With soft, thick grass underfoot – perfect for dancing or just lying down on a tie-dyed blanket – the third annual Mile High Music Festival (August 14-15) took place on the spacious grounds of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park just steps from the metro Denver area. Colorado’s typically gorgeous weather also pitched in to make this one of the most pleasant and laid-back festivals of the season.
Â Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, day one of Mile High would provide an escape to the islands with a schedule that was either entirely deliberate or cosmically sensational.
Kicking things off on the picturesque day was surfer/songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter, who served well from his pole position as he prepped the throngs that had gathered for his mentor and the night’s headliner, Jack Johnson. Prior to the set, fake mustaches distributed amongst the Donavon faithful, which the singer himself would one-up with a full beard/stache combo. A guest appearance from 80s rocker John Oates (of Hall & Oates fame) provided additional spice to Frankenreiter’s hallmarked beach-tempo songs.
Frankenreiter would provide the necessary palette from which the remaining day’s artists would paint. Trudging on from the mellow mood
provided by Frankenreiter & Oates, ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) took the baton into the second leg of the day and put together a
dynamic, jam-heavy session. Showcasing vocals and keys by front-man Zach Gill and electrified, effects-laden acoustic guitar solos from Dan Lebowitz, ALO did what they did best: put on a show that is never frenzied and always enjoyable.
Sporting a righteous case of bed-head, soul troubadour Amos Lee provided a loose segue into the energy ratcheting Nas and Damien Marley set. The unlikely duo brought their traveling hip-hop/reggae to the main Kyocera Stage for a hot afternoon of heavy beats and fast rhymes. The duo, who record together under the moniker “Distant Relatives,” arrived at Mile High with a sprawling band that included multiple keyboards, a horn section, back-up singers, and of course, the one guy whose only stage trade was to wave around a massive Jamaican flag for the entire show. The impressive musical mash-up is clearly effective but heavier than one might expect, with the hip-hop influence serving as the dominant genre even during the songs with “Jr. Gong” Marley at the helm.
Most would eventually make their way over to the Cougar Stage for a session with guitar maestro Keller Williams who delivered finger-picking whimsy to those that had gathered. As he is commonly known for, Williams seemed intent on evoking laughter amongst the gathering with offerings that included a jangly cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and a brand new original called “Short Show” that paid homage to the recent incident at a Kings of Leon gig in St. Louis that was stopped short after just three songs… because bird poop was raining down on the band from the stage rafters. Such pop culture silliness is familiar to Keller’s fans, even if the material itself was literally two weeks old.
With no disclaimer, Slightly Stoopid doled out medical advice to the youthful crowd assembled for their marijuana-propagating set. Apparently, the security “guardians” did not note the prescription as they roamed the crowd in an attempt to counteract the band’s sentiment. As both front-men of Slightly Stoopid traded between guitar and bass throughout the set, the outfit immediately evokes Sublime but leans toward a heavier sound that was occasionally augmented at Mile High by guitarist Ian Nevilleof Dumpstaphunk.
Saturday would conclude with two hours of Jack Johnson, who transported the mountain-dwelling crowd to faraway beaches and gave everyone a chance to relax after a full day of stage-hopping. Mid-way through the set, Johnson began introducing a caravan of musicians from his record label. First up was Gill of ALO (having been behind the keyboard earlier for his double-duty in Johnson’s touring band,) who rocked out the accordion on “Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down.” Surfing buddy Frankenreiter made his expected appearance, as did Hawaiian singer Paula Fuga, who joined for her duet on the title track from Johnson’s latest album, To the Sea.
Johnson concluded the set prior to the scheduled time, but fans were not short-changed; he re-emerged for an epic, solo acoustic encore. He joked with the audience, entertained requests, and played an absolutely perfect cover of Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”
The second day arrived with the matching heavenly sunshine and breeze from its former. In retrospect, where day one at Mile High could have been billed as a build up to the headliner, and day two could have been billed as the same, as the entire day seemed to somehow cater to the colossal influx of Dave Matthews’ faithful following.
Following a set by Drive-By Truckers who took the stage first and hammered out an hour of Southern rock behind Patterson Hood’s stunningly honest Alabama-soaked vocals, Tim Reynolds & TR3 played for an enormous crowd of Dave Matthews fans (at least the ones not hardcore enough to camp out at the main stage) in the Elk Tent. After introducing a flock of stage-dancing fans from backstage, costumed as various animals – Elmo from Sesame Street and even a hula-hooping fairy – Reynolds and his trio laid down hard-rock numbers one after another. What was perhaps most refreshing was how the man himself impressed with low-register vocals that are nary to be heard in a typical DMB set.
Meanwhile, in the far-off Bison Tent, guitar/DJ duo Boombox blasted melodic dance music for the party-prone crowd. A few hours later, they were succeeded by Bassnectar. The DJ act operated solo but had the participation of his entire audience, especially as some 200 beach balls were distributed among fans – enough to warrant two staff members who spent their time deflecting the balls away from Bassnectar’s rig.
Back at the big stage, reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff looked closer to 30 than his real age, 62. Donning a bright yellow jumpsuit and gold sneakers, Cliff’s honey-sweet voice rang clear and true through classics like “The Harder They Come,” “Sitting in Limbo” and his well-known cover of “I Can See Clearly Now,” with the accompanimentÂ of the expansive Jimmy Cliff Band who all seemed to be having as much fun as the spectators.
In complete contrast to the Cliff’s reggae sound, Chris Thile dished out a menu of high-pitched singing and fast mandolin solos with band The Punch Brothers. Thile may be done with Nickel Creek (at least for a while), but his progressive style of mandolin play hasn’t disappeared. Although The Punch Brothers bring a more classical bend to the bluegrass genre, they were still easily recognizable as high mountain music. Their fast tempos kept the fans nearest to the stage boogieing while those that had flocked to the back half of the tent casually laid down to relax to the relatively clean and quiet sound that the band was generating. It all served as a welcome respite from bass-heavy music elsewhere at the festival.
The Kyocera Stage’s penultimate act, My Morning Jacket, stepped up as the Colorado afternoon entered its prime. As falsetto devotee Jim James repeatedly praised the setting and atmospheric conditions, his band rocked out the huge field. The Kentucky natives did nothing short of sternly remind all in attendance of why they have continued to garner critical acclaim and amass an increasingly large following.
In a catalogue-spanning effort, James and company delivered a great set culminating with the familiar sound of 2003’s “Steam Engine,” in spite of the fact that an increasing majority of the crowd was awaiting the night’s headlining performance from Dave Matthews Band.
The Dave Matthews Band‘s adoring legions extended far beyond the singer’s eyesight by the time the band finally emerged at 8:30 pm to close the festival – some had been waiting at the stage the entire day.
While DMB shows can be hit-or-miss, this festival was blessed with a definite hit. The band’s current lineup, including guitar wizard Tim Reynolds and a horn section with Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross, sounds more like a legitimate rock band than ever before. The electric guitar in particular adds a punch to the sound and provides a natural counterpoint to violinist Boyd Tinsley’s musings.
Lead vocals by Dave Matthews are still the band’s focal point, of course, and Mr. Matthews was in perfect form. The band played through a hit-laden set list that eschewed rarities but made room for unusually lengthy jams on classics like “Lie in Our Graves,” “Two Step” and “Ants Marching.” Even those in the audience who did not consider themselves fans expressed being blown away by the band’s intensity and devoted performance in Denver.
After a short break, Matthews returned alone to perform “Some Devil” before the entire company piled back on stage for a ridiculous and thoroughly joyful “Jimi Thing.” As a set and festival closer, Matthews worked the phrase “sexy motherfucker, shakin’ that ass” into the tune, which perfectly described how Mile High Music Festival attendees had spent the past few days. There was no better way to end a blissful music festival in the beautiful Colorado environment on a mid-August weekend.