The Allman Brothers Band appears in concert at Red Rocks Sept. 19
By: G Brown
For the Denver Post
Red Rocks Amphitheatre is one of the planet’s most awesome natural outdoor venues, internationally renowned for its incredible beauty and natural acoustic quality.
Fans come to revel in the grand setting, but it also blows away performers from all musical genres. They’re pumped when they hit the stage, seeing the front rows of the audience close to the stage. Without fail, Red Rocks creates what’s known in the business as the “magic bubble of entertainment.”
That is, unless you’re on a production crew in charge of getting equipment up to that stage. To those hard-working roadies, a Red Rocks date is the worst possible stop on an already grueling schedule.
Rick Wurpel was the production manager for every gig at Red Rocks from 1974 to 1987, and he produced shows there as recently as 1997.
“I’ve worked in the majority of facilities across the country, some out of the country, some just ‘Here’s a plot of land where we’re doing a concert, figure it out.’ And from an operational standpoint, Red Rocks is probably the hardest facility in the world to get a bus and truck show into,” Wurpel said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s like ‘Spinal Tap’ – it’s an 11 or a 12.”
The record for the most dates played at Red Rocks, reportedly 25, belongs to the Grateful Dead. The band considered Red Rocks “a sacred place,” likening it to Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. But according to longtime associate Dennis McNally, the crew had a different take: “It’s called a (expletive) load-in.”
It will be even more of an issue on Saturday when the Coors Light Mountain Jam comes to Red Rocks, with nearly a dozen acts – from rapper 50 Cent to classic rockers the Doors 21st Century to nu-metalheads Korn – that don’t share production.
“It’s a cool event, and a lot of time and money was spent on it,” said Tommy Hauser, local production manager for Clear Channel Entertainment. “But it’s a lot of different bands, and it’s challenging to make the show run smoothly and successfully in that sense. Dressing room space is limited. Getting the gear up and down the hill is going to be a test. Some of these bands have other commitments, and they need to be able to get back out of the venue before the end of the night when we have to load out.”
Smooth move most places
On the road, acts play an average of four to six shows a week, anywhere from 100 to 200 shows in a tour run. Their production crews get accustomed to facilities in other markets, which are usually built much like Denver’s Pepsi Center and Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre. They can back their six or so semi tractor-trailers simultaneously as close and as level to the stage area as possible. Mechanical equipment and labor are available to get the huge amounts of equipment – lighting fixtures, speakers, dimmer racks, smoke machines, sound-mixing consoles, stage set-pieces, even bicycles and cases of wine – out of the semi onto the stage very quickly. It’s usually done in an enclosed, weather-protected environment.
Not at Red Rocks.
The semis have to park down by the trading post. They can’t get up the back road to the stage area. So crews start the day by backing up a flatbed truck and unloading the equipment, a tenth to a quarter of the semi at a time, and then shuttling it up the steep hill. The back road is about 200 yards long and rises at about a 30-degree incline. No one seems to have measured, because they don’t want to know. Otherwise, it would be like the “5280 feet above sea level” signs that Denver sports teams post in visitors’ dressing rooms, ostensibly to induce altitude poisoning in opponents.
“You have to make sure everything is tied in carefully. Things have come out of the back and rolled back down that hill,” Wurpel said. “And, of course, it’s usually the most expensive piece of gear they have.”
The back loading dock area is also very unforgiving. The flatbed trucks have to turn around and back up to a ramp at the stage left entrance. The gear is rolled off the truck onto another ramp, and then it has to be pushed uphill one more level to get on the main performance area.
Longer, harder job
So a Red Rocks load-in takes two to three hours more than a normal one, and the cost of adding more equipment and labor is roughly a third more. Truck loading is a backbreaking, somewhat dangerous job in the first place. At Red Rocks, crews have to do it twice.
And while it’s usually clear by the time the show rolls around, there’s more often than not an afternoon rain shower between 3 and 7 p.m.
“You just hope it’s a beautiful day,” Wurpel said. “Inclement weather really makes it a hassle.”
When Wurpel first started his job, there was no stage covering of any kind at Red Rocks.
“We did many a show with me holding an umbrella over the artist as we took the show acoustic.” Now there’s a permanent roof, and once crews get the gear on the main stage area, it’s business as usual, with riggers pulling the lights and sound up.
But Red Rocks limits what a promoter can bring into the space. Some large shows and theatrical events leave production people scratching their heads, wondering what sound and lights of a traveling company can fit into the space with the least amount of damage to their personnel.
But if a crew is unhappy, the artists are not. Last month, Boston’s stage show was something to behold. It resembled a toxic urban wasteland, and the band brought out its big guns with the giant “phantom” pipe organ player and a lighting rig that lowered and turned into a guitar spaceship with smoke and afterburners.
But singer Brad Delp didn’t care if it all made it to the stage or not. “Why bring anything? The place itself is so stunning,” he said with a shrug.
Problems never cease
There are other unique problems at Red Rocks. The mix position – where the sound engineer sets up a few rows into the crowd – is out in the open, vulnerable to inclement weather. And the underground tunnel to access it from backstage, while cleaned up considerably from the days when a rattlesnake could be found lurking behind a rock, remains a challenging place to run cables.
No doubt, there can be tensions, and workers can get a little disgruntled, understandable when their normal workload is multiplied to make a show happen on the Rocks. Guys like Hauser and Wurpel, as affable and professional as they come, excel at making it as easy a process as possible, but it’s exceptionally daunting to begin with.
Yet the beauty of Red Rocks trumps everything.
“The whole reason we’re here is for those 5,000 to 9,000 people who are sitting out there, to do whatever we can to make a unique event happen,” Wurpel said.
Band manager Mark Bliesener agrees.
“You have crews working at that altitude that may have come from sea level the day before. Every day at 5:30 it’s going to spit on you a bit. There’s the expense of the extra labor,” he said. “But still, Red Rocks is where the artist wants to be. It’s the must-play venue. And God made it that way.”