For an event that consciously tries to showcase all that Vegas has to offer, Life is Beautiful founder and organizer Rehan Choudhry hit the nail on its head for the second consecutive year, gathering together the city’s most talented chefs, artists, musicians, and speakers for three days of exploration.
With four music stages, a keynote presentation theatre, a cooking demonstration venue, and dozens of murals and art installations crowding the streets of downtown Las Vegas, one could relive the weekend three or four times over without seeing, eating, learning, or listening to the same thing twice.
What many visitors to Las Vegas tend to forget is that there’s a major city that lies in the shadows of the famed hotels and casinos that line The Strip. Unlike the tourist-crammed section of the city, which is constantly expanding, the struggling downtown core surrounding Fremont Street is littered with empty lots, making it a perfect venue for an urban music festival. Instead of spacing out smaller events throughout the city, as Austin does for South by Southwest, Life is Beautiful shuts down more than 15 square blocks of the city, which provide a conveniently self-contained venue in the heart of the city.
It was clear that Choudhry wanted to provide local crowds with a rare opportunity to see favorites that were less likely to make a stop on their way through Vegas, while providing visitors reasons to return to the newly revitalized downtown, and in that way the event was wildly successful.
Of course, there were a few elements that didn’t go over as well as planned, as one would expect with such an ambitious project. The learning venue proved far too small for the acts that were lined up to perform within, and many fans were disappointed when they were unable to get access to talks by the likes of Pussy Riot, Ricki Lake, and Penn and Teller. The much touted Lionel Express conga line was rarely seen making its way through the venue, inspiring more confusion than participation, and the two actors that spent the entire weekend waiting for passersby to feed them lines inside a 1950s style television had to do more ad-libbing than they likely prepared for, thanks to a line for free cupcakes a few feet away.
As a lesser known event taking place in the autumn of the festival season, there were few celebrity spottings and guest appearances, which might seem unexpected considering the laundry list of talent that resides 20 minutes away on the Strip, but it proved refreshing to attend an event in Sin City that wasn’t flashy and over the top. Besides, the names that filled the official lineup were more than enough to draw an agreeable crowd. Here are some of the weekend’s highlights:
Absent from the festival circuit for the past two years, The Weeknd returned on Friday night in a manor that would imply he’s spent the entire interim working on his suave moves. With the vocal range of Michael Jackson and the hair stylist of Russell Brand, Abel Tesfaye proved his frontman skills with smooth but powerful enthusiasm, stopping intermittently to instruct the packed crowd surrounding the Downtown stage to put their hands up. Three years after his first on-stage appearance, the Toronto-based artist looks as though he has finally found his groove, although much of his originals still sound painfully similar. Asking the crowds to “show me some love,” and “get sexy with me,” the alternative R&B artist serenaded fans with original singles like “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” and “Often”, but really sexed up the night with his passionate rendition of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” as “pornography” floated on the giant screens behind him.
Most Inspiring Moment
When I spoke with Rehan Choudhry a couple of weeks ago, I asked him why he bothered including such a vast “learning” element into what could very well succeed as a standalone music festival. His response seemed trivial at the time, almost cheesy, but after seeing Pussy Riot’s presentation on Friday afternoon, I’ve got to give him credit. In essence, he told me that he wanted the audience to have a profoundly moving experience, and one that they’ll remember for years to come. In five years, when I look back at Life is Beautiful, I might not remember who the headliners were, I might confuse some of the acts I saw for shows I saw at different festivals earlier this year, but I think I speak for every person who was lucky enough to make it into the modest Western Hotel lobby conference room Friday afternoon when I say that I will never forget Pussy Riot’s talk.
Speaking partially in broken English and with the aide of her husband, Nadya Tolokonnikova alongside Masha Alyokhina were all smiles and laughs as they described the two years they spent in a penal colony, the public beatings they’ve suffered, and the ongoing fight for human rights in Russia. The two discussed issues in America, even applauding Russia for taking small but noticeable steps in the right direction, and told the story of a Russian police officer who ironically showed off a “Free Pussy Riot” sticker on his dashboard as he hauled them off to prison. They also discussed the impact art can have on social issues, how they don’t fear what may happen to them upon their return to Russia, and, oddly enough, their love for the Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black.
On Friday night, Yeezus stole much of the crowd away from hometown heroes Panic! At the Disco with his earthshaking, headlining set. (No lie: You could actually feel the ground rumble with each bounce of the bass.) From back stage, Kim, Khloe, and Kris Kardashian watched as the hip-hop mastermind stormed through his early College Dropout days all the way up to last year’s Yeezus. Blame it on being courteous for his wife on her birthday, but Ye was uncharacteristically cautious during his obligatory rant. “This is the part that gets me in trouble,” he admitted to a hushed crowd, spending 10 minutes ranting about how he wasn’t going to rant for fear of being misinterpreted. (Although, it was funny to hear the backup vocalists melodically repeat the word “trouble” the dozen or so times he uttered the word during the interlude.) “I thought this was a free country where you could express yourself and shit,” he concluded. “Somehow Kanye became the bad guy.” His caution might have worked against him, however, as a large number of fans could be seen leaving the venue shortly after.
Albeit 10 minutes late, Jenny Lewis took the modest yet overwhelmed Western stage on Friday evening in her trademark rainbow getup. “It’s good to be home guys, what’s up?” For 35 minutes, Lewis revisited a few oldies from her Rilo Kiley days and stretched out her new hits like “Just One of the Guys”, proving that she’s got the artistic range to master any genre that includes an acoustic guitar. The smile on her face as she walked off stage insisted that she was genuinely happy to perform before neighbors and friends. The crowd’s reaction confirmed that the feeling was mutual.
Most Diverse Crowd
The thousands of smiling faces that surrounded the Downtown Stage Saturday evening for Lionel Richie’s highly anticipated performance represented just about every race, religion, age, sexual orientation and gender. Even his fellow musicians were excited for his performance. Earlier that afternoon, OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash rocked a Lionel T-shirt, while TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe announced he personally couldn’t wait to see the legend on stage. As such, Richie arrived with all of the classics, including spirited performances of “Dancing on the Ceiling”, “Hello”, and “All Night Long”.
“I love the fact that you not only came to see me, but to sing with me,” he said, before announcing that he was brining on a special guest. “Ladies and gentlemen, Diana Ross!” The crowd broke out into cheers, only to be quickly disappointed when he confessed seconds later that she wasn’t actually there. Instead, the crowd was asked to join him in a duet of “Endless Love”: “I’ll be me, you be Dianna.” Closing out his hour and a half set with Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World”, the R&B legend proved to be the great unifier of Sin City.
Stepping out of Jimmy Fallon’s studio for an evening and into the festival spotlight, Questlove, Black Thought, Captain Kirk Douglas, et al. burst onto the Downtown stage Saturday night with a thunderous roar, screeching through a well-crafted set list that provided each member of the large eight-piece band with their own spotlight moment. Jumping and dancing their way across the stage in unison, The Roots exemplified their flare, showmanship, and range by blending a little bit of rock, a little bit of R&B, a little bit of blues, and a little bit of hip-hop into their much-anticipated show. Rounding out the performance with classic hits as well as a hard rocking cover of Guns n’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine”, fans could only try to keep pace with the energy emanating from the headlining venue, the hour-long set seeming far too short for most in attendance.
The Show Everyone Needs to See Once Before They Die
The Flaming Lips
“Even if you don’t like their music,” I heard one festival attendee say to his companion, “everyone needs to see a Flaming Lips show at least once before they die.” The anonymous stranger had a valid point.
Though their popularity has steadily risen within the festival scene, the space-age alternative psychedelic sounds often push the Flaming Lips into a niche corner of the music world. Classic rock fans, who might enjoy the nostalgic wash of their ’60s-inspired psychedelia, could easily be turned away by their pop-like tendencies, such as the recent announcement of their collaboration with Miley Cyrus. While the drug-inspired themes might dissuade some of the more mainstream music fans from giving the psych-rock vets a chance.
But what the Flaming Lips lack in mainstream excitement is made up for in their on-stage antics, allowing even the most casual fan to lose themselves in a dream world of inflatable cartoon mascots. At Life Is Beautiful, the band fueled that curiosity with an on-stage marriage proposal between two fans. The crowd went wild when she said “yes.” It was one of those shows that any music fan could enjoy, but considering that they were up against OutKast, several attendees will probably have to seek out another opportunity to see the Flaming Lips before they die.
Best Use of Local Resources
The Beatles Tribute
Sunday morning saw the biggest crowd of the weekend emerge during daylight hours, thanks in large part to an early, once-in-a-lifetime show that beckoned even the most hungover audience members. Though the desert heat was sweltering that afternoon, The Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra’s tribute to the Fab Four was powerful enough to send chills down the spine. Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, who personally re-mastered each track to perfection, led the 40-piece orchestra through a healthy sampling of the Beatle’s catalogue.
The orchestra performed artful interpretations of “Across the Universe”, “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Michelle”, “For No One”, “Black Bird”, “Here There and Everywhere”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “She’s Leaving Home”, and “Yellow Submarine” before the first of the circus performers joined them on stage. However, the 20-minute accompanying performance was absolutely superb. Actors and acrobats flew through the air in front of the orchestra with a projected display of John, Paul, George, and Ringo providing the vocals through original studio footage.
Most “Balls Out” Performance
On Sunday evening, Broken Bells tore through most of their self-titled debut album and this year’s After the Disco while the screen behind them explored the galaxies above and beyond. Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton pounded out some tasty drum fills and sung backup vocals while Shins frontman James Mercer laid down wailing guitar riffs. As they started playing “To Each His Own”, however, a dozen oversized, planet-shaped inflatable balls emerged from the front of the crowd, at first seeming like a planned reference to After the Disco’s cover art, until Mercer admitted his confusion: “Did you guys bring these? I can’t believe they fit into your back pocket. Who did all the blowing?” Funny stuff.
Hardest Rocking Show
Dave Grohl & co. be damned. Arctic Monkeys delivered the most head-banging rock and roll set of the weekend. The English rockers bookended their show with some of the comparatively lighter material of their latest album, AM, but filled the spaces in between with heavy metal jams and fast-paced rock. With such an extensive catalogue of hits, however, many were hoping the band would spend more time performing the deeper cuts that brought them to their current level of popularity, as opposed to pushing the new album. Still, the performance was enough to garner praise a couple of hours later from the Foo Fighters frontman himself, who admitted that it was an honor to play the same stage as the Monkeys.
Most Country Performance
For a festival that prides itself on bringing together artists from across all genres, the country music scene was poorly represented, but Kacey Musgraves helped keep the balance. Backed by a cowboy band, who shared the Western stage with a handful of LED cacti, the Nashville Star finalist quickly had the crowd hollering “yee-haws” Saturday evening. “It’s a beautiful night and my first time here,” she exclaimed. “I’m here from East Texas. It’s not the classiest part of Texas, and there’s a few trailer parks.” Of course, she broke into “The Trailer Park Song”, the darkly humorous cut off her 2013 debut album, Same Trailer Different Park. At a festival dominated by hip-hop and rock, her performance was a refreshing taste of the old west.
Most Nostalgic Set
It’s not easy for a band that’s in the process of releasing a new album to be considered the most nostalgic set of the weekend, especially after occupying the very stage that was graced by Lionel Richie and OutKast in the days prior. But Dave Grohl stated his intentions early on. After growling on stage with “All My Life”, “Times Like These”, and “My Hero”, the excited Foo Fighters mastermind confirmed that the audience was in for something special. “We haven’t played here in a long fucking time,” he admitted, failing to mention that he originally promised never to return. “You know what that means? We’re going to play a lot of songs we haven’t played for a long time… We’re going to keep playing until they shut us down.”
Within the extended two-hour set, the Foo Fighters dedicated an impassioned rendition of “Big Me” to a fan celebrating her 70th birthday; performed new single “Something from Nothing” off their forthcoming album Sonic Highways; and dove into back-to-back rock ‘n’ roll covers of David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” and The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”, joking about how they were going to play them like a ninth grade cover band. “In case any of you have a wedding or Bar Mitzvah coming up,” Grohl proclaimed, “you can hire the Foo Fighters.”
Refusing to leave the stage between the set and the encore and not budging when the allotted two hours for their show had expired, the Foo Fighters sent fans home with an encouraging message after the final song of the festival. “How about we come back and play a longer show?” asked Grohl. “Instead of saying ‘Goodbye’ we’ll just say ‘see you next time,” before wrapping up a memorable performance with “Everlong”.
Photographer: Philip Cosores