The Beautiful Lives of Sin City

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This weekend wraps up “the first ever” Life is Beautiful Music, Food and Art Festival in Las Vegas where 60,000+ foodie and festy alike packed into the historic downtown area where they enjoyed gourmet food, craft beer, wine and not to mention some of the best live bands of today like Kings of Leon, The Killers, Beck, The Alabama Shakes, Vampire Weekend and Empire of the Sun. The reassuring mission statements for the inaugural festival was “party with common sense” and “leave nothing but a footprint, take nothing but memories.”

Some of the first memories were made as the sun was beginning to set on the first day.  The Alabama Shakes were running late but were still eagerly awaited by a crowd of screaming fans excited to see arguably one of the best live acts of today.  The soulful Brittany Howard and her band, with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in tow, were showered with applause as they donned their instruments and began playing hits off of their debut album Boys and Girls, including the smash single “Hold On” with instrumental breaths that practically lifted the crowd off the ground.

The Shakes were a later addition to the lineup for the weekend (along with Vampire Weekend, Joey Bada$$, etc.) and Life would not have been quite as beautiful in their absence.  The Alabama Shakes were a highlight of the festival and really set the tone for the evening as the sun went down and warmed up the Downtown Stage for Imagine Dragons, Beck and Kings of Leon.

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One of the most anticipated acts of the evening brought you to the Ambassador Stage on the opposite end of the festival grounds where Capital Cities was getting down with their electrifyingly funky style and getting the crowd involved with their self-choreographed dances in their typical fashion.  Being crowned “The Next Big Thing” by San Diego’s 91X (along with the previously crowned Imagine Dragons, The Joy Formidable, and Portugal. The Man) last spring, they lived up to the name as they gently glided through their dance moves on the back of “Safe and Sound”, “Kangaroo Court” and, you’d know it if you heard it, “Good Sh**”.

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Back across the festival at the Downtown Stage the air was filled with nostalgia when Ben McKee, singer of Imagine Dragons, began naming all the clubs and venues they had played when they were just another blip on the radar in the Vegas music scene.  Everything they had gone through had brought them full circle thundering through “Demons” and “It's Time” in front of their hometown crowd and not to mention their biggest show to date.  Accompanied by a slew of animal skin drums ranging in size from big to absolutely massive, one could only wait to see what was going to happen with the massive percussions.  The army of drums were put to the test during a drum solo/battle involving each member of the band at the helm of their own set of drums spawning an absolutely tribal jam, which then brought all of the creatures of the night to life.  The ones from Cirque du Soleil, that is, which appropriately enough included a dragon.  With these creatures roaming around on stage, Imagine Dragons transitioned right into their post-apocalyptic hit “Radioactive” to close out their set and blow the crowd away.

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Life is Beautiful wouldn’t have been able to call itself a success without including the festival veteran Beck in its lineup.  In the past two years alone Beck has performed at almost every major music festival in the United States. With the rocking riffs of “E-Pro," the bluesy country slide guitar of the anthem “Loser” and his style that includes the use of random, sometimes obnoxious, noises, grooving bass lines and his new age blues lyrical flows complimented with a lashing of harmonica solos, who can deny Beck’s presence at any music festival?  In between songs on stage Mr. Beck lapsed into a theatrical rant/breakdown where he bellowed, “OOOhhhh I just need a friend for the night,” which is received with jeers and cheers from potential “friends."   This is the kind of onstage theatrics that live music has long since missed.

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The first night closed out with the southern rocking family members, Kings of Leon, led by the howling voice of Caleb Followill.  Kings of Leon cancelled the remainder of their last tour when Caleb was admitted into a rehabilitation clinic for alcohol abuse.  While waiting for the show to start, one couldn’t help but wonder if they would be able to deliver a show of the same caliber as before. Shame on you for doubting. Throwing down new and old hits, like the driving, "Queens of the Stoneage-esque,"  “Don’t Matter” from their newest album Mechanical Bull and classics like “Molly’s Chambers” from their debut album Youth and Young Manhood, the Kings of Leon not only proved that they can still deliver but they are still a force to be reckoned with in the music world.

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The Family Followill made eye contact with one another before every song giving you the sense of family and togetherness that they possess, which is a deep breath and a cool breeze in a world cluttered with head case rock stars who only care about themselves.  Such a simple gesture shows how humble these southern boys really are.  They made fun of the planned encores most artists pull nowadays by explaining, “Yeah, we never planned on stopping.  We were just hangin’ out backstage!”  As if they weren’t going to play “Sex on Fire.”  It was only the lead single of their multi-grammy winning album Only by the Night!  That would be like Radiohead not playing "Creep" anymore (I get it, Thom. You have a lot of other good songs but coooome onnnn.). That’s right, no bullsh** from these guys.

The return of the Kings have given a new light to songs like “Pyro” from “Come Around Sundown,” which is a sorrowful lament of Caleb’s struggles with alcohol.  With pained and howling "aaahhh ahhhhhs" and powerful lyrics like, “Bury all the pictures and tell the kids that I’m okay / Once the show gets started it's bound to be a sight to see / I will never be your cornerstone,” one couldn’t help but feel sympathetic in the dusty night air of sin city.  As the set came to a close Kings of Leon took their bows and left the stage with truly grateful and heartfelt smiles and waved to their fans.

Day two of Life is Beautiful began with a small but dark raincloud hanging overhead when news broke that artist Lou Reed, a rock legend who has continued to inspire artists to this day, had passed away early that morning.  Reed underwent a liver transplant earlier this year, which prevented him from playing at the Coachella Music and Arts festival, and his cause of death was believed to be liver related.

Vampire Weekend paid homage to Reed by opening with a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.”  They went on with their wildly sporadic “Cousins,” the premier single of their second album Contra.  The strategic placement of a giant warped mirror as a backdrop, which shot back distorted reflections of a glowing ferris wheel that sat at the opposite end of the Downtown Stage area, was a perfect compliment to their set that transgressed through a multitude of moods and sounds.  Fun, fast and energetic songs like “A-Punk” and “Diane Young” and mellow melodically-driven songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” kept the crowd moving and singing, and as the smoke began to settle, along with a powerful wind sending herds of paper and plastic sliding through the crowd, the vampires on both sides of the stage seemed reluctant to leave.

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The most beautiful part of the weekend was the strategic placement of the stages and subsequently each band.  The Downtown Stage and The Ambassador stages were split by the third biggest stage, The Huntridge Stage.  Whether you intended to or not, this would cause you to stumble across bands that are definitely noteworthy.  Two from the first day were Cults and Portugal. The Man.  Cults would have been caught by passersby in the middle of “Abducted” (you know that song that makes you want to dance like Snoopy and the Peanuts gang) on their way from Imagine Dragons to Childish Gambino while Portugal. The Man could have been found by those who hadn’t quite made it to the gathering before Kings of Leon.  A band on the second day was the Joy Formidable whose ever-building guitar riffs in “This Ladder is Ours” was complimented by the thundering rhythm section that gives this three-piece serious power during their live shows.  The first time I came across them was in a similar situation at Coachella.  While I was walking by they caught my attention, so I stuck around and by the end of their set they had completely destroyed all of their instruments.  Instant fan.

Vampire Weekend was not the only band to pay tribute to the passing of Lou Reed.  The headdress clad Empire of the Sun were seen smashing their guitars as the final act of their extravagant visually driven performance.  It was a stunning visual display complete with background dancers armed with neon light guitars to accentuate the dynamic synth pop guitar riffs of “We are the People.”  Being scheduled in the same time slot can seem like a death sentence, especially when paired against hometown heroes, The Killers, but Empire still managed to draw a sizable group of dance-ready fans who were more than smitten when “Walking on a Dream” came thumping through the speakers.

As the final night came to a close with Killers fans still roaring, you realize that something beautiful has actually happened right before your eyes.  Another festival has been proven worth its salt by bringing thousands of people of different backgrounds together to enjoy something as simple as food and music...and partying.  With a lineup to combat Coachella and a gourmet food and wine selection that would give Outside Lands a run for its money, Life is Beautiful has made its mark, a mark that will only be made darker in the years to come.

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Text by Bryan Kelly; Photos by Paula Tripodi

Note: The words in Music Connection’s “Photo Blog Live Music Reviews” are opinions expressed by the writer/photographer and may not reflect those of Music Connection magazine. To get in contact with a writer/photographer, you may email contactmc[at]musicconnection.com.