Radio-friendly rock was the order of the day at the Mile High Music Festival in Denver August 14-15, drawing shirtless bros with tribal tattoos for miles around to party, drink beer out of plastic cups, and smoke copious amounts of, presumably, medicinal marijuana (Colorado has had a boom in recent years, and artists made numerous allusions to that fact). The lineup was pop-heavy and easy on the ears, but it didn’t fail to offer up some pleasant surprises, along with a few truly epic moments:
BEST PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING: WEEZER
Weezer played Mile High like it was headlining the gig-and really, it should have been. Opening with the fittingly titled “Epic Intro,” the band segued without a pause into “Hash Pipe” and then into “Troublemaker” from 2008’s eponymous LP. The set didn’t let up from there, and the group kept its hits from the Blue Album coming-which provided the setup for the entire weekend’s most epic moment. Disappearing from the stage during “My Name is Jonas,” Rivers Cuomo appeared from seemingly out of nowhere, way in the back of the crowd, some 100 yards off from the stage in a shockingly short amount of time, then climbed onto an elevated seating platform for the disabled and mingled with the crowd as the band shot into “(If You’re Wondering if I Want You To) I Want You To.” It couldn’t get much better, but it did, with the guys going from there to a spot-on cover of MGMT’s “Kids,” into which it wove a verse from Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and… Geez, it was awesome.
BEST INTIMATE MOMENT: JACK JOHNSON
With a set scheduled for three full hours, Jack Johnson had enough time to cover his whole catalogue and then some: Hits like “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” and “Good People” left plenty of time for less familiar material. The set was so long, in fact, that Johnson seemed to have run out of songs by the time he came back sans band for the encore-which made for the best moment of his set. Johnson’s real strength is his down-to-earth, campfire vibe, and the solo encore, which he seemed to be just kind of winging (it included a Jimmy Buffet cover, and at one point he called out for requests), really spotlighted him for the engaging, mellow performer he is.
BEST EXTENDED JAMMING: DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
If Jack Johnson seemed a little uncomfortable about his set’s three-hour length, it was clear Dave Matthews was wholly at home with his, and might have kept right on going into next week. For some time now, Matthews has been edging steadily away from the pop structures that characterized his earlier work and closer to a jam-prog type of sound with plenty of abrupt, intricate changes to keep things interesting. Amid Matthews’s anguished mugging (he always looks as if he’s desperately trying to figure something out, doesn’t he?) the band took the songs in the setlist and stretched them to the breaking point, and the jams just got more and more extended as the set wore on-they didn’t even pretend to go into “Ants Marching” without soloing on the riff for easily five minutes. And if Matthews’s solo acoustic songs provided some respite (there’s limited jam potential in just one guitar), the truly epic moments came in the form of Carter Beauford’s outrageous drum solos-they would have done Neil Peart proud.
BEST TRIBUTE TO COLORADO’S MEDICAL MARIJUANA: CYPRESS HILL
B-Real and Sen dog have never made any secret of their love affair with Mary Jane. Opening up with perennial favorite “Insane in the Brain,” the two emcees carried through with “Dr. Greenthumb” and “I Ain’t Goin’ out Like That” and threw in the title track of Rise Up, the group’s latest, toward the end. But the crowning moment of the set came in the middle, when at various interludes Sen Dog pulled out (and smoked) a 6-foot bong, while B-Real enjoyed a comically oversized blunt that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Cheech and Chong movie.
BEST DISPLAY OF UNUSUAL HAIR: KEANE
Much like the band’s U.K. brethren Coldplay, Keane liberally employ the old start-’em-off-soft-and-build-to-a-big-finish trick, which gave frontman Tom Chaplin plenty of opportunities to preen and show off the true glory of his severe, almost Patsy Cline-like pompadour. There’s no question that Chaplin was the star of the show, with a practiced, unflappable vocal style and chops to spare: He didn’t miss a note. And though he occasionally picked up a guitar, Chaplin was at his best when he stuck to vocals, strutting around and kicking a foot up on the monitor like a true ballad god.
BEST (LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE) ASCENSION: PHOENIX
Aside from being probably the best band on Saturday’s lineup-or at least the most interesting-Phoenix kept a close to hour-and-fifteen-minute set going strong throughout with hits like “1901” and “Fences.” Hardly breaking a sweat at encore number four, the band closed with “Love Like a Sunset,” and with the sun setting, it couldn’t have been better timing-not to mention the song’s slow-burn shoegaze build, during which, at its peak, vocalist Thomas Mars climbed the rafters and hung above the nearly capacity crowd, as if daring a single one to even think about walking away.
BEST CROWD-INVOLVING JAM: OZOMATLI
A long-time fixture of the L.A. scene and occasional musical ambassador (the band has toured Asia sponsored by the U.S. State Department a few times), Ozomatli plays high-energy, eclectic music that’s world-influenced but distinctly American. Throughout its set, which the band packed with everything from old-school hip-hop to norteño mariachi, the boys from Ozomatli-particularly emcee Justin Porée-got down from the stage and worked the crowd. But that was just a precursor to the set’s final moments, in which all seven members (by my count) took up percussive instruments and climbed down into the audience to jam, with trumpet man Asdrubal Sierra right there with them and keeping up an unamplified solo that continued even as the roadies moved in to break down the stage.
BEST GOOFY PHOTO OP: TRAIN
Best known for such alterna-pop ballads as “Meet Virginia” and “Drops of Jupiter,” Train’s big moment came during “I Got You,” a song from its most recent album, Save Me, San Francisco. During that one, which both live and in the studio weaves strands of the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” into its runtime, frontman Patrick Monahan invited several women up to the stage-including a couple of what looked like about 12-year-olds-gave them all T-shirts, got them to sing and dance, and posed with them for a “Facebook picture.” Calculated? Most likely, but it did make for one of Sunday’s more adorable scenes.