Review – Illenium’s ‘Ascend’ Kept Red Rocks Floating High

In the bitter cold that only comes after Colorado’s first snow of the season, hundreds of people poured into Red Rocks – dressed in their best onesies and wrapped in colorful pashmina scarves – to watch Nick Miller, aka Illenium, play his first mind-blowing hometown show on his “Ascend Tour.” It should have been his second of three shows, one of Miller’s dreams since his career began, but regardless of the heartbreaking decision made the day before, Illenium clearly came to give Friday night’s audience the show of a lifetime.

In lieu of Thursday’s show, Illenium decided to hold a Red Rocks jersey pop-up in Denver. Many people in attendance on Friday night had taken advantage of the previous night’s pop-up, even having the opportunity to meet Miller in person, the evidence scribbled on the backs of their jerseys in Illenium’s signature. And with the unforeseen cancellation, quite a few fans on Friday had clearly scrambled to purchase last-minute tickets to see him while others had the keen foresight to sell and repurchase their tickets as soon as they saw the weather forecast the week before. Regardless, spirits were high and everyone knew they were lucky to be there, ready to bring the same energy that should’ve filled Red Rocks the night before.

As concertgoers were still making their way into the amphitheater, Boulder-based DJ Frequent took the stage. He started off with smooth, low-key beats that would move into dream-like glitchy synth work that kept the audience mesmerized. Eventually, he transitioned into more techno-inspired beats. Frequent maintained a low-profile on stage, moving between his controller pads with calmness and ease, getting more excited as his set picked up momentum. He ended his set with his remix of Illenium’s “Pray,” a song that would make several more appearances throughout the night.

Montreal native Sam Lamar followed up after Frequent, barely giving the audience a second to breathe before plunging the amphitheater into a bass-heavy set. He also performed his own remix of “Pray” for the audience, as well as his collaboration with Felmax and Boogie T – “Bad” – but the highlight of his set came when the familiar, “Are you ready kids?” came issuing out of the speakers, prompting the crowd to yell back “Aye aye, captain!”

Next up was 1788-L with a nice surprise for fans in the crowd. With the unfortunate cancellation of Thursday night’s show, Blanke was unable to play his own opening slot for Illenium, instead headlining at Temple Denver. However, his Red Rocks performance still came to fruition as 1788-L selflessly invited him to share his set on Friday night. Blanke vocalized his gratitude more than once and showed it in his performance. The two easily maneuvered around each other on-stage as if the back-to-back set had been planned all along. Before leaving the stage, both DJs premiered their own remixes of the 2019 League of Legends World theme “Phoenix,” to the delight of the crowd.

The crowd’s patience was finally rewarded when Illenium took the stage for the main event of the night. Since his 2018 drop of Awake Remixes, Illenium fans have been anxiously awaiting new music. He delivered this year with Ascend, bringing fresh collaborations with friends new and old, exciting fans and only elevating his celebrity in the EDM world. With the drop of this new album, Illenium only opened himself up even more to his fans, revealing a track inspired by his past heroin addiction and fully embracing his “sadboi” status.

Illenium started off what was a powerful show, standing solo on-stage, guitar in hand. He was joined by a live band, recreating his songs in collaboration with his fellow musicians including Said the Sky on keys, Day Gatsby on drums, Annika Wells providing vocals and Dabin – who played his own opener set for Illenium on Saturday night as well – accompanying on guitar. At times, Illenium would pick up the drumsticks himself, playing with Gatsby on drums that lined both sides of his DJ booth.

If you can expect anything from an Illenium set, it would be a mind-altering visual show. In addition to intense pyrotechnics and dizzying lasers, songs were accompanied by apocalyptic, cinematic visuals from Illenium’s album cover designer Stuart Lippincott, showcasing dramatic landscapes and a hooded female character traversing dynamic terrains. This show pulled out all the stops and sandwiched between the iconic red rocks that make up the amphitheater, it was a show no one will soon forget.

The crowd stayed engaged throughout the entire show, collectively “wow”-ing at the most intricate laser displays, screaming lyrics at the top of their lungs and headbanging when there were no lyrics to sing. In addition to performing fan-favorite tracks off of Ascend like “In Your Arms,” “Take You Down,” “Pray” and “Takeaway,” Illenium also treated his fans to older songs – “Feel Good” – and his other remixes – Flume and Daya’s “Say It” and Halsey’s “Without You.” Coming back onto the stage for his encore, Wells and Dabin started off with his unreleased collaboration with Ekali, “Hard to Say Goodbye,” before segueing into the song everyone was waiting to hear, “Good Things Fall Apart.” The crowd sang their collective heartbreak, whether imagined or real, into the cold night that didn’t seem to faze anyone. The lights came up over a triumphantly tired crowd and left everyone wishing they could do it all over again. But of course, some did, the very next night.

All photography by Brandon Johnson. Full gallery can be found here.