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Mile High: an epic experience

Aaron Butzen
Aaron Butzen | abutzen@vaildaily.com
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Ben Kweller didn’t play at the second Mile High Music Festival in Denver, but the title of his song “Different But the Same” is a succinct description of how this year’s jamboree compared with the one last summer.I think it’s also safe to use the word “better” to describe Mile High ’09. Aside from the lineup, the tangible changes from last year’s festival were scarce but included the stages being somewhat closer together to ease the suffering of thousands of tired feet and weather that wasn’t quite as Death Valley-esque. But the basic setup, look and feel of the festival were the same – professionally done and well-organized but decidedly commercial.Anyway, it was the intangible things that really set this festival apart from its election-year counterpart. There was a bit more magic and a looser feeling this year, both of which are as necessary at a music festival as the smell of beer, sweat and … um, incense. Credit some of the good vibes to less heat, some of them to a headlining band whose fans bring the party with them to every show (Widespread Panic), and credit the rest to fairy dust or some such sprinkling of favor from the musical deities that decide the fate of these types of things.I was only fortunate enough to attend the first day of the festival, but it was such a happy hoedown, I’m okay with missing Sunday.

The grunge-pop sounds of Gomez playing in the distance greeted my concert companion and I upon arrival, and I descried a few songs I knew, including the current radio hit, “Airstream Driver.” Then it was straight to the Westword Tent for Railroad Earth, whose feel-good bluegrass-rock had the tent packed by 2:45 p.m. My advice to all readers: Add “See Railroad Earth in concert” to your life’s to-do list. We caught an energetic “Dandelion Wine,” a lovely “Been Down This Road” and an uplifting “Mighty River” before we were wooed to the Main Stage West to see Galactic throw down some funky New Orleans jazz-rock.Galactic was killing it, but the band plays Mardi Gras music – best enjoyed while dancing and hollering. The set started at 3 p.m. The horn battles would have been much more appropriate later in the day, when the festivarians in attendance either needed a shot of energy or had imbibed enough $7 beers to want to get down a little more. It was the wrong time slot for a band like Galactic.Up next, the most pleasant surprise of the day – Lyrics Born. Although I’m a big fan of the Japanese-American rapper, I didn’t expect his live show to so completely blow me away. The live band was as tight as a pair of climbing shoes and was introduced to the crowd by a Michael Jackson medley that included some riffing on “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal.” Lyrics Born showed off his intelligent lyrics and oral prowess while the musicians (as well as a singer-rapper chick with limitless energy) simply threw down. Best non-headlining show of the day.We caught some of Paolo Nutini’s beautiful tent set, and it seemed as if every female in the tent would have been willing to surrender her innocence to the Scottish crooner. Nutini and his six-piece band nailed a wide range of emotions in their songs, from tranquil and contemplative to exultant and rambunctious. Big Head Todd & the Monsters were playing on the Main Stage East at the same time, and we stopped to listen during beer runs before and after Nutini. The show was absolutely packed, but the only song that didn’t bore me at least a little was a cover of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.”

Next up was Incubus, and they delivered as expected. Singer Brandon Boyd (wearing a “Make Believe Not War” cut-off shirt) was in top form as the band ran through spot-on versions of career-spanning hits including “Privilege,” “Stellar” and “Megalomaniac.” Very solid. The Ben Harper & Relentless7 show at the other end of the grounds was as disappointing as the Incubus show was satisfying. Despite this supposedly being Harper’s badass blues-rock showcase, the music was rather subdued and boring and never really took off despite a large crowd that looked like it desperately wanted to rock out. Understand that this was at 7 p.m., when most of us had been out in the sun for hours and needed a kick in our cargo shorts and sundresses. We didn’t get it.In the meantime, we caught the end of India.Arie’s set. She brought her mother out to sing with her, and the family combo of beautiful, soulful voices almost made me cry on contact. Amazing.

Headliner No. 1, Tool, gave the festival the metaphoric boot to the bum it so sorely needed. A big sound, psychedelic displays on the big screens and a unique light show got the crowd amped and generally seemed to go over pretty well with the masses, despite the fact that Tool’s music isn’t all that accessible to non-fans.People started drifting off from Tool’s set around 10:30 to secure a good spot for Widespread Panic. Anticipation was running high before the show – it was clear many Spreadheads had come to support their heroes, and it looked like a lot more people were about to be introduced to the Panic parade. Let’s be clear – I’m a longtime fan of the band, so I’m definitely biased, but this was far and away the event of the evening. The crowd’s energy was off the charts, and the band took hold of it and amplified it tenfold by night’s end with a steady stream of chicken-fried, whiskey-drenched, funked-up, Southern-jam-rock numbers. By “steady stream,” I mean the band took the stage at 10:45 and blew the festival’s collective mind straight on through to 2 a.m. They ripped through old songs such as “Pigeons” and “Diner” and newer stuff including “Goodpeople” and “Flicker,” but the highlights were a big “Surprise Valley” jam, a “Greta” that saw the crowd’s boogie hit its plateau and a surprisingly funky “Pickin’ Up the Pieces.” The only disappointment here was the lack of an encore, something Spreadheads have come to take for granted.Saturday was a big day for Mile High and evidence that this festival has wasted no time in securing a spot with the Bonnaroo and Rothbury big boys. It wasn’t perfect, but coupled with what was surely another great day on Sunday, 2009’s Mile High was an epic undertaking. As long as the organizers can continue to book acts like Widespread Panic that can take the day to new and unexpected heights, this sonic soiree can look forward to a long, happy, sweaty life.


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