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Life Is Beautiful: Reports from the Downtown music and arts festival

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Of Monsters and Men perform during the second day of the Life is Beautiful festival Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Yasmina Chavez

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20

A stellar start: The first performer of the entire festival was Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, who went on at 2:55 p.m. A large and incredibly enthusiastic crowd showed up to see him, cheering so much, it could’ve been a political rally.

Wearing a cute skirt and top, Van Ness gave a rousing performance that included acrobatics, jokes and admissions about already being drunk. (The latter might have been due to the fact that he was about to come out to the nation as a former addict and HIV positive.) Van Ness concluded with an entertaining and insightful bit in which he compared the American political landscape to a roller skating act. Later in the day, Van Ness made a surprise appearance on the House of Yes stage. –C. Moon Reed

Life Is Beautiful 2019 Day 1

Bea Miller: The 20-year-old X Factor singer kept it real for her fans. Her between-song banter was witty, revealing and self-deprecating. With a voice like Lorde’s, a rockin’, all-female band and style like Billie Eilish, she’s the perfect Gen Z up-and-comer. Keep an eye on this one.

Best Bea quotes:

“This goes out to you if you ever felt like you could’ve done it better yourself.”

“If you’re mad, the story is about you.”

“This next one is a f*cking stupid song. But I hope in its stupidity, it’ll make you feel better about yourself. It’s called ‘Slut.’”

“Well sh*t, my emo is coming out.” –CMR

Gayme Show! With Matt Rogers & Dave Mizzoni featuring Alaska Thunderf*ck: The Gayme Show! follows a hilarious concept: Two straight comedians compete to become “honorarily gay as f*ck” and “Queen of the Straights.” The show consists of little contests: best use of a fan and best room entrance. “Celebrity Essences” had the room guessing celeb identities based on hilariously obscure photo clues.

The show made use of the other comedians at the fest, drawing glamorous drag star Alaska Thunderf*ck and (comparatively) normcore comic Molly Austin as the gay helpers. Chris Redd and Josh Gondelman were the straight contestants, and they had lots of fun with the premise. When the judges declared a tie, the two contests lip synced to Gloria Naylor’s “I Will Survive.” That did not break the tie, so maybe they share the title? It honestly seemed like they ran out of time rather than reached a true conclusion.

The show started about 15 minutes late, which threw the event off due to the tight festival schedule. Everything was super-entertaining and the hosts were fantastic, but the elaborate premise would have done better with a full evening than a tight hour-set. –CMR

Night 1: If there was any doubt that this year was the queerest, most diverse Life Is Beautiful yet, Friday evening’s schedule set the empowering tone for the rest of the weekend. This year’s lineup seemed to feature far more women and nonbinary artists than in previous years, and Friday night spotlighted three of the festival’s best.

Australian singer and multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana drew a huge crowd to the Bacardi stage for this Las Vegas debut performance. Known for extravagant live-looping, the viral YouTube star layered a multitude of synth and guitar tones to create a wall of textures and sounds, commanding the stage without a drummer or bassist—just effects gear and a guitar.

At one point, the self-taught musician even casually walked around the stage playing a trumpet. But it was the infectious guitar solos that captivated the audience most. When looped, Sultana’s cascading licks crash into thunderous, electrifying waves. Sultana saved best-known single “Jungle” for the tail end of the set. The artist uploaded the rhythmic, reggae-influenced track to YouTube in 2016, and it has since garnered more than 55 million views.

At 9:20 p.m., 17-year old pop maven Billie Eilish took over the Downtown stage, where she entranced a gigantic crowd with her confident charisma. Eilish opened her set with her defiant single “Bad Guy,” the black and red visuals playing behind her looking like they took direct influence from the Slender Man meme.

The mix started out sounding poor—you could barely hear Eilish’s vocals on that opening track—but they eventually improved, magnifying the singer’s smoky-cool sound. “Open up a pit, come on! Open sh*t up,” she commanded, dressed in an oversized black and Mountain Dew green shirt and shorts. Eilish, who recently broke her ankle, showed no signs of slowing down as she pranced around the stage in a foot cast. Standout songs included the brooding, 2017 ballad “Watch” and her breakout single “Bellyache.”

One of the night’s most memorable performances followed at the smaller Huntridge stage—breakout singer, songwriter and guitarist King Princess. The artist took to the stage in a boxer’s robe, sports bra and shorts, with the words “King Princess” emblazoned on the back of her cloak.

“What’s up Las Vegas? You nasty, nasty sinner bitches,” singer Mikaela Straus told the crowd. “You wanna f*cking rock?”

The singer’s sound blends indie rock, synth-pop and R&B, no song sounds even remotely the same. Though her debut album isn’t even out yet, Straus has released a series of singles that have already drawn a large fanbase, as indicated from the crowd at her LIB set.

Straus’ warm vocals weaved in and out of fresh guitar licks and R&B beats, like when she crooned on her soulful single, “1950,” and her stage banter only added to the fierceness. We got memorable one-liners like “I got hit in the face by some titties last night,” and “This song is hot. Find a gay partner,” before she asked the biggest question of the night.

“You want the big p*ssy song?” she asked before leveling the crowd with the 2018 bop “P*ssy Is God.” After her final song, Straus threw down her guitar and walked offstage to an uproar of cheers—her Vegas debut leaving a lasting impression and raising the bar for the rest of the weekend. –Leslie Ventura

Chance the Rapper: The Chicago rapper is a festival favorite. He played LIB in 2015 and 2017 and returned to headline Day 1. Chance charmed the audience with his sweet smile and multiple costume changes. The 26-year-old father of two discussed how he has taken a break from touring to be with his kids, so he was extra-excited to be performing at Life Is Beautiful.

Meanwhile at the Bacardi Stage on the other side of the fest, the band Portugal. The Man ribbed Chance with an onstage message that chastised his set for being too much like “church.” It wasn’t totally off-base. With gospel singers and a very positive message, Chance’s set did feel a little bit like church. But there’s nothing wrong with an upbeat start to a three-day fest that’s focused on good vibes. –CMR

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 21

MUNA: Electro-pop trio MUNA brought everyone back to 1998 at the Bacardi Stage on Saturday with its minimal, Tori Amos-meets-Sporty Spice aesthetic. Combining effervescent beats and evocative lyrics, MUNA started a late-afternoon party that swelled with bubbly synths and danceable guitar riffs.

The trio played some cuts from the group’s 2017 debut About U but mostly focused on just-released album Saves the World. The group’s performance of the hypnotic and sparkling pop single “Stayaway” might have been the show highlight, but given the band’s throwback style, a ’90s cover would have made an already solid set 10 times better (think: Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” or Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery”). A missed opportunity, perhaps, but there’s always next time. –LV

Life Is Beautiful 2019 Day 2

Maggie Rogers: Rogers’ Downtown Stage set gave fans another way of appreciating the nascent singer-songwriter. Onstage is where her music reaches its potential, allowing her to belt out such numbers as “Give a Little,” which opened the set, while busting out her best club moves.

The audience got the best of Rogers’ catalog, including “Burning,” “Say It,” “On + Off” and, of course, “Alaska,” which she prefaced by saying, “See if you know this one.” Having made her way around the festival circuit the past few months, Rogers expressed her love for the format, explaining that she loves the way music festivals bring people together and make them part of something bigger than themselves.

As evening fell on the Downtown stage, Rogers told the crowd, “Your weekend is halfway over. Dance a little harder, sing a little louder. Because you’re the only one who thinks you look dumb.” And that’s exactly what the crowd did, as she closed the set with “Light On” and “Fallingwater.” –Genevie Durano

Cautious Clay: What instrument can’t this man play? During his sunset performance on the Bacardi Stage, Cautious Clay sang and played the guitar, the saxophone and the flute. Not for nothing does he have a degree in jazz studies from George Washington University. His compendium of thoughtful slow-jams were perfect for relaxing in the last bits of daylight before the big bands started. –CMR

Of Monsters and Men: Large-crowd appeal is in the very DNA of Of Monsters and Men, which create big brass-pop, folk-inflected sounds and anthemic choruses begging for a sing-along. Dancing is encouraged, too, with co-lead singer Ragnar Þórhallsson urging the crowd to do so from the start.

The group, on tour to promote its third album, Fever Dream, brought the crowd to its feet with favorites “Lakehouse,” “King and Lionheart,” “Crystals” and “Your Bones.” Songs from the new album are a bit of a departure from Monsters’ first two, offering more electronic elements and a poppy, clubby sound. They definitely benefit from being played live, with co-lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s vocals sounding divine on “Alligator.”) But the mining of breakout album My Head Is an Animal made the set memorable. “Six Weeks” closed it out, to the delight of a crowd high on Icelandic pop. –GD

Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady brought some memorable theatrics to Life Is Beautiful’s Bacardi Stage Saturday night, tearing through an extravaganza of her biggest hits, complete with wardrobe changes and choreographed footwork.

If you missed her at the Palms last year, Monáe’s LIB set was an abridged—but no less powerful—version, focused on her most recent LP, 2018’s Dirty Computer. We got the playfulness on bubbly tracks like “Screwed,” the cheeky Monáe on “I Like That” and the in-your-face, take-no-prisoners ferocity of her “Django Jane” persona. A shape-shifter and chameleon, Monáe made a few outfit changes throughout the hour-long set, none more memorable than her pink p*ssy pants for 2018 hit “Pynk.”

The Black Keys: After two days of electronic music, hip-hop and pop, The Black Keys came as a welcome return to good, old-fashioned rock. Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, 40, and drummer Patrick Carney, 39, have aged into their grizzled sound. The video screens enlarging the performers were stylized in black and white. They played their favorites and they played them well: “Howlin’ for You,” “Tighten Up,” “Your Touch,” “Strange Times” and “My Next Girl.” It was a satisfying set and it ended with a delightful and very Vegas surprise.

First, the setup: The Black Keys were supposed to follow Lil Wayne. But Lil Wayne canceled at the last minute, enraging fans. Even as they enjoyed the closing act, attendees were still grumbling about the no-show. So, it was quite perfect when Auerbach said, “We know you’re so disappointed about Lil Wayne. But you can always depend on Big Wayne. Cheers for Mr. Las Vegas. He’s not going to cancel on you.”

Who came the stage but Wayne Newton himself! As The Black Keys concluded with “Lonely Boy,” Newton offered gleaming white smiles as he sang along. Newton looked thrilled to be onstage, if not a little lost, adding Vegas flare to the final notes of the evening. At set’s end, Carney tossed his kitschy Las Vegas visor into the audience and a bartender yelled at nobody in particular: “At least we got one Wayne here.” –CMR

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 22

Pod Save America: Before it became a rave tent later in the day, the covered Fremont Stage hosted a much more civilized purpose: talk show. Where DJs would soon rage on, a semicircle of comfy chairs supported the liberal commentators of Pod Save America. They drew a fraction of the audience for Day 1 opener Jonathan Van Ness, but the relatively few fans in attendance were dedicated.

Four men making political chatter about the latest case for Trump’s impeachment might work well for a long commute in a quiet car, but it didn’t exude enough energy to capture the attention of festival passersby. At one point, one of the podcasters had a streak of self-awareness and announced as if surprised by his own presence: “We’re talking about politics at an EDM festival.” Life Is Beautiful is not just an EDM festival, but whatever. –CMR 

Life Is Beautiful 2019 Day 3

Toto: Life Is Beautiful has a tradition of including a few nostalgia acts to give the kids and their parents something to discuss. Past years have featured Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and Third Eye Blind, and this year brought the ’70s/’80s rock band Toto to the lineup.

With their retro glam attire and ceaseless enthusiasm, Toto was the most Vegas act of the weekend. There was a top hat, spiky hair, silk shirts and bongos involved. Get these men a local residency, stat.

The show was simply a lot of fun, and the musicians really seemed to enjoy performing. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, clearly aware that most of the audience was blissfully

ignorant of all but their greatest hits. “All right, ya’ll ready for a party song you know?” One said as the band began playing 1982’s “Rosanna.” They did a quality cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” among other songs.

And of course, you already know what tune concluded their 50-minute set. One of the band members announced “Ya’ll ready for that song now?” Next came the iconic strains of 1982’s geographically suspect earworm “Africa,” which ended with a raucous jam session and audience call-and-response. –CMR

Hot Chip: Gen X was headbanging at the rail for this nearly 20-year-old London synth-pop act. The group’s instrumental electronic sound offered an interesting contrast to the electric rave vibe that drew the kids to the nearby Fremont Stage all weekend. Two decades might not seem old for a band that has been releasing music every few years, but when you consider that a lot of LIB attendees were in their mid-teens, it puts things in perspective. Both generations partied in a similar but different way. 

Lots of smoke and blue lighting boosted the atmosphere of Hot Chip’s intense musical performance, which featured lots of pulsating rhythm, repetition and synthesizers. They played old songs (“Over and Over”) and new ones (“Hungry Child”), then they mixed things up with a two-mic cover of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”

Hot Chip managed to replicate the feel of a dark, industrial warehouse dance party at an outdoor fest. Bravo. –CMR

Carly Rae Jepsen: The Canadian singer might have blamed Las Vegas for her vocals no being pitch-perfect, but even if Jepsen did slightly lose her voice a bit Sunday night, her set Bacardi Stage still qualified as one of the weekend’s best.

Jepsen’s infectious stage presence lent itself to a happy-go-lucky crowd of dancing revelers singing along to every word, especially to her breakout 2012 bubblegum single, “Call Me Maybe.”

Jepsen delivered the best tracks off her latest album, Dedicated, including “Now That I Found You,” “For Sure” and “I Want You in My Room,” but among the new material, LP cut “Too Much" drew the loudest reaction.

“When you meet the right person there should be no such thing as too much,” Jepsen said before launching into another heartfelt sing-along. The artist also underwent a wardrobe change during her 50-minute long set, pivoting from a red tulle dress and silver boots into a glittery retro shift dress with fringed sleeves and yellow tights.

“Vegas stole my voice, but I’m still having a good time,” she said after struggling to hit some high notes in “Real Love.” But as the confetti cannon blasted during 2016 single “Cut to the Feeling,” that was surely the last thing on the crowd’s mind. Instead, Jepsen’s set brought the right feel-good vibes to Life Is Beautiful, and as a result, her set helped close another energetic weekend of music and millennial fanfare. –LV

Vampire Weekend: It was a festival homecoming of sorts for Vampire Weekend, which played the inaugural edition of the fest in 2013. Back then, the band played songs off then-newly released album Modern Vampires in the City, its third, energizing the crowd with worldbeat-inflected indie pop-rock steeped with hyperliterate lyrics.

It’s been a quiet five years for the band since. Fourth album Father of the Bride, released in May, marks a departure from Vampire Weekend’s earlier sound in many ways. More subdued onstage, frontman Ezra Koenig is now in his mid-30s (and a dad to boot). He still dresses like a preppy college kid, but there’s a sense of depth that was absent six years ago.

There’s been a lineup change, too. Greta Morgan and Brian Robert Jones have joined the band for its live shows, while original member Rostam Batmanglij departed some time back (but continues to collaborate with Koenig). The setlist struck a good balance of new (opener “Bambina” set the tone), and old (toe-tappers “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Unbelievers.” Some of the best tracks from the expansive Father sounded better live, including “This Life” and “Harmony Hall.” Crowd favorites “A-Punk” and “Oxford Comma” got folks on their feet (mostly in an effort to keep the two giant balloon globes, a nod to the band’s recent album cover, afloat). By the time “Ya Hey” closed the show, it felt like reconnecting with old friends who have new stories to tell. –GD

Post Malone: After partying for three days straight, thrilled fans dipped into a reserve of energy to celebrate Day 3 headliner Post Malone. The 24-year-old rapper reined solo on the expansive Downtown stage to close Sunday night’s festivities.

And the man put on one hell of a show. He sang his heart out and offered up a slice of his soul during his earnest between-song chatter. His numbers included “Better Now,” “Psycho,” “Paranoid,” “I Fall Apart” and current chart-topper “Hollywood’s Bleeding.” He got out his acoustic guitar to sing a rough and raw rendition of “Stay.”

“The day I made this song, my life changed,” Malone said as he thanked his fans and lead into “White Iverson.”

Throughout the show, Malone drank from a blue Solo cup, giving the impression that he was performing for a wild house party. Where did he get the cup? No such cups were on offer at the fest itself. Was it in his rider, or did his crew bring it? Either way, it was a nice little detail to complete his devil-may-care aesthetic.

Constantly grateful, Malone seemed to thank the audience before and after basically every song. Fiery pyrotechnics added an element of edge. When Malone smashed his guitar toward the end of the set, the vertical orange flames made it appear like he was starring in his own action movie.

Malone ended his set and the festival with “Congratulations,” a fitting finale. He took the scenic route offstage, walking through the crowd, touching his fans as the cameras followed him until he was gone. Then the large screens displayed the message: “Thank You! See you next year! Life Is Beautiful 2020!” –CMR

GENERAL THOUGHTS

Visual arts: Life Is Beautiful has always been canny in integrating visual art into its offerings. The list of artists who comprise the festival’s street art gallery, now featuring seven years of accumulated works, is a who’s-who ripped from the pages of Juxtapoz: Shepard Fairey, Egle Zvirblyte, Broken Fingaz, Retna, Fafi, Tristan Eaton and more. And for the past few years, the M Modern Gallery-curated Crime on Canvas show has brought an eye-popping assortment of big-name pop surrealist art to the Western Hotel space.

This year found the LIB art program somewhat diminished. The Art Motel space—in past years curated by the likes of Meow Wolf and Bordalo II—was occupied by Bacardi, whose presence was more about its product than the art inspired by it. One room was festooned with maracas hanging on strings from the ceiling; another was simply a cash bar. I heard rumors of a “speakeasy” room, but Bacardi’s onsite “concierge” refused to acknowledge that it existed, so I didn’t see it.

Crime on Canvas skipped this year; in its place at the Western was Sam Cannon’s “Forest Bath,” a Sierra Club-sponsored, Albie Alexander-curated audiovisual piece. Viewers were invited to slip on wireless headphones playing mellow, ambient sounds and relax in a room surrounded by screens displaying abstract natural scenes, textural washes of green and blue. (It kinda reminded me of the ending of the 1973 dystopian sci-fi film Soylent Green; take that as you will.) It was a festival highlight.

The street art gallery introduced a few new pieces. Best of the bunch is Mantra’s piece on the east face of the Fremont 9 apartment building, curated by the JustKids collective: A trompe l’oeil of six giant butterflies displayed in a shadowbox. Across the street, on the face of the original Writer’s Block Book Shop home, is the runner-up: Daku’s cooly inventive, three-dimensional text piece, which can only be read when light shines on it from above. (It reads “VERY SLOW FOR THOSE WHO WAIT VERY FAST FOR THOSE WHO ARE SCARED VERY LONG FOR THOSE WHO LAMENT VERY SHORT FOR THOSE WHO CELEBRATE.”) And Ernest Zacharevic’s Seventh Street piece—on the wall formerly occupied by D*Face’s “Live Forever” mural—is lovely; two kids riding a splashy infinity symbol as if it were a Slip-and-Slide. Though I do wonder how the piece—part wall mural, part painted flats—will fare under Las Vegas’ unremitting sun.

There were other good surprises. It did my heart good to installations by locals Jerry Misko, Eric Vozzola and Snipt out there, getting the selfie love they deserved, and the Tahoe Mack-conceived “Monumental Mammoth”—which the young artist created with the help of local artists Luis Varelo-Rico and Dana Albany—is a steampunk masterwork. But the most insistent and ubiquitous art at Life Is Beautiful 2019 was a series of hand-drawn signs called “Notes to Strangers.” Most were no-duh aphorisms (“Always question if it really matters”); some were would-be Seinfeldisms (“Is sliced bread all that great?”); some were ominous (“In a few years, you will see why it didn’t work out”); and some were plain gibberish (“Inspo is open source”). But one stuck with me: “Art is for everyone, everywhere and everything.” For seven years, Life Is Beautiful has made art of the Fremont corridor, and left much of it in place for the benefit of the people who live and work in our Downtown core. And that, as they say, is everything. –Geoff Carter

Food: With myriad food vendors dotting the festival footprint, there was no chance of going hungry at Life Is Beautiful. The fest featured a gradation of culinary experiences, which for the most part depended on budget and access. Exclusive sit-down pop-up dinners offered by SecretBurger.com paired some of the city’s top chefs at the Omakase Cantina, while special stations catered to carnivores (the Cookout) and herbivores (the Farm Stand).

If you were lucky—or flush—enough to have access to exclusive sections like the Artist Hospitality Lounge and the VIP All-In sections, you got treated to unlimited drinks and bites from Sake Rok, Eataly, Gordon Ramsay Steak and more.

But the beating heart of LIB’s culinary program are the culinary villages, where the majority of the festivalgoers met their price point. Each village had unique offerings—a quick survey showed quite a range, from Eataly’s fancy gelato to Chipotle’s burrito bowls and lots in between. Judging from the lines, the most popular options appeared to be taco joints and pizza stands; attendees seemed to be eschewing $14 bahn mi sandwiches in favor of $3 tacos, perhaps spending their money on alcohol instead.

The lines got long near the larger stages, even with the Postmates option, through which you could order from the app and pick up your food at a designated booth in each of the villages. (It took about 15 minutes on average to get your order, according to some attendees.)

Overall, this year’s culinary program introduced attendees to some under-the-radar food offerings, such as food trucks Picanha Steaks and the Middle Feast, or new additions like Locale Italian Kitchen and St. Honore Doughnuts & Beignets. It was a nice spotlight on the local food scene, one that hopefully translates to repeat customers for these businesses. –GD

Comedy: The addition of the comedy lineup at Life Is Beautiful has been a good development, though admittedly, watching stand-up inside such a nice space—called the Venue—is still pretty jarring. The ceilings are too high, and the audience too well-behaved. When the comedians take the stage, it looks like they’re about to do a TED Talk.

But the biggest indication that this isn’t your typical beer-soaked comedy club? The reverberations of EDM across the street, which comedian Shane Torres had such a kick pointing out. (A note to parents: While LIB is an all-ages festival, the stand-up portion is still very much an R Rated affair, so be judicious in bringing young children to this part of programming.)

This year’s lineup brought two top ladies in the comedy circuit, Nikki Glaser (fresh off the Alec Baldwin Comedy Central Roast) and Christina P., who has two well-received Netflix specials, The Degenerates (filmed in Las Vegas) and Christina P.: Mother Inferior. SNL alum Fred Armisen also performed, as did current cast member Chris Redd. –GD

Etcetera: Staff photographers sponsored by Zappos are roaming the grounds and taking group photos of festival goers. After the photo they scan your wristband and the photo magically appears in on your phone. The future is now. And it’s well-lit.

The most useful VIP amenities are in order of importance: 1. trailer bathrooms rather than Porta-Potties 2. grass that pads your feet while you stand all day 3. USB ports in the bar tables so you can charge your phone while sitting, drinking and watching acts. 4. exclusive bars, food trucks, merch and water refill stations

The most useful corporate tie-in this year is hands-down Apple Pay. The bars all have Apple Pay fast lanes.

It’s totally worth it to wear a pedometer to the fest just so you can feel sanctimonious about how many thousands of steps you walked while drinking and eating too much. –CMR

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