Along the banks of Gore Creek, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains lies one of central Colorado’s best-kept secrets: Of course, everyone is familiar with the world-famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, but some 85 miles further west of Denver is a hidden gem in Vail known as the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.

The scenic, ~2,600-capacity outdoor amphitheater has flown under the radar of many music lovers for nearly 36 years, but thanks to a partnership with AEG Presents formed in 2018, The Amp (as it’s known) is beginning to take its place in the pantheon of beloved Colorado venues. In the past five years, the venue fully operated by the nonprofit Vail Valley Foundation has hosted intimate concerts by everyone from Robert Plant to Steve Martin and Martin ShortTrey Anastasio to Death Cab For Cutie, and many more.

“It creates this really intimate, unique show,” Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater Vice President Dave Dressman told Live For Live Music of booking such big names in a relatively small venue. “Couple that with the setting—the mountains, and the river, and the beauty of Vail and the Vail valley—and it’s a recipe for something special.”

The story of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater begins back in 1987 with—you guessed it—former president Gerald R. Ford, who dedicated the city-operated venue at its June 27th opening. The following month, on July 16th, 1987, country music legend Willie Nelson christened The Amp with its first-ever headlining performance.

Over the years, The Amp has played host to many memorable concerts, perhaps most notably an August 24th, 1992 show by Santana. That concert featured a then-burgeoning jam band known as Phish as support, and that night guitar hero Carlos Santana brought out rising star Trey Anastasio for a sit-in. The collaboration also featured an appearance by drummer Jon Fishman, who stepped out for a vacuum solo later immortalized in the uber-rare Phish song “Walfredo”, dedicated to Santana’s former drummer, Walfredo Reyes Jr.: “The snow fell in Vail Colorado / When Fish played the vacuum and ruined your set.”

Phish’s history with The Amp came full circle in 2019 when Trey returned to Vail after 27 years for a Trey Anastasio Band gig. He came back in 2022 for another TAB show and performed several songs solo, where he even told the story in detail and offered a tease of “Walfredo” (though he had nobody with whom to switch instruments).

Phish – “Walfredo” – Las Vegas, NV – 9/30/00

[Video: The Pharchive]

Trey Anastasio – Story About Phish & Santana, “Walfredo” Tease – 5/21/22

[Video: Brian Marschall]

Of course, there have been plenty of other goosebump-worthy moments at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. In 2001, shortly after one of the venue’s first major renovations, Bob Dylan played The Amp. As rain poured down on the open-air lawn situated behind the covered pavilion, Dylan dipped into his back pages for relevant takes on “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Rainy Day Women” while precipitation soaked the crowd.

A quarter-century after his father christened the venue, Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real made their debut at The Amp in 2014 to carry the family torch in Vail. Four years later, an all-star amalgamation of jam musicians gathered to celebrate Jerry Garcia‘s birthday with a two-night birthday party for the late Grateful Dead leader. Among the party’s participants were Oteil Burbridge (Dead & Company), Tom Hamilton (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead), Duane Trucks (Widespread Panic), Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band), and many more.

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real – 8/12/14

[Video: evenstev]

Jerry Garcia Birthday Band – 8/17/23 – Full Show

[Video: HDLt00b]

Jerry Garcia Birthday Band – 8/18/23 – Full Show

[Video: HDLt00b]

As COVID decimated the live music industry, The Amp led the charge in the safe return of live events as one of the first venues to reopen. The Vail venue hosted a limited-capacity movie night on the lawn on July 11th, 2020, and proceeded to deliver safely distanced events including high school graduations, plays, and community activities throughout the year. Additionally, The Amp hosted 175-capacity community concerts with acts like Robert Randolph & Friends, Kyle Hollingsworth Band, Magic Beans, and more to keep the city’s spirits up. In 2021, the tide of concerts began to roll back in beginning with Michael Franti & Spearhead on June 4th, 2021, the venue’s first full-capacity event since 2019. The Amp went on to host 68 events in 2021, more than any year in its history.

One of the undisputed highlights of the 2021 comeback concert season, and even the entire post-lockdown history of The Amp, was a two-night run by Bob Weir & Wolf Bros in June 2021. In addition to serving as two of the Grateful Dead guitarist’s first in-person concerts post-lockdown, they also marked the introduction of The Wolf Pack string and horn section, which now serves as a fixture of Bobby’s live performances. The concerts were so well-received that they were coupled with audio from the proceeding two nights at Red Rocks to form the two-part live album Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros: Live In Colorado.

“It was about as celebratory as you could get,” remarked Dressman.

Bob Weir & Wolf Bros –  6/11/21 – Previews

Bob Weir & Wolf Bros –  6/12/21 – Previews

Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros: Live In Colorado Vols. 1 & 2

In a given year, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater hosts roughly 60+ events, with many of those made up of large-scale concerts booked in partnership with AEG. The rest of the diverse summer season includes many long-running events beloved by the community. Some of Vail and the venue’s oldest traditions include the BRAVO!VAIL orchestral series, which has been ongoing since the venue’s inception, as well as the Vail Dance Festival, which has been bringing diverse world-class dance to the mountains since 1989.

Relative newcomers to the fold at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater include the GoPro Mountain Games. This free adventure sports and music festival brings together top athletes to compete in 30 different human-powered sports including running, climbing, biking, whitewater rafting, and more over four days. After witnessing peaks of physical stamina, the days come to a close with headlining concerts at The Amp. Throughout the summer, The Amp also hosts free shows as part of the Hot Summer Nights series, which has included performances by FruitionThe Wailers49 WinchesterNorth Mississippi Allstars, and more.

While most outdoor amphitheaters range anywhere from 5,000 all the way to 30,000, The Amp maintains an intimate feel with a 1,265-capacity seated pavilion plus room for 1,300 more standing on the lawn. That intimacy is compounded by the fact that the venue sits only a ten-minute walk from the village of Vail, where an array of quality accommodations provides over 20,000 pillows for visitors. But at the end of the day, the one thing that no other venue in Colorado or even the world has that the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater does is the unparalleled bucolic splendor of seeing top headlining acts in the beauty of the Vail mountains.

“My favorite thing is standing at the gates, and watching people walk in for the first time and go ‘holy shit,'” Dressman observed. “They’re blown away by just how unique it is.”

The Amp is typically open from April through October so check out the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater website and socials for all upcoming announcements and events.