Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles played Red Rocks on the band’s first American tour—and, amazingly, the Morrison show was the only date on the tour that didn’t sell out. Since then, Red Rocks has hosted 2,184 shows. (This year, catch John Legend on the August 26 anniversary of the Beatles performance.) But putting on a show isn’t just a few-hour affair. We spent 24 hours at the beloved city park to get a better idea of what happens before the first note sounds and after the last one fades.
5280.com Exclusive: This is an extended version of the story that appeared in our August 2014 issue.
Thursday, May 29th
7 a.m. The Visitor Center doors are unlocked, providing (welcome) access for early morning fitness junkies to the clean indoor restrooms.
8 a.m. Vendors begin restocking the concession stands. For some, this means tackling the amphitheater’s 192 steps with boxes of food and bags of ice in tow multiple times. “Runners,” who restock during shows, log at least five miles up and down those steps each night.
9:22 a.m. The top circle lot is nearly full. About two-thirds of the cars have Colorado plates. The farthest away: Virginia. The average age of the crowd of tourists snapping photos at the top of the amphitheater is easily 65.
9:31 a.m. A reunion tour of Federal Highway Administration employees, who helped build some of the roads near Red Rocks, departs.
10:30 a.m. The Ship Rock Grille, the restaurant inside the visitor center, opens. Just outside, about 50 people sprint, jog, and walk their way up the amphitheater steps. Some do push-ups. Some squat jump the entire way up. Two groups are organized, but thanks to a new rule enacted in May that limits groups to 20 on weekdays, they’re not very large.
By 11 a.m. The sweat-fest has thinned out. Now it’s just tourists and teens who don’t know you’re not supposed to work out when it’s hotter than 80 degrees.
11:13 a.m. Ominous thunderclouds build.
1:55 p.m. Dish Network employees here for a private team-building event (the visitor center has two event spaces you can rent) test their egg-drop contraptions on the steps outside the Ship Rock Grille. The Trading Post is also available for rental.
2:15 p.m. Sound check for tonight’s OneRepublic show begins. The rattle of the snare drum and the bass’ reverb bounce off the rock. One of the event staff politely asks me to leave. (On concert days, Red Rocks typically closes around 2 p.m.)
3:47 p.m. Jack in the Box’s crew arrives in a moving minivan to set up their “late-night lounge” in the middle of the pavilion.
3:55 p.m. The production crew tests the stage light displays.
4:30 p.m. Food is set out backstage in the green room, which is built into the amphitheater’s sandstone; one wall is actually rock. (By the looks of it someone really likes cheesecake; there are several different varieties on display.) The dressing rooms also have rock walls. In fact when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis played during February 2013’s Winter on the Rocks show, the snowmelt that ran down the walls froze, forming a frozen waterfall.
4:47 p.m. One of the backstage crew pauses in front of the set of signs detailing every public event at Red Rocks since 1908. When it formally opened as a city venue in 1947, the amphitheater hosted only about 10 concerts a year. This year, Red Rocks will host 120 events.
4:53 p.m. An underground staircase graffitied with the signatures of many of the bands who’ve played here leads up to where the sound, lighting, and video team are making final adjustments.
5:00 p.m. Police and paramedics arrive. Denver Police, Jefferson County Sheriff, and Morrison law enforcement all share in responding to incidents, depending on the location and type of incident.
5:07 p.m. In an office upstairs behind the stage—mission control for every concert—Patty, the base operator, monitors weather, radio chatter, and phones. “We’ve got some weather coming in about 45 minutes, maybe an hour,” she says.
5:12 p.m. Brooklyn’s American Authors, the opening act for tonight’s three-band show, sneak in a final sound check.
5:22 p.m. The amphitheater is empty but for a line of security personnel with squawking radios near the stage. OneRepublic’s tour detail is headed by Gio Gasparetti, an imposing, bearded man who used to handle security for Guns N’ Roses.
5:30 p.m. Gates open. A swarm of teens and preteens runs for the front rows. Others quickly stake out the planter areas around the trees that flank the steps nearest the stage (these are considered general admission seats).
5:37 p.m. A thank-you dinner for Red Rocks sponsors kicks off in the visitor center. The amphitheater relies on sponsor revenue from donors such as Coors, Pepsi, Eldorado Water, and Jeep (among others) to help fund Red Rocks.
6:22 p.m. A few diehard tailgaters in the upper north parking lot brave the ugly clouds and a smattering of big raindrops.
6:37 p.m. Only the top eight rows in general admission remain open.
6:42 p.m. The T-shirt line is 20-people deep. The beer line: zero. Aramark general manager Brian Arp, who oversees concessions, doesn’t expect this to be a big booze night since tonight’s bands tend to attract teenagers. The biggest beer drinkers? Country fans.
6:59 p.m. American Authors take the stage. They’ll play for 30 minutes.
7:30 p.m. The Ship Rock Grille closes. The line to the women’s restrooms inside the visitor center, near the ATMs, is a dozen-people long. Within five minutes, it extends out the door and all the way up the stairs. Savvy concertgoers know the restrooms on the other side of the Red Rocks Hall of Fame Museum usually aren’t as busy.
7:52 p.m. The show’s second act, Ireland’s the Script, takes the stage. Few people in the first 20 rows sit during the eight-song set.
8:20 p.m. Lead singer Danny O’Donoghue calls a fan’s ex-boyfriend and serenades him (and the crowd) with the Script’s break-up ballad: “Nothing.” The “official” sunset passes, unnoticed by most.
8:50 p.m. O’Donoghue walks through one of the amphitheater’s rows.9 p.m. The Script wrap up their set.
9:25 p.m. Hometown boys OneRepublic sound their first note. They’ll play 19 songs over the next 90 minutes to a sold-out audience.
9:55 p.m. Many of the food vendors begin shutting down. Alcohol sales are cut off.
10:47 p.m. OneRepublic announces they’ve added a third Red Rocks date to their tour: September 1.
10:55 p.m. OneRepublic begins its final song, “If I Lose Myself,” off the group’s newest album, Native. Toward the end, the confetti flies (biodegradable, of course—a condition of all confetti use at Red Rocks).
11:15 p.m. Nearly all concert-goers have left the amphitheater, save a few superfans, one of whom finds a stray guitar pick near the stage on her way out.
11:34 p.m. The crew has already broken down much of the stage. The ticket checkers at the lower north entrance have left. From the steps here, you can see the line of taillights snaking down from the south parking lots.
11:45 p.m. Cars in the north parking lot are still lined up, waiting to make their exit. Some patrons have given up, turned their cars off and are napping while they wait for their turn to leave.
Friday, May 30th
12:18 a.m. The north lot is almost empty, save for three skateboarders claim the stretch of pavement below the stairs—and a skunk in the bushes. They’re a late-night fixture here; a few years ago one got stuck behind the bar in the Ship Rock Grille, hiding beneath the oven. Of course, that was no big deal compared to the two bears that wandered by a concession stand on the north side of the amphitheater last year.
1:15 a.m. The crew is still breaking down the stage; a few members of the cleaning staff remain in the visitor center. Only wind, crickets, the beep of reversing trucks, and the scrape of plastic cups break the quiet of these early hours.
2:30 a.m. Red Rocks’ 20-person-plus cleaning crew has arrived to pick and sort the trash left under seats, in walkways, and in the parking lots. In the north lot, a group of three sorters has been carefully picking through the detritus since 7 p.m., separating it into recycling, composting, and trash piles (almost all of Red Rocks’ cups, plates, and cutlery are either compostable or recyclable). All that effort diverts 80 percent of the venue’s waste away from landfills.
3:22 a.m. Two deer wander down from the hills near the north parking lot.
4 a.m. The team behind California electronic sensation Bassnectar arrives to start setting up for the evening’s show.
4:11 a.m. A cacophony of birdsong competes with the beeps and bangs of the stage setup as the sky begins to lighten above Green Mountain.
4:15 a.m. A fox skulks across the north lot.
5:05 a.m. The first sunrise revelers—two high school students—show up as the blood red streaks shooting out from behind Green Mountain’s summit expands across the sky.
5:16 a.m. There are now seven of us at the top of the amphitheater. It’s light enough for me to see my notebook clearly again.
5:28 a.m. The first runner arrives and stretches.
5:35 a.m. A blaze of orange emerges from the cradle between Denver’s skyline and Green Mountain. The sun is officially up.
5:37 a.m. The first set of group exercisers arrive. On summer Fridays, the early morning hours are some of the busiest for the fitness fiends.
5:51 a.m. The top circle lot is full again. This time it’s almost all Colorado plates, though.
7:49 a.m. The recycling and composting crew is finally done. For today.