Sean Beckwith: Belly Up vs. Red Rocks
August 7, 2018
The two marquee venues for live music within Colorado's borders, in my opinion, are Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Belly Up Aspen. They are similar only in that they both have stages, host musical acts and are incredibly fun places to take in a concert. However, pretty much everything else about them is different; one is inside, the other is outside; one is small, the other is massive; one has seating, the other is standing-room only outside of a row of reserved tables. In honor of the apples-to-oranges comparison — they're both fruits, after all — let's take a closer look to see which one is better.
I recently attended a concert at Red Rocks featuring Nas and Black Star (Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def). I also have seen Nas and Black Star at Belly Up. (They played separate shows, thank god, because I wouldn't have been able to swing that theoretical $200 ticket.) In order to accurately compare the two places it makes sense to use the same acts as control variables because this is a very serious, very scientific examination. You wouldn't compare a bluegrass show at Belly Up to an EDM festival at Red Rocks because they're two vastly different genres and crowds. Coincidentally, I wouldn't attend either of those events due to the crowd the genres attract.
So I'm going to use a Black Star show from 2010-11 (I'm not sure the actual date), a Nas concert from 2016 X Games weekend and the Nas, Black Star show I went to at Red Rocks last week.
The categories are crowd, visual, sound, bathroom/bar access and accessibility.
The crowds for all three shows were great. While audience plays a big factor in the overall experience, Nas seemed a little disinterested at Belly Up despite a riled up group of bros in the front row. I don't know if it was the fact he also played X Games or was on a time constraint due to Dead Mau5 playing a different ticketed set right after him (I want to say it was the latter), but he did like a five-song encore at Red Rocks and screamed "I love playing Red Rocks!" multiple times.
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Black Star headlined at Belly Up but went on before Nas at Red Rocks. Real hip-hop heads like myself could appreciate both sets but the size really gave Belly Up the advantage. Black Star at Belly Up had that grimey, underground feel that drove onlookers bananas, thus giving it the slight overall edge in this category.
Black Star at Belly Up (BSBU) No. 1, followed by Nas and Black Star at Red Rocks (NBSRR) and then Nas at Belly Up (NBU).
This is a tricky one. Red Rocks was built for Nas, while Black Star is better suited at Belly Up. Two guys rapping from halfway up Red Rocks requires some production value. Sure, the lights and big screen provided something to look at, but there's nothing like being so close you can see things like facial expressions and type of mic. BSBU used those old-timey mics that used to drop down for announcers to announce big boxing matches, which added to the overall vibe of the show.
Nas has the requisite catalog for large-scale production. When he did "Hate Me Now" at Red Rocks and the entire screen was just flames, that's awesome. Nas' most popular song, "One Mic," utilized lights and visuals incredibly well; building the siren-laden hook to a crescendo with hectic visuals before halting all the ocular and actual noise to focus a solo spotlight on Nas as he rapped "All I need is one mic" would've gave 2002 Sean Beckwith immeasurable happiness.
Category goes to NBSRR. BSBU was a close second but NBU really sunk Belly Up's chances in the visual experience section. That and you're at freaking Red Rocks, a gorgeous place by any objective measure amid a sunset and, as was the case July 31, a blood moon.
The expanse of a venue really has to be carefully married with the genre of music. I'm of the opinion that smaller is better for hip-hop. That's not always the case because sound guys vary, and both venues are pretty spot on, but Belly Up was flat-out better than Red Rocks. There was never an issue at BSBU or NBU, while NBSRR didn't do Black Star any favors. There were times when the bass overpowered the MCs and you have to be able to hear "Say Ta-Leeb, it's Talib, if it's hard try spelling it phonetically" crystal clear.
Live instruments generally translate regardless of size, so I feel a little unfair going with BSBU-NBU-NBSRR this round. I'll weigh sound a little less in the final standings as I'm clearly making this up as I go along.
Bar and bathroom should never be in the same room — I'm positive there are health codes that keep them separate — but they are linked in a elementary-school-student-snickering way. Inevitably you'll have to visit both at Belly Up because there aren't convenient beer venders walking the aisles like at Red Rocks. In addition to that, you don't lose your spot at Red Rocks during a bathroom run, which is something that's always on your mind at Belly Up.
I've been to shows at Belly Up where I either A) waited until I was sober/hungover or B) ready to burst to vacate the dance floor for relief or C) ignored booze/bathroom urges to save my spot/enjoy the music, however uncomfortably. When a place forces you to make those decisions, the other automatically wins, even if Red Rocks has you running stairs like you're in an Under Armor commercial. Let's go NBSRR and then NBU-BSBU in a tie (?) for second.
Both Belly Up and Red Rocks are wheelchair accessible, which is great when you consider Red Rocks' handicap section location in relation to the stage. The accessibility I'm talking about is ease to and from the venue, and availability of safety meetings when inside. Red Rocks is a pain to get to, especially if you want to have a few adult beverages because then a DD, Uber or shuttle service is necessary. And, that's before hiking to the entrance.
Breezing into and out of Belly Up is as easy as sneaking a couple of blunts into Red Rocks, which I would never think of and definitely did not do. Safety meetings are possible at Belly Up with the right equipment (*cough* vape pen *cough*). Being a broke naturalist, that wasn't possible at BSBU or NBU.
This is where it gets interesting, though, because I'm talking about these specific shows. I did have a DD for NBSRR, so no extra fees were incurred. I don't remember any issues with NBU, either. BSBU, though, that's a whole other column because I was new to the valley, living in Snowmass, unfamiliar with the bus system and intoxicated. So, I ended getting off where everyone else did as my strategy was to follow the big group of concertgoers because there couldn't possibly be a huge employee-housing complex between Aspen and Snowmass. I later called a cab from Burlingame after realizing that was a thing. NBSRR, NBU and then BSBU in an upset for Red Rocks.
So that means Red Rocks takes three components (visual, bathroom/bar access and accessibility) to Belly Up's two (crowd and sound). Even though Belly Up is known to many Coloradans as a great spot for intimate and occasionally big-name shows, Red Rocks is internationally renowned and deservedly attracts superstar acts. In what was never going to be an upset, Red Rocks is your winner.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Email him at email@example.com.
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