By Mary Jo Gibson
September 10, 2012
Way up in the mountains, above Denver, Colorado, lies the greatest scenery you could imagine. The rocks jutting from the landscape, fabulous views overlooking the city of Denver, majestic mountains fill the horizon. Red Rocks holds a special secret above the tourist enclave, where great pictures can be taken, but only a hint of what lies ahead, further up the mountain. Navigating through a special viaduct in the rock walls and climbing further will bring you to the greatest natural amphitheater, set against the mountain wall. A storied place with a history of its own.
Who built this?
The vision of Red Rocks began with John Brisben Walker in the early 1900s. He produced a number of concerts on a temporary stage between 1906 and 1910. The city of Denver purchased the area in 1928, employing architect Burnham Hoyt to design the venue. Enlisting the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Work Projects Administration (WPA), labor and materials were provided by the venue. Construction began in 1936, and completed in 1941.
Red Rocks in Rock History
The earliest notable rock performance was by the Beatles on August 26, 1964, the only concert not sold out during their US tour. Jimi Hendrix performed in 1968, and U2 recorded two songs from their album Under a Blood Red Sky in 1983. The Grateful Dead favored the venue with many performances, and Widespread Panic holds the record for the most sold out performances at Red Rocks, 35 and counting.
An incident in 1971 during a performance by Jethro Tull led to a five year ban of rock concerts at Red Rocks. Approximately 1,000 people without tickets arrived at the sold out show. Denver police directed the overflow, non paying crowd to an area behind the theater, where they could hear the music but not see the band. The situation solved, right? A group of people without tickets decided to charge the police line and broke through, then began lobbing rocks at the police. The authorities responded with tear gas at the gate crashers. The wind carried the tear gas over the hill into the paying crowd and onto the stage. Following the ‘riot at Red Rocks’ the mayor of Denver banned rock concerts from the amphitheater. The ban on rock and roll was finally lifted after five years through legal action by a promoter who tried to book the band America at the venue in 1975. Bands were again welcomed beginning in 1976, and Jethro Tull did return in 2008 and 2011, inciting no further riots.
Red Rocks shares its treasures with visitors at their own museum of rock history. An interactive wall of rock lists all the performances in chronological order, including kiosks with video clips of artists’ appearances. Many instruments and other memorabilia line the walls; guitars from James Taylor, Stevie Nicks, appearance posters with art not seen since the 1970s.
One particular place at Red Rocks is unique, but not on the typical tour. It is the Wall of Fame, autographed by the artists over the years. The steps lead to the Front of the House mix position. The walls on either side of the staircase are covered with signatures too. This used to be part of the Red Rocks interactive site, but they have removed it. I certainly hope they have documented the signatures over the years, it would make a great addition to their museum.
If you think of Red Rocks as just a beautiful park above the city of Denver, think again! The only naturally occurring acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world is a worthwhile stop on a mountain trek.
I hope you enjoyed a virtual tour of Red Rocks and the history behind this natural phenomenon. A great spoof of the Red Rocks dancing security man can be found here. Look for another History of Rock entry when I tour Rick’s Picks at the Burpee Museum, featuring the rock history of Rick Nielsen, guitarist of hometown band, Cheap Trick. I am excited to incorporate this new addition to my blog, and hope you enjoy it too! After all, I am still a rocker chick at heart.