I grew up in a small town in Nebraska. The vast corn stock plains provided many advantages over those in metropolitan areas; “Cruising” the “ones”, boredom that spawns creativity, and most importantly, high school sports serving as a monarchy. All of these things can only be found in the place I called home. What couldn’t be found was a cool rock show. In my teen years I had to drive at least four hours to the east or the west to be able to find a good rock show. On certain occasions I would load up in a car, usually a gas guzzling 80’s Buick Le Sabre or a 1995 Pontiac Grande Am, and head on a mini road trip in search of rock, as long as my mom and dad said it was okay and I, with my Eddie Haskell charm, convinced my friend’s parents it was okay. These trips were filled with wide eyes, atlas’s, and truck stops, all the while listening to our favorite band at the moment screaming angsty lyrics in anticipation of our moment to “rock out,” and if were lucky, meet the band we saw on the sleeve of the CD as we sat in our basement bed rooms late at night memorizing every word.
I moved to Denver when I was 18 years old because of all the shows I could see in a given week. I remember reading the Westword and thinking, “Man, every week can be like my last road trip.” In light of this it might seem ironic that on Tuesday night right after getting home from class I decided to hop into a car and drive 3 hours to Aspen to see Explosions in the Sky, especially since they were going to be in Denver the following night. I set out on this road trip because I figured I wouldn’t have the time to see them the following night, and the fact that my friends told me I would only have to pay $5 in gas didn’t hurt either. This was my first time in Aspen, ever! When I was a kid I’d watch Dumb and Dumber incessantly and repeat all the lines. My only knowledge of Aspen was what Loyd Christmas told me, “A place where the beer flows like wine, and the women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano.” When I walked into the Belly Up on this night the beer was definitely flowing, but the women weren’t flocking. From what I could tell from my bar stool before the show, every woman in Aspen had a boyfriend. If you are single, don’t move to Aspen. Loyd thought John Denver was full of shit. Well I’ll tell you, Loyd Christmas is full of shit, man. Not that this normally bothers me much, but this dynamic resulted in a lot of girlfriend/boyfriend banter. This is obnoxious enough in it’s own right, but the banter carried over into the show.
Explosions in the Sky are an instrumental post-rock band that gained major recognition after being featured in the film, and subsequent soundtrack, of the 2004 film and television show Friday Night Lights. Without a lead singer the band seemed to struggle to gain the crowds attention at first, which is odd considering they were the headliners. During the atmospheric intro to their first song, "Memorial", the banter of the burnout couple to my left was nearly as audible as the band. The band was configured in a simple, yet dramatic stage set up with bassists Michael James standing in the middle of the stage, with the two guitar players Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith kneeling with their heads down. As the crescendo of the song built, the two guitar players rose and seemed to bloom like flowers. When the song entered a soft bridge, one of the local ski bums yelled, “Why are you so sad?” To which Rayani flipped off the crowd. After this, the rest of the song and set took on a stronger tone. While the burnouts in the front where channeling the spirit of Timothy Leary, the Texas natives Explosions seemed to be channeling the spirit of Sam Houston.
Nearing the end of "Memorial", the band went into a thundering two minute jam that was as violent as the Battle of San Jacinto. It felt like the band was out for blood, playing with reckless abandon and rebellious chord progression.
After the cataclysmic opening the band settled into a brilliantly crafted set. As an instrumental band Explosions did a fairly decent job of present a compelling stage show. There music to me, however, always seems better suited as a compliment to something else than the main focus. During the set my eyes were consistently drawn to the crowd. This might have to do with me inheriting a deep-seated people watching genre from my Grandpa, but Explosions’ music can make everyday moments look like movie moments and give normal interactions an epic feel, whether it be taking a shower or walking a dog.
The crowd was populated with annoying pseudo-hippies, this was a mountain town after all. The Belly Up was booming with the 3 B’s (Beards, Beanies, and Burnouts). And the couple to the left of me broke out the glow sticks early in the set, officially making them walking clichés. Despite the stereotypes in the crowd there was actually a little diversity that made for great people watching. Behind me there was a short guy wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates hat, who looked a lot like a kid I grew up with named Jay Williams, that was a guitar ventriloquist, an airguitar Edgar Bergen if you will. This normally might sound annoying, but seeing the guy drunkenly rockout to Explosions in the Sky was actually kind of cool. To my right there was a young high school couple, I assume they were in high school judging by the black Xs on their hands, old navy attire and bad hair cuts, standing in the oh so high school lovelorn way (The guy behind the girl with his arms draped around her waist) slowly swaying to the ambient guitars with their eyes closed. Their sway even appeared to be in slow motion. As, what I consider Explosions signature song, “Your Hand in Mine,” which was featured prominently throughout the film Friday Night Lights, echoed through the small mountain venue I saw two girls in front of me slow dancing. This scene in my memory could have easily been taken out of Friday Night Lights.
As the final blaring notes of “The Only Moment We Were Alone” hummed through the speakers the show ended with the same tenacity it began. No encore. I don’t believe this was done out of spite for the crowd that they seemed to hold in contempt. I believe the band knew that an encore would be disingenuous, it would complete go against the mood they created. And I couldn’t have been happier. I have long lamented the self indulgence and absurdity of the “planned” encore and it was refreshing to have a show end on literally the perfect note. With seamless segues Explosions in the Sky were able to create a show that felt like one long song, a score to people at a concert. As I sat in my friend’s car at 2 am going over my notes, still listening to Explosions, I could picture the quaintly attractive Brazilian waitress at the Belly Up wiping down a table and finishing up closing the dank mountain bar before turning off the lights and heading home. On the way home I might have been driving through the mountains as a 22 year old critic, but with Explosions providing the score to my journey, I strangely felt like the wide eyed 17 year old in the back seat of a 1995 Pontiac Grand Am traversing the vast corn stock plains of Nebraska.