Life is Beautiful: When a festival transforms Las Vegas
In its six years of existence, the Life Is Beautiful Music & Arts Festival’s 2018 run may have been the event that pushed the festival into ubiquity, maybe not on par with — but not far from — the same conversation of what Coachella and Bonnaroo are both in terms of festival and cultural tastemaking, as well the geographical locations where each take place.
That is to say that in its short existence, the annual downtown Las Vegas festival has placed itself among those festivals that immediately
come up at the thought of Nevada. (And if Burning Man unquestionably holds that distinction, Life Is Beautiful may be even more popular among a certain age group. The reasons are clear, but we’ll get to that…)
The sheer number of acts, nearly 80 on the primary stages alone, was overwhelming. The scale of those acts — a lineup that included The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Florence and the Machine, Odesza, Death Cab for Cutie, N*E*R*D, Galantis, Bastille, Arcade Fire and A$AP Ferg over its three-day duration – meant that navigating the lineup could either be an operation in meticulousness or you could just give in to the fest gods, wander to wherever sounded the most appealing at any given moment and dance to the sounds spanning the R&B, pop, bass, electronic, hip-hop, and seemingly every combination in between.
The festival takes over 18 city blocks of Downtown Las Vegas, an area squarely in rebranding and redevelopment mode now called the ‘Arts District’ by those unfamiliar with its previous incarnation as a neighborhood full of the seedy motels and gritty characters that urban planners like to sweep into the fringes. One clear strength of the festival is its incorporation of the transitioning city, with old motel signs sewn dominantly into the fabric of the festival itself.
That brings up the arts portion of the fest. Images of downtown Vegas are swirled in a colorful haze of murals stretching the length and height of building walls. It’s Life Is Beautiful that commissions these mural artists and unveils their work to thousands – about 55,000 festival attendees daily – of social media saavy 20-somethings. The entire festival is probably the most Instagrammable fest in existence, thus its growth and popularity. It’s an event less about who’s playing, and more about creating the ultimate backdrop for a three-day bender with friends.
Musically, this year’s highlights were N*E*R*D, T-Pain and Travis Scott, packing not only the massive crowd areas in front of the stage, but igniting dance parties that stretched solidly to the far end of the grounds – bad if you were hoping to walk through, but great if what you wanted was to rage with other partiers as far as you could see.
Florence Welch, dizzying and phantasmic frontwoman of Florence and the Machine, in an elongated version of “Dog Days Are Over,” imparted everyone in the audience to put their phones away, hold hands with friends and strangers around you, and jump madly into the air in one of those rare moments of sheer catharsis.
On the final night, Arcade Fire put on a set that mixed arena-esque visual displays and stature with fragile and enveloping music.
Aside from the music, though, it was the festival placing displays throughout its area where even on the third day, I was stumbling across installations I had somehow missed, whether these were explosively fiery games of ski-ball, light shows in alleyways that gave you the feeling of being in a massive haunted Halloween maze, abandoned motels normally surrounded by barbwire fence turned into massive art installations and open for people to interact with, or any of the smaller stages set up by either the festival or corporate vendors, which had their own lineups of performers.
Even the businesses inside the festival grounds got into it, with music shop 11th Street Records hosting daily autograph signings by performers and Atomic Liquors serving up some of that old downtown grittiness in an air-conditioned enclave that provided a nice break from the crowds on the streets until artists like T-Pain hit the tiny bar for a secret show.
About the only negatives that seem immediately obvious were the relatively small size of the venue the comedy shows were held at, leaving many unable to get into stand-up sets by Hannibal Buress and Michelle Wolf. The daily afternoon temperatures that hovered over 100 degrees felt magnified by the asphalt and blacktop throughout the grounds, making each afternoon a dialog of “do we really want to brave the heat to see these performers, or should we just head in later?” Although Las Vegas being the 24-hour city that it is, and plenty of clubs and venues throughout town putting on nightly after-parties once the festival ended around 1 a.m. each night, maybe it was best to have a few hours of sleep each afternoon.
And though it would be impossible to put an exhaustive list here, here are a few more of our highlights from this year’s Life Is Beautiful:
Foster The People ending their set with a singalong of the Beetles’ “Hey Jude,” with thousands of voices echoing off of surrounding walls.
British performer Yungblud, aka Dominic Harrison, putting on one of the highest energy sets of the weekend — including running wildly and smashing a guitar — in stark contrast to his set time of well before 6 p.m.
N*E*R*D, led by Pharrell Williams, announcing that they weren’t starting the next song until they counted 20 crowd surfers in the air at once!
First Aid Kit performing a rousing type of Americana-inspired music as the nearly full moon rose in the east at the same time the sun set in the west. They also had the best animations displayed behind them of the entire festival, such as standalone-video worthy animations…
St. Vincent delivered less of a live set and more of an all-around production, with outfits, light shows and band all packaged to create an entire mood centered on her guitar playing.
Singer Fletcher walked up to the mic and noted that it was so hot she could probably bake an egg in her outfit. That was probably accurate, as she was the only artist over the entire weekend who wore vinyl overalls during a daytime set.
There were some unique and funny totems. It seemed like inflatable joints and pickles were the most popular to see people waving around in the audience.
Rapper Travis Scott’s DJ addressed the crowd, saying that in response to the uneasiness after last year’s Route 91 events, he wouldn’t be playing any gunshot sounds in his set. This was applauded by nearly everyone, as Life Is Beautiful happened almost one year to the day after the Route 91 show and the events seemed to be something that everyone present had thought about yet few wanted to openly mention.
In all, this year seemed to solidify Life Is Beautiful as being a large-scale event with the biggest names across several genres of music, and an environment tweeked for attendees to interact with and amidst rather than simply being a collection of corridors. Building a backdrop for a larger shared experience, this is a Nevada event that stretches far larger than its artist lineup and corporate sponsor-filled landscape.
Shaun Astor cites pop music singers and social deviants as being among his strongest influences. His vices include vegan baking, riding a bicycle unreasonable distances and fixating on places and ideas that make up the subject of the sentence, "But that’s impossible…" He splits his time between Reno and a hammock perched from ghost town building foundations. Check out his work at www.raisethestakeseditions.com
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