LAS VEGAS — With a backdrop as utterly eccentric as Las Vegas’ newly revamped Fremont Street, “Life Is Beautiful,” a premier music and arts festival, achieves a modern and urban atmosphere. The festivalgoers have an in-crowd attitude and the choice of acts reflect a hip, yet eclectic taste.
A citified circus with legendary acts, current radio mainstays and local up and comers, LIB is cementing its place as one of the most outstanding festivals in the country.
Stevie Wonder was signed to Motown’s Tamla label in 1961 at 11 years old and yet, even after 50-plus years as an entertainer, he still exhibits the same child-like excitement for performing as he has his entire career.
Wonder’s headlining performance at “Life Is Beautiful” was a clinic in crowd-pleasing improvisation from the world’s greatest teacher on the subject. Throughout the show, Stevie Wonder didn’t just play the hits but expanded on, reinvented and bent them to his every whim.
Downtown Vegas was filled with the sound of Stevie’s keys even before he was in sight, after a minute or so, Wonder shuffled onstage (by himself) and made his way to the microphone while playing keytar. The band joined the riff he was playing and blasted off into “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”
Hit after hit poured from Stevie’s being as the band churned forward. At 65-years-old, Wonder proved that he indeed still had all of his vocal faculties intact. All of them. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and many more filled Wonder’s 2-hour, 10-minute set and his voice didn’t falter.
Wonder moved from song to song with ease and allowed them to breathe, becoming mini-concerts within themselves. During “Superstition” he began calling out band members for solos and each floored the crowd with their chops. Drummer Stanley Randolph was tasteful and soloed strictly within the confines of the song before longtime bassist and band leader Nathan Watts took his turn. The band dropped out while his keyboardist molded the riff into something new and the band returned and took off on that. It was alive. it was electric. And Wonder didn’t stop there.
After “My Cherie Amour,” Wonder began playing call-and-response games with his five backing vocalists, trying to sing lines and melodies that they couldn’t. After the group held their own, he conceded “OK, OK, I guess they’re pretty good,” he told the crowd before turning his attention back to the singers. “But which one of you wants to take me one-on-one?” The vocalists then took turns mimicking Wonder’s vocal cues and meandering in and out of songs like Wonder’s own “Es Una Historia,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “Summertime,” or even a chill inducing, gospel tinged version of The Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You.”
Throughout the exchanges, it became clear that Wonder was rallying his band around a conversation-in-song with his backing singers all while enthralling the thousands in attendance.
Wonder is a legend, an icon, and a force of nature. At this point in his career, the fact that he still strives to put on the most incredible show he can speaks volumes about him as both a musician and a man. Drive like that comes from a place of purity. A place of wonder.
Shamir’s shining homecoming
Sporadic shouts of “Hey Shamir!” and “Welcome home!” peppered the dry Vegas air as the up-and-coming pop singer prepared to perform on the Huntbridge stage. Fresh from having a song featured on an Android ad and performing on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, the performance was something of a homecoming for the 20-year-old. He seemed to be shaking the nerves off as he nervously giggled through the first song in between waving to friends and smiling at people in the front row, but soon gained comfort and began to perform with the same carefree jubilation featured in songs such as “Hot Mess” and “Call It Off.”
Hours before the performance even began, pockets of locals were buzzing about the Las Vegas native and his recent success. Shamir didn’t disappoint. Throughout his performance he was able to embody the spirit of his own quirky brand of self-acceptance with tunes that didn’t take themselves too seriously.
“I wrote this song on my mom’s couch in my underwear,” he said before kicking off “On The Regular.” The home crowd was exactly that; proud, supportive and protective as they danced around and murmured their “I remember whens” between tracks.
With a strong support system, gracious attitude and a knack for writing catchy pop songs, the recent XL signee’s ascension to stardom looks like it won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Red-hot Hozier wins Las Vegas
It’s been a busy year for Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. Since the critical and commercial success of the hit “Take Me To Church,” he has had two more singles reach radio rotation and developed a fanbase voracious for new material. As the penultimate performer on Day 1 of “Life Is Beautiful,” Hozier took the Downtown stage to a crowd of thousands. He and his band then worked through their set with the workmanlike precision of a road worn troupe.
“This is usually the part in the set where we do something completely silly, just because it’s fun,” Hozier said near the end of his performance, “and tonight’s no different.” He then tore into “Problem” by Ariana Grande before meandering into Warren G.’s 1994 hit “Regulate.” The medley drew laughs and thunderous applause from the crowd.
Other highlights of the set included the fan favorites “Work Song” and “Somebody New,” but before playing “Church” he explained the importance of the show to the crowd.
“What an apt name for this festival,” he told all in attendance, “we’ve been looking forward to this one for months because, I’ve got to tell you, when we found out we were playing so close to Stevie Wonder, I flipped my ever-loving lid. This is surreal.”
As one of the most popular songwriters on the planet right now, Hozier’s ability to take a moment and explain his appreciation for the legendary Wonder showed a kind of humility and self-awareness fans hope for in their favorite artists. The crowd erupted at his sentiments and in the wake of their applause began singing along to every word of his 2014 hit.
Related story: Spencer Kilpatrick’s report on Days 2 and 3 Link