In some respects, Thursday looked and sounded like a typical spring night at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo., outside Denver. Women with spangled backpacks held hands and twirled to local act Lotus, a sunny instrumental jam band whose guitarists blew repeatedly on their fingers due to the bracing cold winds. A man in a tie-dyed jumpsuit stumbled up the venue’s steps to his seat. But much was different: The 2,500 fans were seated at 25% capacity, with every other row kept empty and patrolled by security. Guests were allowed to move around in the crowd if they wore masks, which were also required in restrooms and concessions areas.
“This is the beginning of the end to this bullsh–, and we’re going to celebrate that,” says Eric Pirritt, president of Live Nation Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, promoter of Lotus’ four-night run starting Thursday. “We’re going to get better at this and continue to grow.”
The last major concert in the Denver area before the pandemic shut down the live industry was Post Malone at the Pepsi Center on March 12, 2020. Red Rocks was no different — although it reopened briefly in September for shows by Denver heroes Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and a capacity crowd of just 175 — but now that vaccinations against COVID-19 are widely available and an increasing amount of research indicates that outdoor gatherings are relatively low risk when masking and social distancing are employed, local public-health officials signed off on reduced-capacity Red Rocks shows.
“All of those things taken into account, we feel comfortable letting this move forward,” says Bob McDonald, director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “We’ve been discussing what can be allowed for many weeks with other venues.”
Live Nation initially scheduled two Lotus dates at $45 and $70 per ticket. When both sold out in minutes on April 2, promoters added two more dates, and those sold out quickly as well.
The demand for tickets and the return of open-air shows in Denver are encouraging signs for promoters, venues and ticket sellers that wrote off the previous four quarters. Live Nation reported losses totaling more than $10 billion in the first nine months of the pandemic, and Brian Kitts, spokesman for the city-run venue, says Red Rocks lost more than $50 million in 2020.
While it’s more cost-efficient to sell 9,500 tickets every night, Kitts says Lotus’ four gigs, which were attended by 10,000 fans total, enabled Red Rocks to gain financial ground again.
“It’s a tremendous relief,” he says. “For 175 people, nobody’s making money. But with 2,500, you’re starting to sell some beers and tickets and putting people back to work.”
The rest of Red Rocks’ schedule is slowly filling up. Diplo is doing two nights in May, Ben Harper plays Memorial Day and local heroes Big Head Todd and the Monsters are slated for June.
Promoters say they’ve deliberately focused on booking individual performers (as opposed to large bands) and locally based who can drive to the venue, in part to mitigate the cumbersome safety precautions that artists need to follow when rehearsing and traveling to gigs. (Lotus’ bassist and sampler Jesse Miller says most of the band’s members are vaccinated but still rehearsed in masks after out-of-town members came in for the shows.)
As of April 23, 28.4% of Colorado’s population had been fully vaccinated, according to The Washington Post, ranking it 29th in the nation. But Live Nation’s Pirritt says he’s bullish about the local live industry ramping up, given the pace of vaccinations in the United States. (According to The Washington Post, 27.5% of the country has been fully vaccinated, while 41.3% has received at least one shot.) “We’re going to roll quickly back to normalcy. Quick,” he says. “Red Rocks is going to have a very robust calendar, to say the least.”
Others are more cautious, however. Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist and Denver University chemistry professor, says masks and social distancing are “pieces of the puzzle” that make Red Rocks safer, but he adds, “I’d be happier if we could wait a little longer and push vaccination rates up as high as we possibly can.”
Don Strasburg, co-president of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, has booked several Red Rocks shows for the coming months, he’s personally more cautious than his Live Nation rival. “We’re doing everything we can to prepare for a multitude of scenarios,” he says. “It’s important to be as patient as we can be.”
At Red Rocks on April 22, the fans sounded no less enthusiastic than they were before the pandemic. They cheered, screamed and danced face-to-face — most without masks — during Lotus’ two sets. There were just fewer of them. To organize crowd control, city officials divided the amphitheater into 625-person quadrants, each with its own restroom and concessions stand, and fans were mostly diligent about masking up when they wandered away from their areas. “It’s nice to be around a lot of happy people,” said Kelly Sylvain, a 33-year-old home-care worker who bought tickets for all four shows and flew in from Michigan.
At the end of Lotus’ first set, in which the five members of the instrumental band stood 10 feet apart from each other, guitarist Mike Rempel told the crowd: “It was a long year, but we’re bringing it back.”