It was a time for drawing hard lines. Civil rights demonstrations, antiwar protests and student strikes flared up across the land. Music changed. Music mattered. For Denverites, the rock revolution was on, ready or not. 

(Promoter Barry) Fey kicked off the 1970 season with Ten Years After and Grand Funk Railroad for $4. By 3 p.m., the time at which those in attendance were required to show tickets in order to stay in the amphitheatre, the place was already one-third full, mostly with folks without tickets. With none available, discussion ensued about the possibility of moving the show to the larger Denver Coliseum. 

But since Fey had fought the city long and hard to use Red Rocks for rock music, he averted disaster by appealing to the “brothers and sisters” to leave the stands and go back outside to return through the gates with their tickets. The ticketless complied, and they were invited to stay outside and listen to the music even if they couldn’t see the performers. 


Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

On August 10, another capacity crowd greeted the power trio Mountain and the British progressive rock band Jethro Tull. Urban growth had pushed major roads into the west metro area, but concertgoers still had to negotiate winding roads to find a space in one of the parking lots, and then came a steep walk to get to the amphitheatre from the lower lots. But it was all part of the fun—the incredible beauty and excellent acoustics led Felix Pappalardi of Mountain to call Red Rocks “the most beautiful place we’ve ever played.” 

After that triumph, Jethro Tull would open the summer season at Red Rocks on June 10, 1971. In one of the most infamous events in Denver concert history, it resulted in a riot. 

VENUE: Parking lot, 1947. (Courtesy of Denver Public Library/Western History Collection)

Rumors about potential unrest surfaced in the days leading up to the show. On that Thursday, an estimated 2,000 people who had not been able to get tickets went peacefully to Red Rocks to situate themselves on the surrounding rocks and hills to see and hear what they could, but there also was a militant faction determined to start trouble. Extra police were called in at 3 p.m. to control gatecrashers. At 5:30, the police, under orders from Lt. Jerry Kennedy, told the fans they would be allowed to sit on the hill behind the theater where they could hear the music, but not see the show. 

FANS: Circa 1991. (Courtesy City of Denver)

The tumult started an hour before the concert was scheduled to begin, when a number of the “hill people” started to climb over the outdoor venue’s back area in an attempt to get closer to the show; they swarmed the perimeter, walking over the bluffs and into the top parking lot. 

The cops had warned the crowd that they would use tear gas if it didn’t disperse, feeling that the rough terrain would render any other way to maintain security impossible. A helicopter dropped the first volley in the upper area, but rather than deterring the disorderly throng, the tear gas incited further acts of violence. The crashers picked up bottles and rocks to use as ammunition against the police. 

“Red Rocks: The Concert Years”


Where to find it:

SunLit present new excerpts from some of the best Colorado authors that not only spin engaging narratives but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.

Adding to the problem, some of the gas began to fill the canyon-like shape of the amphitheatre, wafting over the paying crowd and collecting on the stage at an alarming rate—a situation that forced Livingston Taylor, the opening act, to make a hasty exit before finishing his set. “This is supposed to be music!” he cried. “What’s going on here?” 

While the police tended to injuries outside the theater, the medical staff attached to the amphitheatre had more problems than they could handle. Two doctors who went into the audience to treat severe injuries had their medical bags stolen, rendering them virtually helpless, while a small staff inside the aid station bandaged cracked skulls and revived those who had been overcome by the gas. 

That the concert went on at all was a tribute to the perseverance of the members of Jethro Tull.

“We were leaving our hotel to go up to the show when we received word that there was a problem,” flute-playing frontman Ian Anderson said. “We set off in our rented station wagons and were met by a police roadblock that tried to turn us back. We said, ‘We’re the band,’ and we were told, ‘There’s not going to be a show, go away.’ 

“We thought that was ridiculous, so we managed to find a back route on a dirt road. We still had to make a fairly aggressive effort to get to the site—we wound up running a roadblock—and when we got there, we realized there was trouble going on outside. The police were trying to stop us from going to play—they felt that would make it worse. I said, ‘Look, if you don’t let us go onstage, not only are there going to be 2,000 people outside rioting, but 9,000 people inside are going to go crazy as well.’” 

Reluctantly, the authorities allowed Tull to proceed. Anderson wandered on stage with tears in his eyes. The other members were also weeping and gasping for breath—keyboardist John Evan couldn’t see his piano through the tear gas. 

PERFORMERS: Illenium, 2015. (Photo by Nainoa Langer)

Undaunted, Tull played anyway. Anderson surveyed the Denver police chopper hovering in the distance dispensing periodic charges of tear gas at the rear of the assembly. “Welcome to World War III,” he croaked, and the music, much of it from Tull’s album Aqualung, went on for the next 80 minutes. Anderson was magnificent, stalking the stage and playing his flute like a man possessed, despite the circumstances. 

“The gas made life very difficult in the amphitheatre itself,” he said. “The wind blew a cloud of gas over the audience to the stage. We had to stop several times. I remember seeing babies being passed down through the crowd so they wouldn’t be affected by the gas. It was a horrifying sight. Happily, we were able to keep some sense of peaceful resolution with the audience. By playing the show, we kept the lid on what could have become a very dangerous situation.” 

The show at Red Rocks was one of drummer Barriemore Barlow’s first dates with the band.

“Having slightly upset the police on the circuitous way up there, we had to be careful going down again—they saw us as the reason all this had happened,” Anderson said. “We were hiding under blankets in the back of a rental station wagon, licking our wounds, lest the rather overly anxious local police decided to encourage a fray. They shined their torches in the station wagon looking for the longhaired British rock band. It was all a bit scary. Our eyes were streaming and we were coughing. Barrie turned to me and asked, ‘Is it going to be like this every night?’” 

In the wake of the riot, 28 persons, including four Denver policemen and three infants, were treated at area hospitals for injuries suffered in the disturbances, ranging from broken bones to gas inhalation. Dozens more—policemen, concertgoers and would-be gatecrashers—received treatment at the scene by a volunteer medical team. Twenty people, including three juveniles, were arrested on charges ranging from weapons violations to drunkenness to possession of narcotics. One parked car was overturned and burned, and several other vehicles were damaged. 

The mayhem resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the 1971 season—Judy Collins, Burt Bacharach, Rod McKuen and the Vienna State Opera Ballet. Sam Feiner, director of Denver’s theaters and arenas division, said he wouldn’t allow any more rock events at Red Rocks as a result of the disturbances—a ruling that held for years.

PORTRAITURE: Huey Lewis, 1985. (Photo by Brian Brainerd)

G. Brown has navigated the Rocky Mountain musical landscape for decades, both as a journalist and as a radio personality. He covered popular music at The Denver Post for 26 years, interviewing well over 2,500 musicians. Published in numerous national magazines, including Rolling Stone and National Lampoon, Brown also covered music news and hosted and programmed for myriad Denver-based radio stations. He also wrote “Colorado Rock Chronicles” and “Telluride Bluegrass Festival: The First Forty Years.” He is the founding director of Colorado Music Experience, a nonprofit cultural and educational organization established to preserve the legacies of Colorado music.