By Mark Brown, Rocky Mountain News
August 19, 2005
The promoter is touting it as the 20th anniversary of Reggae on the Rocks, one of the nation’s most influential reggae festivals, which debuted here in 1988.
Wait a minute – 1988 was 17 years ago, not 20.
Promoter Bill Bass explains that it’s the 20th show , because some years featured a two-day festival. Of course, there’s added confusion created by Bass’s penchant for skipping years. He didn’t like the way the seventh year looked in Roman numerals on the concert poster, so he leapt to year eight. And superstition dictated he jump from 12 to 14.
But, he assures us, this is the 20th show.
Well, time is but a concept, after all. The 20th (or 17th or 21st, take your pick) anniversary of Reggae on the Rocks is set for noon Saturday with Culture, Israel Vibration, Majek Fashek, Yellowman and more.
Like much of Red Rocks’ early success, Reggae on the Rocks was the brainchild of promoter Barry Fey, Bass says. It wasn’t inspiration so much as a touch of desperation. Fey Concerts had a contract with the city of Denver that required them to put 40 shows a year in various venues, and they were looking to fall short of that number.
“My club reggae shows were going very good. Every show I did was selling out,” Bass says. “Barry said ‘Why don’t you take a bunch of these bands and take them up to Red Rocks?’ I said ‘Barry, that’s never going to work. There’s no way to sell that many tickets for reggae.’ ”
And, of course, it sold out.
“It was unbelievable. We sold out day of show in the morning,” Bass says. “There was a lot of great excitement. It was my biggest show up till then.”
Like shows by the Grateful Dead (and more recently, Radiohead and Bjork), people would travel to catch a show at the Rocks.
“Extra people would come just because it was at Red Rocks,” says Fey (who also notes that back in the ’90s he held two 20th-anniversaries of his legendary Summer of Stars series as well).
“To be honest, I don’t think I was even sophisticated enough then to realize (Red Rocks’ appeal),” Bass says.
While it was Fey’s idea, “this was strictly Bill’s expertise. I just had to push him to make it a success,” Fey says.
At one point, Bass and Fey considered getting a permanent headliner for the festival and making it Jimmy Cliff’s Reggae on the Rocks, “but he was so irregular that you never knew when he might be doing what,” Fey says.
Tickets that inaugural year were set at $16 and $17 for a lineup that included Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, David Lindley and El Rayo X and the Neville Brothers. Over the years, the prices have crept up as costs increased and performers demanded more money, but it’s still a reasonable price at about $40.
“Our intent was to try to always keep it cheaper than other festivals. But the artists are just commanding more money. The airfares have gone up. If you’re bringing people in from Jamaica, which we do on a regular basis, it costs,” Bass says.
Back when they started Reggae on the Rocks, it was one of 17 held nationwide.
These days that number is up to 80, in large part due to Reggae on the Rocks’ influence.
Burning Spear, the legendary Jamaican reggae artist who played the first festival, says Denver’s dates helped spread reggae.
“When you say (Red) Rocks, it’s a big thing,” he says. “Not for size. The Rock is big for doing what it’s doing – it put reggae music out there and let people know about it. It did a lot for reggae music and a lot for reggae artists.”
When he played the first show, “it was very exciting as an artist. I’d always heard about Red Rocks. I didn’t know there was a place that looked like that,” Burning Spear says. “I have to lift my cap to Bill. I don’t know if anyone else can do what Bill does.”
It’s not all happy memories.
The late musician Fela Kuti took trash bags to the catering area and cleaned out all the food, taking it to his dressing room to feed his various wives and children, “and wasn’t thinking much about my crew,” Bass says.
It poured rain that same day, yet 7,000 people showed up. Kuti then refused to play before Jimmy Cliff, insisting he should headline the show. Bass went to Cliff, who agreed.
“As soon as (Cliff) stepped onstage, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, the moon came out. Jimmy Cliff did two hours and completely burns out the crowd. Fela comes out and the rain pours again,” Bass says. The crowd left, leaving Kuti playing to about 100 people.
And Fey, the founder of the festival, has never attended a single one. No memories, he says, “just the receipts.”
Mark Brown is the popular music critic. Brownm@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2674