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The National with Bartees Strange. Dillon Amphitheater. 08.10.22

Red Rocks will always be the most iconic amphitheater in Colorado (and the country, for that matter), but it is not the only amphitheater the Centennial State has to offer. No, I am not talking about the corporate hellhole down in Greenwood Village. There’s The Mishawaka in Bellevue, the Gerald R. Ford up in Vail, the new Levitt Pavilion on Ruby Hill, and the Dillon Amphitheater. These venues provide alternatives to the notoriously hard-to-book venue in Morrison and additional opportunities for bands to play extra nights while passing through. It also allows fans to catch their favorite band in another location if the Red Rocks show sells out and the aftermarket tickets are beyond budget. I had not been to the Dillon Amphitheater in many years, but I jumped at the chance when I saw Bartees Strange was opening for The National. Tickets were much less expensive than the Red Rocks show with Lucy Dacus (Dillon does not use AXS or Ticketmaster, so they avoid the ridiculous fees), and it was an excellent opportunity to catch two of my favorite acts in a more intimate setting.

Nothing can beat the majesty of Red Rocks, but the atmosphere at the little Dillon Amphitheater does not suck. About a minute walk from your choice of bars and restaurants, the venue offers room for 3,656 people to enjoy live performances on a lake-side stage with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. The whole place is General Admission and allows for picnic-style grass seating, concrete benches, and ample standing room center stage. There is not a bad seat in the house. Various food and drink options are available, and I never once waited in line for the restroom. With more and more famous acts booking nights in Dillon, I recommend heading up the hill to catch a show.

Bartees Strange is a multi-instrumental singer-songwriter based in Washington, D.C. He is also a big fan of The National. “We’re all here for the same reason,” he announced to the crowd after his first songs, “we’re all huge fans of The National.” This was not your typical opening act praising the band that brought him on tour. Bartees broke into the indie rock public consciousness with an EP of The National cover songs. “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy” reimagined songs like “About Today,” “Mr. November,” and “All the Wine,” while taking the midrange song “Lemonworld” to new heights. Releasing that EP as a relative unknown just two years ago, I cannot imagine the excitement he was experiencing being on tour with his favorite band.

Positioning himself at a keyboard, with guitar in hand, Bartees opened the set with “Black Gold” and “Mulholland Dr.” from his excellent new album, “Farm to Table.” Then he joined his band to take us back to the Oklahoma neighborhood he grew up in after his family moved to the U.S. from England. Bartees’ songs range from indie rock to r&b to soul to hip-hop, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from a live show. As he transitioned from the tribute to George Floyd’s daughter, “Hold The Line,” to his namedropping “Cosigns,” all his influences and styles shone through, but it was always a rock show. No sampling was necessary because he had a competent band, each member with their own style and personality. He even brought Ben Laz and Kyle Resnick (The National’s horn section) out for “Heavy Heart.” “I have a couple friends here, so I’m showing off.” And show off he did. It takes absolute conviction to perform a cover of a song from the band you are opening for, but Bartees did just that. His explosive “Lemonworld” ended an incredible set. Those in the audience who hadn’t heard of Bartees before were converted, and those of us who were there for him as much as his idols were more than satisfied with his short set.

Bartees Strange Setlist: Black Gold, Mulholland Dr., Boomer, Hold the Line, Cosigns, Heavy Heart, Escape This Circus, Mustang, Lemonworld.

The National is a band I have seen an average of once a year for fifteen years. “Alligator” was on repeat on my iPod for six months while I backpacked around SE Asia. “Boxer” constantly spun as friends crammed into my San Francisco apartment after hours. Seeing them at Spreckels in San Diego for “High Violet” is one of my most memorable shows. My wife and I left California to drive to our new home in Colorado while listening to “About Today.” And having Matt scream about oceans breaking while standing on the ledge in front of me in Aspen was mind-blowing. I could go on, but this is supposed to be about their show in Dillon. The National have come a long way in the years since their debut album twenty-one years ago, so being able to catch them at a small venue (before they return in a month for the Red Rocks show) was quite the experience. Even though it was just another stop on a massive tour, they did not hold back. It felt like a festival headlining set performed in someone’s backyard.

The performance started, as the sun was setting over the mountains, with “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and was heavy on “Trouble Will Find Me” material until Matt paused to comment on how lucky they are “to be playing at all these beautiful places.” He didn’t have a bottle of wine in hand but sounded like he enjoyed a glass or five backstage. “This is our only song that gets played at weddings,” he joked before “Slow Song,” “we have a lot of divorce songs.” Divorce became a common topic throughout the set. Aaron wrote “Slow Song” while he was going through a divorce. “Divorce is a part of every marriage,” Matt added, “this is for all the happy marriages.” After their version of “Lemonworld” (I stand by my opinion that it’s not as good as Bartees’ version) and a personal favorite, “Wasp Nest,” we got our first preview of the upcoming album with “This Isn’t Helping.” “This would be good for divorces. Pretend you’re at a divorce.

Speaking of Bartees, The National brought him out for “Mistaken for Strangers.” Not only to play guitar but to sing the song. It would not be the last time we would see Bartees.

“Day I Die” was the first song Matt decided to perform from the audience. From this point forward, he spent more time in the crowd than on the stage, making his crew earn their wages while manning the mic cord like a fishing line. “Light Years” was the sole selection from “I Am Easy to Find,” “Silver City” (with all the eating of brains) was the song “all the kids’ love,” and the main set wrapped with a sing-along “Fake Empire,” which felt highly appropriate in the setting.

The National could have used this stop in Dillon as an opportunity to take it easy between stops at larger venues. I was afraid that would be the case. It was anything but. I do not foresee the light show being any different at Red Rocks. The main set included eighteen songs. The entire band was on fire and completely engaged.

Good to see a lot of old friends. The rest of you, I’m not sure about, but I’ll get to know you over the next five songs.

And he did. They came back for an encore that included the single that would be released a couple of weeks later, “Weird Goodbyes,” along with fan favorites “Mr. November,” “Terrible Love,” “About Today,” and the usual acapella version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” this time with Bartees and his entire band.

This was The National’s show, but they gave Bartees (their #1 fan) a lot of screen time, making it a fantastic evening of music on the lake, in the mountains, in colorful Colorado.

The National Setlist: Don’t Swallow the Cap, Bloodbuzz Ohio, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, I Need My Girl, This Is the Last Time, Slow Show, Lemonworld, Wasp Nest, This Isn’t Happening, Mistaken for Strangers, Conversation 16, Tropic Morning News (Haversham), Day I Die, Light Years, Pink Rabbits, England, Graceless, Fake Empire, Weird Goodbyes, Mr. November, Terrible Love, About Today, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks