Life Is Beautiful 2015: Viva Downtown Las Vegas
Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, Weezer, Bill Nye, Banksy, and more bring the Sin City festival into maturity.
In its third year, Life Is Beautiful festival has finally started to work out the kinks and live up to its own lofty title and ambition. There were almost 100 thousand people within the festival grounds, but it never felt overcrowded simply because there was way too much to do. From the culinary villages and chef demonstrations, to the inspiring and educational speeches at the Learning stage, LIB really boasted that there was something for everybody. And it seems like Las Vegas locals and traveling tourists felt the fest’s open arms, with grandparents, adults, children, and even babies all fighting through the consistent triple-digit degree heat to look at original art, eat world-class food, and listen to a few truly unmissable live performances.
Below, a weekend report on some of our favorite sights and sounds from Life Is Beautiful 2015. Oh, how we wished there were more than the twenty-four hours in the day.
When nothing’s going right and you’re physically (as well as mentally) overheated, everything is the worst. Dan Deacon understood that feeling of futility and frustration more than anyone after getting a late start for his Friday afternoon set at Life Is Beautiful. As Deacon came out to greet his faithful fans and get grooving, none of his equipment was working. The musician’s face turned from slightly annoyed to full-on rage as no one could help him figure out why his instruments weren’t being amplified. He started to scream at the stage crew off to the side as his irritation gave way to pure anger. The crowd fell silent; it felt like when you’re parents are fighting and you just want to disappear until they make up. Finally, after it seemed like his entire entourage came to see what the matter was, his knobs and buttons were working again. A forty-five minute set was turned into a mad-dash half-hour of blips and synths. Once his technical difficulties (and slight meltdown) were fixed, the electronic wizard was back to his normal and gracious self. He made people laugh, move, and, most importantly, feel OK about standing under the 100 degree sun on black asphalt. Even within the slightly truncated version of his jovial, life-affirming dance party, Deacon thanked the fest’s crew and apologized for getting upset. “Ever see that Winnebago Man video?,” he explained. “Yeah, that just happened to me.” Don’t worry Dan, we’ve all been there.
There is something infectious about Garrett Borns (a.k.a. BØRNS). It could be that he wears a floral jacket with no shirt on stage. It might be that he doesn’t mind that he has a gnarly sunburn on his neck and chest. But, in reality, what really draws Borns some sizeable crowds is his powerful voice reminiscent of the late great Jeff Buckley with a playful flare perfect for the arena. With just one EP out and the release of his debut album Dopamine almost a month away, BØRNS commanded the stage and the audience with grand gestures, a whole lot of charm, and a great backing band. Just imagine what size font his name will be when he’s actually got a full-length out.
During Life Is Beautiful, visual artists get to run around downtown Las Vegas like kids in a candy shop. New murals are painted, sidewalks are transformed, and abandoned motels turn into dedicated spaces for far-out conceptual pieces. As people wander the grounds trying to get from set to set, it’s hard to take time and drink the whole experience in. World renowned street artist (and mythical creature) Banksy brought one of his most calming installations to the festival to try and get festival-goers to stop and smell the roses or, in this case, the waterfall. At dusk, each night of the event, Mobile Waterfall—which debuted during Banksy’s 2013 New York residency—was open to the public. In the back of a defaced moving truck was the most serene and idyllic landscape diorama of a tropical rainforest with a real working waterfall. As you stepped close to the edge of the truck, you could smell the wet dirt and hear the sounds of the forest’s wildlife. Within all of the hectic scheduling of the festival, gazing at the picture perfect Mobile Waterfall was the best source of rejuvenation.
One of the best things about the Life Is Beautiful festival is that there’s more than just music. Sure, sets by excellent bands are essential to the fest, but LIB puts a high value on other aspects of culture including the worlds of art, food, and learning. It was fitting then that one of the biggest crowds—with a line around the block—was for Bill Nye. The “Science Guy” received a well-deserved standing ovation once he stepped onto the Learning stage to talk about about new technologies and how we can change the course of climate change in our lifetime. Nye, who was wearing one of his signature bow-ties, challenged the crowd to build the new electric battery (“You would be so crazy rich, like Bill Gates rich”) and to support politicians who understand the need for new climate change regulations because the 2016 election is right around the corner. His speech was educational, of course, but it was also full of joy and humor, just like his classic show from the ’90s. The capacity crowd hooted and hollered throughout the entire speech, but when Nye took the conversation about technological advancement and connected it with the need to close the wage gap for women and support girls’ education, the roar of approval and appreciation filled the entire festival grounds. He’s come a long way from just teaching us that inertia is a property of matter.
Last year, Andrew Hozier-Byrne (better known simply as Hozier) released his eponymous debut LP. On that album was a track called “Take Me to Church”—an earworm of a hit so powerful, it’s still in strong rotation on radio stations across the world. It was no surprise that Hozier’s crowd was massive, but his strong set on Friday night at the Downtown stage proved that he’s no one-trick pony. Within his allotted hour before Stevie Wonder, Hozier settled into a slightly jazzy, soulful groove that could even turn the toughest “Church” critic. The crammed audience knew every word, especially to “To Be Alone,” which turned into a full-on sing-along. He had excellent stage banter—making girls swoon with every word that dripped with his thick Irish accent—and hit all the right notes, except within his strange and sterile cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” C’mon Hozier, no one needs another soft-rock Beatles cover.
Signed, sealed, delivered—we’re yours, Stevie. For over two hours, the legendary Stevie Wonder took the Life Is Beautiful crowd on a musical journey that wasn’t all hits, but it was actually better that way. After coming out to a thrilled (and incredibly inebriated) audience, Wonder sat down and pulled out some of his most popular ballads and slower songs—including “Overjoyed” and “Higher Ground”—after starting with “How Sweet It Is.” There was barely any time for banter as Wonder flew through hits like “My Cherie Amour,” “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” pitch perfectly. The only thing that the living legend had to fight was the severe fatigue of the audience. By the time Wonder played “Superstition,” he was also ready to interact with his band, but most of the crowd was ready to go to bed. For almost thirty minutes, Wonder challenged his backup singers to one-on-one competitions, and while that was fun to watch, it meant he missed playing other classic tracks like “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “If You Really Love Me.” By the time 1 a.m. rolled around, the devoted audience was conflicted about whether to continue worshipping at the altar of Stevie Wonder, but all who stuck it out got a long and well-paced journey to the center groove of a true artist.
LIB’s Downtown stage loomed large over the festival grounds. Not only was it the stage where Stevie Wonder had just played the night before—and Kendrick Lamar would play on Sunday—it’s a physically massive structure that can create enough shade to cover sunburned festival-goers for a couple of sets. When Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher appeared from backstage to perform as Royal Blood, it seemed as if the sheer amount of empty space on the sprawling Downtown stage would engulf them. But once the English duo plugged in, there was no doubt about the pair being able to fill the space with their riff-heavy rock. When Royal Blood launched into “Little Monster” off of last year’s self-titled debut album, the sun-soaked audience leapt to their feat to capture the moment on their phones.
It must be strange being Elon Musk’s younger brother. Any sibling rivalry would ultimately end in a pissing match about who has done more to change the world for the better. That’s probably why Kimbal Musk avoided talking about his brother or his involvement with Tesla and SpaceX (he sits on both boards) during his presentation at the Learning stage on Saturday. Musk, who cofounded The Kitchen Community and is a part owner of Chipotle, spoke to the crowd about the “real food” revolution and the impending business and tech boom surrounding the food industry. He proclaimed that “Food is the new Internet” and quickly ran through new opportunities for entrepreneurs ready to take on the world of organic farming. His PowerPoint presentation was funny and intriguing, but he didn’t have time to support his theories and findings with concrete evidence. We’re sure that this had to do with the fest’s previous speaker running long and eating up half of his time.
For their first trip to Las Vegas, Oxford, England’s Glass Animals won big with one of the larger afternoon crowds of the weekend. Tracks from their 2014 debut LP Zaba went down smooth as the oppressive Las Vegas sun finally began to set. To the delight of the crowd, the band’s dynamic frontman Dave Bayley jumped around the stage as if he was exorcising a demon, even heading into the crowd for the band’s slowed-down cover of “everyone’s favorite rapper” Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.” Glass Animals were so determined to play this Vegas show that they disregarded taking care of personal injuries, as Bayley revealed to the world: “A couple of days ago, Drew [MacFarlane] fell down an entire flight of stairs and couldn’t walk, but he seems okay now!”
Chance The Rapper
“He’s so light on his feet,” gasped a member of the crowd as Chancellor Bennett (a.k.a. Chance the Rapper) jumped around the Ambassador stage. With an ample live band supporting him, Bennett rushed into some of his more serious tracks like the incredible “Paranoia” before making his own introduction. Gracious, energetic, and quick, Chance The Rapper acknowledged that the crowd was there to get “turnt up” and that he didn’t have a ton of time to do it, so the LIB audience had to be as quick as he was when he played hit after hit, including “Juice” and his featured verses on Action Bronson’s “Baby Blue.” None of Bennett’s songs fully ended—they just transitioned into a new multi-media experience that was as inspiring as it was entertaining.
You cannot stop Simon LeBon and Duran Duran. Period. They will do whatever they want to do, and they will do it flawlessly. Massive hits like “Ordinary World,” “Notorious,” “A View to A Kill,” and “Hungry Like the Wolf”? Check. A significant amount of the set being dedicated to songs from their new album Paper Gods? Yep (unfortunately). A cover of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”? Strange choice, but it was awesome, so why not. At the end of their hour-and-fifteen-minute set, the ’80s staples hadn’t played “Rio,” but there was no time for it. The festival’s crew had to start setting up approximately one million drums for Imagine Dragons’ headlining gig. What a bummer for all DD fans, but wait! What’s this? Duran Duran back on the stage even after the “house” lights went on? Yes! The synth legends had returned, creating their own mid-festival encore to play a lengthy version of the title track to 1982’s Rio, which included two sax solos and a drawn-out bowing process. The band extended their own set by about fifteen minutes, not caring about the delayed consequences, and it was glorious.
It seems like Snoop Dogg has been rolling out the same set with the same hits, the same graphics, the same transitions, and the same stage banter for a few years now. For people who have never seen him before, this performance is great—full of laughs and sick beats—but for those who have seen the rap legend before, it feels a bit stale. Snoop has always been good about honoring his fallen friends during his sets (some of you may remember when he and Dr. Dre rose Tupac from the dead at Coachella two weekends in a row), but hearing him give a shout out to Tupac Shakur in the middle of Las Vegas was surreal and kind of uncomfortable. It seems that his set has gotten so routine that he forgot that this is the city where Shakur was gunned down. There was no added moment of silence or acknowledgement of that. The moment just passed and then we were told to drop it like it’s hot.
Everyone who headed to the Learning stage early on Sunday afternoon to get a good spot for Rosario Dawson’s (very giggly and disappointing) Q&A were surprised (and hopefully inspired) by the speaker who came before her. Geena Rocero is a supermodel, an activist, and a transgender woman of color who came out last year during a very emotional TED talk. During her LIB talk, she spoke candidly about her tolerant—but not fully accepting—upbringing in the Philippines, the culture of transgender beauty pageants in her home country, and her moving to America to be with her mother and follow her dreams. While she rambled often—resulting in her going over by twenty-five minutes and eating up some of Dawson’s time—her message of wanting to thrive as opposed to just survive as her true self was touching and strong. Moments that would be small in the lives of others, like looking at your driver’s license and seeing your real name and gender marker, were huge milestones for her. With her organization Gender Proud, Rocero is working to advance the lives and rights of all transgender people and continues to reaffirm the need for more role models and examples of trans people in society beyond the couple that we see on TV.
Oh how the indie have grown! Best Coast is still technically the beachy duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the quintet that appeared on the Ambassador stage. With all five sporting their blackest clothing, Cosentino led the group through a solid and serviceable set of tracks from all three of their LPs—focusing primarily on their latest effort, California Nights. A few classics from their 2010 debut Crazy for You made it into the mix, including “When I’m with You,” “Our Deal,” and “Boyfriend.” Her voice was strong, which has been an issue in the past, and cut through the ultra-heavy bass and percussion of the backing band. While the louder sound sent the message that Best Coast was growing up, the charm of the LA band’s music remained the laidback, sandy vibe; we didn’t need all the bells and whistles.
Brandon Flowers/The Killers
Earlier this year, Killers frontman Brandon Flowers released a strong solo album called The Desired Effect, and it was clear on Sunday night that he was really proud of it. After singing a sweet little number about the festival and the super moon, which we couldn’t see due to clouds, Flowers launched into a Desired Effect-heavy set, imbuing it with all of the swagger he would an arena rock show. He jumped on speakers, he crouched real low, he used his hands to make gestures of the words he was saying. It was silly and fun. Tracks like “Can’t Deny My Love,” “Dreams Come True,” and “Lonely Town” played well with the modest but energetic Downtown crowd.
Right as we were getting into the solo Flowers—who was sporting a matching set of glitzy shoes and a jacket—sound, his keyboard mysteriously began making static sounds. As Flowers tried to fix it, the hiss got louder and more obnoxious. He quickly asked for a new keyboard and looked pretty pissed when the stage hands brought out a large and sharp looking mound covered in a black cloth. “This is much larger than I’m used to,” said Flowers as the guys set up the new machine. The backing band left the stage too. Suddenly, the backdrop flashed “The Killers” in all red and Flowers ripped back the cloth to reveal his light-up keyboard in the shape of a “K.” The audience was confused and excited at the same time, not really sure about what was going on. Then the rest of The Killers came out and began to plug in; even the bass drum was now sporting a Killers logo. Slowly, the crowd began to realize that this was no longer a solo show, but a full-on Killers hit-machine extravaganza. The Las Vegas natives had half an hour to remind us why they’re meant to be on huge stages with thousands of screaming fans. Of course they succeeded. One by one, the guys launched into a rapid-fire hits set starting with “Mr. Brightside,” and ending with “When You Were Young.” The audience, which grew exponentially as it heard Killers songs wafting in the warm Vegas air, was elated and the band was clearly having the time of their lives. Vegas magic still lives on through The Killers.
Throughout Weezer’s entire set, it was unclear whether frontman Rivers Cuomo was having a good time. It wasn’t that he was grouchy or mean, he just seemed removed from the crowd that hung on his every word. Beyond the occasional “Vegaaaaaaaas!,” Cuomo stuck to singing his iconic songs about growing up too awkward to talk to girls. Right off the bat, Cuomo and co. launched into a hits-only set with the one-two-three punch of “My Name Is Jonas,” “Hashpipe,” “El Scorcho.” Then the group solidified the nostalgic nature of their Life Is Beautiful performance by telling us that we would be “rockin’ out like it’s ’94” through the lead single to their latest album Everything Will Be Alright. And everything really was alright, especially when Brian Bell started “Undone – The Sweater Song” by quoting the opening lines of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Oh yeah, it was also pretty perfect when the group came back to the stage to play “Buddy Holly.”
Life Is Beautiful 2015 chose the order of their headliners wisely. On Friday, we took a trip to music’s glorious past with a massive set by Stevie Wonder, and Saturday saw that fans of the generic rock of today were satiated with Imagine Dragons taking the top spot. But, on Sunday, we all took a trip to see how music was progressing and evolving with Kendrick Lamar.
The Compton native had a sparse stage—only featuring a few live musicians in front of a huge screen—but he filled all of it. His career-spanning set was heavy on 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, starting with “Money Trees,” which featured a surprise guest appearance by Jay Rock. Lamar played crowd favorites (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Poetic Justice,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “m.A.A.d city”) and deeper cuts (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” Section.80’s “A.D.H.D”), but continued his live-show streak of largely shying away from the masterful To Pimp a Butterfly. While that album deserves its own dedicated tour (and oh what a tour that would be), Lamar did give fans a taste of the new LP with the crowd-pleaser “i” and an incredible version of “King Kunta,” which saw him running between the stage’s edges trying to find the louder side as the epic bass line rattled through the bones of everyone within a five-mile radius.
He ended his headlining set with a powerful and energetic rendition of “Alright,” promising the crowd that he would be back in Las Vegas soon. As he left—thirty minutes early—the audience chanted “one more song” like their lives depended on it. Lamar returned with the ode to his city, “Compton.” Confetti cannons were shot off late, accompanied by total silence, but it gave everyone time to take a breath, and realize that Life Is Beautiful was over. It couldn’t have ended in a better way. FL