Bluegrass is the unofficial state music of Colorado, so a five-hour marathon of Appalachia’s finest export at the newly reopened Red Rocks Amphitheatre made the most fitting welcome back to both fans and musicians. To further strengthen the Centennial State’s bond with the genre, all four bands who performed on Saturday call Colorado home. Jamgrass pioneers, Leftover Salmon, headlined the May 8 event and welcomed Andy Hall and Friends, Meadow Mountain, and Lonesome Days to warm up the audiences’ ears, feet, and knees.
Showtime started early, at a prompt 4:45. I must apologize to opening band, Lonesome Days, as I missed their entire set. The lot buzzed with action and I used their showtime to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen all pandemic. I’m sorry!
Once seated inside the venue, upper stage right in the Coca Cola section, my eyes and ears absorbed my surroundings. Hanging from the middle of Red Rocks’ new roof was Leftover Salmon’s unique version of a Jolly Roger flag. Mayor McCheese adorned the black flag with crisscrossing salmon bones beneath his pirate hat wearing cheeseburger head.
People sat, laid back and respectful of social distancing, in every other row. Bluegrass appeals to all generations. Babies wearing ear protection strapped to parents’ chests through gray haired, cane carrying bluegrass aficionados from the early days Telluride filled the rows of the venue.
Though the skies weren’t your typical Colorado bluebird, they wore their standard springtime moodiness. Sunny, then cloudy, back to sunny, with hazy funnels of gray indicating rain in the distance, the sky settled into a thick blanket of grey cotton that threatened rain above the venue. Experienced Red Rocks attendees smartly carried backpacks filled with layers to protect against the elements.
Meadow Mountain took the stage at exactly 5:50. The band, whose record was produced by Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, made their Red Rocks debut and were in absolute awe of their experience. Each of the five members took a turn at the microphone, voicing their pleasure and shock, thanking supportive family members, partners, and friends. It can be mind blowing to simply sit in the audience at Red Rocks. I cannot imagine the feeling of performing on stage, staring out and up into a vast audience flanked by Ship Rock on stage left and Creation Rock on stage right.
Supergroup Andy Hall and Friends served as the penultimate entertainment. The five-piece ensemble consists of musicians from various jamgrass titans. Hall was joined by his Infamous Stringdusters bandmate, fiddler Jeremy Garrett, String Cheese Incident bassist Keith Moseley, Dave Bruzza of Greensky Bluegrass, and Nashville based Kyle Tuttle, formerly of the Jeff Austin Band. For an hour, the five bluegrass masters took turns with vocals, leading through versions of their own bands’ songs. Toward the end of the set, Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon joined the group, dashing his mandolin through a Tuttle sung Bad Livers’ cover of “Pretty Daughter.” Hall and his friends auspiciously closed the set with “American Girl.” Tom Petty ranks as top musical hero to a friend from my night’s quartet. We wore large grins as we danced with extra pep to The Heartbreaker’s beloved song.
The rain had the courtesy to hold off until band three finished their set. When it rains at Red Rocks it pours, and sometimes it hails. The latter did come down, but thankfully in the form of tiny pellets and not the gigantic golf ball sized ice chunks that can sometimes rain from above. Thunder and lightning accompanied this storm. Many sought shelter in the safety of the downstairs visitor’s center, while others opted to sheath themselves in rain gear and brave the precipitation in their seats. Not yet ready to hunker down in tight spaces indoors with hundreds of others, my group of four stayed put in our row. We covered our upper halves in rain jackets and ponchos while our legs and feet became soaked. The dry Colorado air and the constant movement of dancing bodies in motion aided our soggy legs, but nothing could remedy wet socks and sneakers. This would haunt us as the night grew later and colder.
After a short rain delay, Leftover Salmon took the stage. The jamgrass trailblazers formed over thirty years ago when Emmitt joined forces with acoustic guitar master, Vince Herman. Greg Garrison on bass, banjoist Andy Thorn, and drummer Alwyn Robinson complete the band while former keyboardist Erik Deutsch temporarily joined his old bandmates on stage for the Red Rocks weekend.
Leftover Salmon calls themself a “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” band, and their new album “Brand New Good Old Days” showcases that eclectic sound. Though every LoS show takes on a different feel, you are safe to expect a few standard elements: several covers with their own LoS spin, an auditory trip to New Orleans, and a fast foot, body spinning good time. Saturday’s show delivered all three.
Apropos to the rain delay, jokester Vince Herman opened set one with Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” Their two sets of music contained more covers, including an upbeat and cheerful version of The Grateful Dead’s somber “Black Peter.” Early on in set one, the five-piece band was joined by Jeremy Garrett for “Tu N’as Pas Aller”, the only song (from my memory) within their two sets to hold a Cajun Zydeco vibe. For the most part, keeping to the theme of the day and the music of their fellow bands, Leftover Salmon didn’t stray far from traditional jamgrass. To the delight of my ears and feet, many of the songs were led by the frenetic charging of Emmitt’s mandolin and Thorn’s banjo.
When you share the stage with this caliber of musicians, opportunities abound for sit ins aplenty. Garrett stayed for several songs during set one, punctuating each song with his playful fiddle. Andy Hall traded spots with his String Duster’s comrade for set two, and his dobro helped cement that bluegrass feel. And though I missed it, photos show Tuttle joined Thorn late in the night for double the banjo fun.
Painter Scramble Campbell positioned himself stage right during Andy Hall and Friends, brushing a bright Colorado sky with giant slabs of red sandstone rising from the earth across the white canvas while the music played. He continued his brush strokes throughout Leftover Salmon’s sets, adding colors, layers, and shapes. By the end of the show, our modern-day Bob Ross, painting happy little musicians against a Red Rocks backdrop, had completed the entire painting.
Unfortunately, another round of rain that began halfway through set two forced us to acquiesce to the chill and wetness of the night. I wished for more layers, but I was already wearing everything I had tucked into my backpack. Though I hate doing so, the fun ceases once the cold settles in, and we had to bail halfway through set two. Pictures show me my FOMO is warranted, but nothing but a fun “festival” of a good time was had while we were there.
A big thank you to all the Colorado bluegrass musicians. I feel honored that as a fellow Coloradan, I won’t have to wait too long for such musical spoils to come my way again.