Dispatch to pass the torch of service at Red Rocks

My favorite live album in high school was Dave Matthews Band’s “Live at Red Rocks,” capturing the band’s first headlining performance at the legendary venue in 1995. Ever since, Red Rocks Amphitheater has occupied a hazy corner of my mind as this mythical, larger-than-life playground for some of the most talented musicians on the planet. Year after year, it consistently appears at the top of both fans’ and artists’ lists of favorite concert venues around the world.

More than a decade later, I found myself on a tour bus pulling into Morrison, Colorado for my first visit to Red Rocks. While I consciously forced myself to downplay any and all expectations for our experience there that day, it actually surpassed every illusion I had of the 9,200-seat natural, stone-carved amphitheater. I got to see three of my favorite bands play in perfect weather for an incredibly gracious crowd. For a live music fan, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

But my favorite part of the day was my visit to the Red Rocks Trading Post. Sure, I stocked up on postcards and magnets. But I also found a makeshift museum in the back of the gift shop featuring some of the earliest history of the movement in which I’m most deeply invested as an activist – the national service movement.

Red Rocks Amphitheater was built by the hands of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the most popular program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The CCC provided jobs for young Americans who were inspired to perfect their imperfect nation through service. 75 years ago this summer, Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton and Parks & Improvements Manager George Cranmer received approval from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to mobilize the CCC to build Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater. Over the next 5 years, 18-25 year olds from across the country came together for six-month terms of service, paid a mere $1 per day plus room and board, to build the world-renowned park and concert venue.

This weekend, indie roots rock trio Dispatch will open its first tour in nearly a decade with three shows at Red Rocks. As they take the stage, members Brad Corrigan, Chad Stokes, and Pete Francis will also be making a commitment to pass on the torch of service that is (literally) foundational to the sacred stones of Red Rocks by sponsoring a team of AmeriCorps members with City Year Denver in the program’s founding year. When the school bell rings in September, “The Dispatch Team,” made up of diverse 17-24 year olds from across the country, will spend a year in full-time service at a Denver Public School, focusing on student attendance, behavior, and course performance to keep more kids in school and on track to graduate from high school.

As a cornerstone of their AMPLIFYING EDUCATION campaign, Dispatch has donated $1 from every ticket sold and 100% of the proceeds from their June 17th benefit show at Terminal 5 in NYC to support local education programs like City Year and Teach for America. In partnership with HeadCount’s Music for Action, the band is highlighting the grassroots effort to protect federal funding for AmeriCorps, which is putting more teachers, tutors, mentors, and other positive role models classrooms across the country. And in each tour market, Dispatch is also encouraging fans to take a local action for education from donating books to school libraries to rolling up their sleeves in service with members of the band before the show. By taking 3 simple actions for education, fans will “unlock” Dispatch’s entire 2009 acoustic performance from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

For nearly 80 years, national service has been changing the face of America for the better. It’s a simple concept: identify the most pressing challenges of our day; recognize our citizenry as a valuable, underutilized resource; and then develop people-powered solutions to address those challenges.

Then, it was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided jobs for 2.5 million hard-working Americans who needed them following the Great Depression, planted 3 million trees, and either constructed or updated more than 300 national and state parks including Red Rocks. Today, it’s proven AmeriCorps programs like City Year and Teach for America, which are inspiring young people to give a year, two, or even a lifetime to combat educational inequity and the high school dropout epidemic.

Only now do I appreciate the image that DMB chose to put on its album cover: a circa 1940s-era photo with a sign notifying the public of the venue’s construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps. If Dispatch ever puts a live release of this coming weekend’s shows, maybe they’ll include a shot of City Year’s trademark red jackets up against the CCC’s trademark Red Rocks. Or maybe it’ll make the liner notes…

Matt Wilhelm serves as co-director of Calling All Crows and is leading the Amplifying Education campaign out on the road with Dispatch this summer. He’s a two-term NH AmeriCorps alumnus, co-founder of ServeNext.org, and State Radio’s lighting designer. When they’re not touring, Matt and his wife Jody live in Manchester, NH.