An audience takes in a rock concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, a naturally formed, world-famous outdoor venue fifteen miles west of Denver in the town of Morrison. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection.

Red Rocks: A Chronicle of Iconic Performances and Natural Wonders

The June of 1978 marked a rare occurrence. The American rock legend Bruce Springsteen had a reputation for being reluctant to perform outdoors. But when he was told, “Red Rocks is simply indoors without a roof ”, a curious Springsteen was compelled to come around. His debut at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado that summer became his first outdoor performance. “Nice place you got here…bunch of big rocks,” he said, marvelling at the stage.

The Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre is a one-of-a-kind open-air amphitheatre, a few miles from the state capital of Denver. Nestled in the unique transitional zone where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, it is one of the few naturally occurring, acoustically sound amphitheatres.

The sprawling 738 acres of the Red Rocks Mountain Park shelter pines, prairie, fauna and geological wonders. Its history, spanning centuries, nurtures remnants of the past, dating as far back as the Mesozoic Era. Dinosaurs wandered the Jurassic Colorado, leaving behind skeletal Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Dinosaur Ridge, east of Red Rocks. The footprints of the gargantuan creatures can be seen even today. Not many places in the world can call themselves a concert venue, a community space, a mountain park and a National Historic Landmark (since 2015). At 6,450 feet above sea level, the seating capacity here is a whopping 9,525.

The rocks in themselves are a thing of wonder, each layer an encyclopaedia of geological history. Some of them slope as much as 90 degrees. The two unmistakable, 300-foot monoliths that envelop the venue are taller than the Niagara Falls. The southern monolith bearing resemblance to a ship is named Ship Rock, and on the opposite side of the amphitheatre stands Creation Rock. These rocks lend to the venue its acoustic sublimity that visitors attest to. They say there is no such thing as a bad seat at Red Rocks.

The people of Red Rocks recognise and cherish its distinct significance in terms of the geology and history of the region. Their origin story is highlighted near the entrance of the amphitheatre, where a bronze plaque marks contact between the 1.7 billion-yearold Pre-Cambrian basement rock and the newer Fountain Formation that dates back to 300 million years.

For over a century, these rocks have witnessed music transcending the stage, making the experience a distinctive one for the audience. Artistes and visitors unanimously concur that it is special, what happens here. The very first performance goes back to 1906 when it was still known as the Garden of the Titans and featured Pietro Satriano and his 25-piece brass band. In 1927, the City of Denver bought the land upon which the venue was built and officially renamed it. The amphitheatre in its finished form is the masterwork of noted architect Burnham Hoyt. The official grand opening of Red Rocks took place in June 1941.

After a predominance of opera, classical and chamber music until the 1940s, rock and roll ascended the Red Rocks. The 1970s also saw a lot of soft rock—no pun intended—as it seemed like the safer bet after an infamous Jethro Tull concert in 1971, where thousands arrived without tickets and crashed the gates. It resulted in a violent confrontation with 200 cops. A ban on rock and roll at the venue followed, which was eventually lifted. Today, icons of several genres fill the amphitheatre, including new-age rock, alternative and indie music, rap and hip-hop, EDM performers and DJs.

The starry roster of performers the venue boasts is endless. The Beatles played at Red Rocks in 1964, incidentally one of their few concerts that did not sell out. There are accounts of Ringo Starr recalling they were given hits from oxygen canisters owing to thin air at the high altitude.

U2’s concert in 1983 was one to remember and proved to be a turning point for the band. The rocks were lit up and come gusty wind or driving rain, the show went on for 4,400 faithful fans. It later became the group’s live concert film and gave birth to the album Under a Blood Red Sky.

Stevie Wonder played at the venue in 2019 at the age of 69. The same year also saw a Diana Ross concert, which came 50 years after her first performance at Red Rocks. But the band Widespread Panic surpassed the rest with 32 soldout shows, prompting then Mayor John Hickenlooper to announce 27th June 2008 as “Widespread Panic Day.”

Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt and John Denver are among other legendary performers who have wowed audiences at Red Rocks. Apart from music concerts, the amphitheatre has diverse programming all year round. The extremely popular ‘Film on the Rocks’ was started in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. It put together Hollywood classics and local music artistes. A screening of Casablanca with the Hot Tomatoes Orchestra kicked off the ongoing series. Yoga on the Rocks, on the other hand, is an initiative to get a workout in the dramatic, awe-inspiring setting. All 193 steps of the amphitheatre are packed with enthusiasts and their yoga mats on these days.

Even during the pandemic, the venue continued its community initiatives once the restrictions were eased, with all safety protocols in place. Like all houses of art and culture, it was a trying period for Red Rocks but it only emerged stronger.

In 2022, The Denver Post reported that nearly half of all concertgoers at Red Rocks travelled from out of state to see their favourite musicians, spending $305 million in the Denver metro area, according to the first economic impact study of the amphitheatre. Red Rocks was booked nearly every night from April to November, contributing to unprecedented revenue and audience growth. This is telling of the unshakable place it has held in concert experience for audiences, both local and otherwise.

The upcoming quarter will bring to Denver American DJ Sullivan King, comedian Trevor Noah, The Piano Guys and the bands Lord Huron and Bleachers. Comedy stars Steve Martin and Martin Short will also perform in June, among many others. Needless to say, a rocking line-up.

By Aishwarya Bodke. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the February 2024 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.