For an event that consciously tries to showcase all that Vegas has to offer, Life is Beautiful founder and organizer Rehan Choudhry hit the nail on its head for the second consecutive year, gathering together the city’s most talented chefs, artists, musicians, and speakers for three days of exploration.
With four music stages, a keynote presentation theatre, a cooking demonstration venue, and dozens of murals and art installations crowding the streets of downtown Las Vegas, one could relive the weekend three or four times over without seeing, eating, learning, or listening to the same thing twice.
What many visitors to Las Vegas tend to forget is that there’s a major city that lies in the shadows of the famed hotels and casinos that line The Strip. Unlike the tourist-crammed section of the city, which is constantly expanding, the struggling downtown core surrounding Fremont Street is littered with empty lots, making it a perfect venue for an urban music festival. Instead of spacing out smaller events throughout the city, as Austin does for South by Southwest, Life is Beautiful shuts down more than 15 square blocks of the city, which provide a conveniently self-contained venue in the heart of the city.
It was clear that Choudhry wanted to provide local crowds with a rare opportunity to see favorites that were less likely to make a stop on their way through Vegas, while providing visitors reasons to return to the newly revitalized downtown, and in that way the event was wildly successful.
Of course, there were a few elements that didn’t go over as well as planned, as one would expect with such an ambitious project. The learning venue proved far too small for the acts that were lined up to perform within, and many fans were disappointed when they were unable to get access to talks by the likes of Pussy Riot, Ricki Lake, and Penn and Teller. The much touted Lionel Express conga line was rarely seen making its way through the venue, inspiring more confusion than participation, and the two actors that spent the entire weekend waiting for passersby to feed them lines inside a 1950s style television had to do more ad-libbing than they likely prepared for, thanks to a line for free cupcakes a few feet away.
As a lesser known event taking place in the autumn of the festival season, there were few celebrity spottings and guest appearances, which might seem unexpected considering the laundry list of talent that resides 20 minutes away on the Strip, but it proved refreshing to attend an event in Sin City that wasn’t flashy and over the top. Besides, the names that filled the official lineup were more than enough to draw an agreeable crowd. Here are some of the weekend’s highlights:
Absent from the festival circuit for the past two years, The Weeknd returned on Friday night in a manor that would imply he’s spent the entire interim working on his suave moves. With the vocal range of Michael Jackson and the hair stylist of Russell Brand, Abel Tesfaye proved his frontman skills with smooth but powerful enthusiasm, stopping intermittently to instruct the packed crowd surrounding the Downtown stage to put their hands up. Three years after his first on-stage appearance, the Toronto-based artist looks as though he has finally found his groove, although much of his originals still sound painfully similar. Asking the crowds to “show me some love,” and “get sexy with me,” the alternative R&B artist serenaded fans with original singles like “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” and “Often”, but really sexed up the night with his passionate rendition of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” as “pornography” floated on the giant screens behind him.
Most Inspiring Moment
When I spoke with Rehan Choudhry a couple of weeks ago, I asked him why he bothered including such a vast “learning” element into what could very well succeed as a standalone music festival. His response seemed trivial at the time, almost cheesy, but after seeing Pussy Riot’s presentation on Friday afternoon, I’ve got to give him credit. In essence, he told me that he wanted the audience to have a profoundly moving experience, and one that they’ll remember for years to come. In five years, when I look back at Life is Beautiful, I might not remember who the headliners were, I might confuse some of the acts I saw for shows I saw at different festivals earlier this year, but I think I speak for every person who was lucky enough to make it into the modest Western Hotel lobby conference room Friday afternoon when I say that I will never forget Pussy Riot’s talk.
Speaking partially in broken English and with the aide of her husband, Nadya Tolokonnikova alongside Masha Alyokhina were all smiles and laughs as they described the two years they spent in a penal colony, the public beatings they’ve suffered, and the ongoing fight for human rights in Russia. The two discussed issues in America, even applauding Russia for taking small but noticeable steps in the right direction, and told the story of a Russian police officer who ironically showed off a “Free Pussy Riot” sticker on his dashboard as he hauled them off to prison. They also discussed the impact art can have on social issues, how they don’t fear what may happen to them upon their return to Russia, and, oddly enough, their love for the Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black.