The idea of hosting a music festival in Las Vegas is a tricky one. The town is already loaded with entertainment options and tourists constantly flock to Sin City for its nightlife. The trick, then, is to create a festival that offers experiences not available on a typical Las Vegas weekend, while also embracing the culture of the city itself. In their 6th year, Life Is Beautiful may have found that perfect balance.
Housed in a section of space adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience, Life Is Beautiful utilized the Downtown Vegas aesthetic to create a unique festival experience. Illuminated by neon signs and giant street murals, the environment was unlike any other music event. Creative art exhibits, delicious culinary treats, and a newly established comedy stage all added various elements of flare to the fest. Then, there was the lineup. A rich mix of mainstream and up-and-coming artists delivered an eclectic sonic experience over the course of three days. Here are some of my stand out performers:
Chvrches have been a frustrating band for me over the years. While I love their music, the 3 prior times that I’ve seen them in concert has left me wanting something more. Life Is Beautiful finally supplied me with the well rounded Chvrches performance I’ve been craving. Singer Lauren Mayberry was in excellent form, gliding and occasionally twirling across the stage as she belting out the band’s signature indie-pop tunes. She even found time in between songs to comment on everything from Britney Spears, to Donald Trump, and even the hot Vegas weather - “Is anyone else really sweaty? It’s down the front, it’s down the back, it’s everywhere!” Set highlights included “Miracle,” “Leave a Trace,” “Recover” and “The Mother We Share.”
Australian electronic duo The Presets delivered a bombastic performance on the Freemont Stage. Surrounded by a dizzying array of lighting effects, the band often appeared as just two backlit, shadowy figures. While it may not have been easy to see the duo, you could certainly hear them. Propulsive basslines filled the air as The Presets rolled through songs like “This Boy’s In Love” and “My People.”
In stark contrast to The Presets colorful display, Justice performed their set with a much more cleaner looking (yet even more impressive) visual presentation. The French duo stuck almost exclusively with white lights, but their transformers-like rig changed throughout the set, giving each song a unique visual aesthetic. Two walls of Marshall amplifiers lit up with LED lights completed the look. The group tore through a bass-heavy setlist, resulting in a massive dance party among their fans. In the world of EDM, Justice rank as elder statesmen. Still, I found their set high on energy and low on gimmicks. Maybe I’m just happy to see DJs who don’t wear glamorized buckets on their heads.
It’s hard to believe that Death Cab For Cutie have been making music for 20 years, based on their fans. A steady audience of millennials lined up to see them perform on the Bacardi Sound of Rum Stage. I’d guess that many of them weren’t born when the band’s first album came out (and even fewer remember The OC). Still, Death Cab’s catalog reflects a band that has earned their place among the festival poster’s big fonts. “Beverly Drive”, “Crooked Teeth”, “Gold Rush”, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, “Cath”, the hits just kept on coming. Even when faced with technical difficulties, singer Ben Gibbard found a way to be endearing. When clearly frustrated by an issue with his piano, Gibbard merely smiled, apologized to the crowd, and continued forward. It was the kind of problem that would send lesser acts off the rails, but with age and experience comes wisdom. Death Cab finished their set on a high note, as closer “Transatlanticism” spurred a cathartic sing-along within the crowd.
Cold War Kids reinforced their place in the current rock spectrum with a boisterous midday set on the festival’s main stage. At a time when laptops tend to be the instruments du jour, their performance was a pleasant reminder that guitars and vocals are still the most emotive tools available to musicians. Their highly entertaining set included hits “Something is Not Right with Me,” “Love is Mystical,” and “First.”
When a band scores a massive worldwide hit, it’s easy to become weighed down by the track’s success. It speaks volumes, then, that Foster The People chose to leave their 2010 smash “Pumped Up Kicks” completely out of their setlist - and fans barely seemed to notice. To be sure, the song’s subject matter undoubtedly played into the choice. Its lyrics focus on a teen who terrorizes classmates with his gun. But it’s fair to argue that Foster’s catalog of work no long requires “Kicks” to be a tentpole. “Coming of Age,” “Don’t Stop,” “Call it What You Want,” and “Sit Next to Me” were some of the many highlights. The set was capped off with a special cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, featuring a performance by the cast of Cirque Du Soleil’s “Love.”
St. Vincent may never achieve the massive mainstream success that her talent deserves, but that’s ok. There was a unique sense of community among fans waiting to watch her Saturday night set. You’re here to watch St. Vincent? Cool, you’re one of us. Well, sign me up for this cult because the performance was equal parts weird and exhilarating. The visuals were stunning, mixing LED lights, masked dancers, and bright digital displays into some strange pageant of color. Meanwhile, the singer’s soaring vocals and fiery guitar solos shone brightly on tracks like “Los Ageless” and “Masseduction.” Before her final song, St. Vincent proclaimed “This one’s for all the freaks and all the weirdos … you belong here.” For at least one night, I was very excited to be included in that group.
Wolfmother’s classic rock sound has always felt, well, classic. Tunes like “Woman” and “Joker and the Thief” seemingly belong in the 70s, rather than the post-millennium timeframe that actually bore them. Perhaps that’s why Wolfmother’s performance at Life Is Beautiful felt like such a throwback. Heavy guitars, wailing vocals, frenetic drumming - these are not the sounds we associate with a festival act in 2018. Yet, there was front-man Andrew Stockdale, passionately singing his heart out on the Huntridge Stage. It was a performance that many festival goers missed out on, but those in attendance got to enjoy a refresher class in old-school rock.
It’s hard to say something about Florence + The Machine that hasn’t already been said. While the band (the aforementioned Machine) is an incredibly talented group of musicians, they merely act as background support for the tour de force that is Florence Welch. The songstress was on her game again at Life Is Beautiful, delivering an array of enchanting songs over the course of her hour-long set. Welch was constantly in motion on stage - dancing, weaving, skipping and jumping throughout her performance. Those kind of calisthenics would put a zumba class to shame (Side note: has anyone ever asked Florence to wear a FitBit during one of her concerts? I’d love to find out how many steps she gets). Amazingly, her movements never caused her voice to wane. Instead, she continued belting out her siren call through hit after hit: “Sweet Nothing,” “Dog Days Are Over,” “Ship to Wreck,” “Hunger,” “Shake It Out,” the list of memorable songs goes on and on. Even when she took a moment to talk to the crowd about loving one another - a topic that often induces eye-rolls when coming from a lesser source - Welch came across as unmistakably endearing. Truly one of the most captivating artists touring today.
One of my favorite new bands, My Joy performed an energetic set on the Huntridge stage. Their exuberant indie-folk rock was intoxicating. “Astrovan” had fans singing at the top of their lungs, while “I’m Your Wreck” allowed the group to display a vulnerability beyond their years. At one point the band slipped in a surprising cover of The Flaming Lips “Do You Realize” (it’s famous music video was shot on nearby Fremont Street). By the time Mt. Joy reached their closer, “Silver Lining,” it was evident that all in attendance had been swept up by the group’s good vibes.
Bastille have evolved from a charming British import to a full-fledged pop-rock powerhouse. Need evidence? See the massive Life Is Beautiful crowd who danced, jumped, and sweated with every pulsating beat. Frontman Dan Smith has one of music’s most evocative voices, and he put it on full display this night. Whether he was belting out the soaring ballad “World Gone Mad” or leading an epic dance party on the club banger “Happier,” Smith commanded every moment of Bastille’s set.
I found my energy waning as I made my way to the Fremont stage on Sunday night. At the end of a long, hot weekend that featured lots of activity and very little sleep, my tank was running precariously close to empty. Thankfully, the modern-soul-dance group Jungle were ready to rev my engine back up. Their funky set was a revelation. Even as my feet were tired from walking, I couldn’t resist the urge to dance. Their combination of sweet falsetto vocals layered over thick grooves proved invigorating. Highlights included “Busy Earning,” “Time,” and “Heavy, California.”
Arcade Fire have become a powerful, if polarizing festival headliner. Some people argue that their escalation to the top of the ranks has robbed the group of the indie-sensibitities that helped make them great. All I can say to those people is: see them live. This is one of the best bands touring today. As their Life Is Beautiful set cascaded through an eclectic collection of songs, one couldn’t help but marvel at the Arcade Fire’s range. They had uptempo songs like “Ready to Start,” “Reflektor,” and “Neighborhood #1”. Euphoric moments, including “No Cars Go” and “Wake Up”. Then a somber performance of “The Suburbs” preceded by a plea for gun violence and dedicated to those affected by last year’s Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting. The set ran the gamut of musical emotion, the sign of a truly deserving headliner.