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Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Ken Lane.

Visible is Bringing a Stacked Lineup to Red Rocks. Will it be Worth Watching?

Nathaniel Rateliff, Phoebe Bridgers, Sam Hunt, and others will perform at Red Rocks Unpaused next week in what might be the most interactive concert series of the pandemic.

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Let’s face it: Most streaming concerts can’t hold a lighter to the real thing.

But cell service provider Visible hopes to change that next week when they throw what might be the mother of all pandemic music festivals in Denver’s backyard.

Visible’s Red Rocks Unpaused will bring Nathaniel Rateliff, Megan Thee Stallion, Phoebe Bridgers, Lil Baby, Sam Hunt and, a to-be-announced special guest to Red Rocks Amphitheatre from September 1-3. All three nights will be free to stream via Visible’s Twitter and the event’s website.

If plotting the biggest (and yeah, basically, the only) Red Rocks lineup of the year wasn’t enough, Red Rocks Unpaused is also giving viewers a bit more agency than your standard click-and-watch virtual show.

Fans can “move” from “seat to seat”  by flipping through three camera angles scattered throughout the venue. And if you miss being able to yell “Freebird” at artists (who all agree that it’s still a hilarious joke that has not and will never get old) between songs, Visible will project viewers’ comments onto Red Rocks for the artist to see. For aspiring stage crew, you’ll also be able to vote to change the color of the light show, vote on the encore and, uh, cue pyrotechnics.

If picturing Meg Thee Stallion doing “Savage” to piped in crowd noise and a comment sections sounds eerie, we get it. But credit where it’s due, Red Rocks Unpaused is at least trying to address the intangibles that make so many virtual concerts fall flat. But will it be enough?

That depends on what you’re looking for. Michelle Rocqet, lead singer of Denver’s Milk Blossoms, recently broke her bands streak of seven live-streamed shows with a socially distanced in-person gig.

The experiences were in almost direct opposition with each other, she says. “Playing a show in front of people — where you can hear, sense and feel them—psychically changes how you perform. At our recent live show, we felt ourselves as a band communicating the music on a much more visceral level than you can attain on a Zoom call.”

Having seen as many live streams as Rocqet has played, I know fans feel the same disconnect. It makes sense then that Visible’s plans—most of which are already in place in pro sports—are dedicated to closing the distance between the players and their people.

That’s important. While we don’t necessarily think of them this way, pop concerts are an interactive art form. They’re most similar to immersive theatrical performances like Sleep No More—a play that blurs the line between audience and performer by mingling both groups in a hotel that also serves as a stage—than other performance art forms.

There might not be a narrative involved in a concert, but that sense of agency is just as important. Being able to change seats may be a gimmick, but it’s also a good-faith hat-tip toward this most basic form of autonomy at a show, albeit without the annoying consequences. (A true Red Rocks immersion requires one of the camera angles to be obscured by a group of loud, weed-smoking 14 year olds.)

Same goes for projecting fans’ comments on the rocks, which feels like it’s as much for the artists as the fans. Assuming they’re moderated heavily, it’s better than nothing.

“The biggest difference between the digital and in-person realm is that live, everyone shares the artist’s singular curated experience and when you stream [that goes away],” Roquet says. “But that’s where the opportunity lies. The sooner we figure out how to translate our work into that model, the sooner online shows can become more of a mutual experience.”

Visible can only do so much in that department, though. No comment section is large enough to make up for not being there in the flesh. What Red Rocks Unpaused can do—and I’d argue what all live-streaming platforms should do to succeed—is give fans an experience they couldn’t have live, though the challenges are recognized across the industry.

“I don’t think that anything is lacking in bridging a gap between internet concerts and an in-person show—the reality is, it’s a gap that can’t be filled,” says Chris Zacher, executive director Denver nonprofit music venue Levitt Pavilion. “No matter how much glitter you put on internet, shows lack the shared energy between a band and their audience. As a stop-gap, online shows are a kitschy way to keep venues and bands in the minds of their fans. They’re a marketing tool.”

Still, the upcoming Red Rocks festival will try to be more than flashy marketing. While voting on color choices and pyrotechnics might only appeal to a few, Visible is rolling out one option that could be a game changer: voting on the encore. Sure, you occasionally influence the encore at a live show if the artist asks for one and hears you. But making this vote a part of the show is a fun moment that you can’t pull off at a rowdy rock concert.

In a less-dark timeline, we wouldn’t have to pray for tech companies to devise ways to help us forget how much we miss going to concerts together. But with crowd-surfing called off until at at least 2021, shows like this can at least make stream-surfing a little more bearable.

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