks Woody wrote and sang about – Roosevelt’s work initiative was creating one of the most outstanding music venues in the country. If only we could learn from history.
At any rate, I’m curious what your favorite venues are. Think of the best show you’ve ever seen – where was it? What did the venue have to do with it?