MORRISON — To make sense of a pandemic concert at Red Rocks, you have to think about what’s missing. The sea of cars in the parking lot and the long wait to get inside. The lines for beer and bumping into people while you find your seat. The echoey sound of people talking over each other. The rows and rows of people packed together.
There was none of that. Yet, there was music.
This could’ve been the year without music at Colorado’s famous, nearly 10,000-seat amphitheater. Six months into concerns around the novel coronavirus, the ravaged live music industry has become nearly unrecognizable. In the wake of shuttered venues and canceled tours, no one expected Red Rocks to announce a string of late-season in-person concerts.
But concerts were never fully off the table, says Red Rocks marketing director Brian Kitts.
“We’re a stubborn group,” he said. “I don’t think any of us were ready to let go of a summer of live music.”
The unusual shows, shaped amid COVID-19 concerns, came together in an unusually fast fashion. First was Denver folk favorite Nathaniel Rateliff’s run of shows last week. Each night, an extremely limited capacity of 175 people was admitted in the stands while the concert was streamed online. There was also a drive-in viewing option.
Meanwhile, the live-streaming site Nugs approached Red Rocks about booking some music. An impossibility in any other year, the venue had open dates.
“The whole thing came together in less than five days,” Kitts said of this week’s run of shows featuring Fitz and the Tantrums, Billy Strings and Lotus. “It happened so fast. If it feels like a surprise to fans, it was a surprise to us too.”
It was a welcome surprise for the lucky music lovers who snagged tickets to see the acclaimed deejay Tiesto on Thursday evening.
Tickets started at $125, but prices surged due to demand, similar to the way airline tickets are sold, under a shifting pricing model set up by Tiesto’s management that aims to squeeze out the secondary ticket market, according to Kitts. Tiesto donated all proceeds to Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Among those in the small crowd was Brian Hyman, wearing a Tiesto face mask and a colorful cape. He and his girlfriend screamed when they saw the concert announcement last week and when they scored tickets for $400 each. Hyman would’ve paid more.
“During a year with no concerts, this is an experience you can’t rival,” he said. “There isn’t a dollar amount for this.”
The Fort Collins couple’s love story involves dozens of concerts around the world. It began with one of their first shows together at Red Rocks, the place that convinced Hyman to move to Colorado from Texas. Thursday’s concert was another chapter: it fell on the anniversary of their first date.
“We get to celebrate it in the most magical place on Earth,” Hyman said. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do to be here.”
That was a common feeling for fans, who spent $1,000 for tickets, skipped work or traveled hundreds of miles to catch what many called a “once in a lifetime experience.” Best friends Natalie Tapia and Jennifer Briones flew from Minnesota. When they heard about the concert, they cried. And they decided to buy plane tickets.
“We wanted to do it because we don’t know when the next show like this will be,” Tapia said. Compared to a previous Red Rocks concert she attended, Thursday’s show was “a different world,” she said.
“It’s still a good experience,” she said. “I love to talk to people and make new friends. With the rules, it’s hard to do that.”
Awaiting the music to start, show-goers held up their phones to capture photos and videos of the empty theater. At least one video came with the caption, “Like, are you kidding me?” Spreading out among the first 30 or so rows, there was plenty of room for social distancing while maintaining an up-close view of the stage. The staff, including Laurie Chavez, kept an eye on any people clustering up or taking their masks off.
“I think people are realizing if you want things like this, you have to do certain things now to be safe,” she said.
The Red Rocks employee of 10 years said she usually makes sure “everything runs smoothly and everyone is smiling.” To see the place with so few smiling faces was “crazy.”
“It was almost, like, eerie the first time,” Chavez said. “I think it’s just good we got some kind of music, as horrible as this year has been.”
Red Rocks joins venues around the country, including Nashville’s Opry House and Ryman Auditorium, that are finding creative ways to bring live concerts back to fans, not just from a screen or the seat of a car. For those who have dearly missed concerts in recent months, it’s a sign of light.
“For the musicians and anyone who is willing to take a chance right now, that means a lot to fans,” Kitts said.
But the industry is far from back to normal.
Kitts estimates that Red Rocks will lose at least $50 million this year, just one reason he calls 2020 “a terrible, terrible year.” He and other staff members will be furloughed starting next week. Limited-capacity shows don’t do much for the bottom line.
“Nobody is making any money on any of this,” Kitts said. “You do this because you feel a sense of responsibility to your community.”
That’s why Red Rocks has hosted drive-in movies, yoga classes and other events in recent months.
“We love being able to do anything at all,” he said. “But we all get a little choked up thinking about what could’ve been and what we’re missing.”
For him, even Thursday’s concert was bittersweet. “It’s special because it feels like a private show,” he said. “That said, if you look around at what should’ve been 10,000 people dancing to Tiesto … it feels other-worldly.”
After an intermission, someone in the front row yelled out, “Toast to Tiesto!” Since he was only speaking to 175 people, cans of Whiteclaw and Coors went into the air. As the deejay’s beats began, so did the head banging and free-flowing moves. Near the back, fog machines and lights did their own dance on the dozens of empty rows.
Following this weekend, the Red Rocks stage will be closed for months while the roof is repaired. Then it will be time to figure out what concerts look like in 2021.
“There’s something really heartening about gathering to see live music,” Kitts said. “I don’t think any of us will ever take it for granted again.”