Going to Downtown Las Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful Festival, now in its third year, you are likely to be told the festival’s name an uncountable amount of times. You’ll be told that you are beautiful, that music is beautiful, as is food, art, learning, and expression. It’s not a difficult concept to get attendees on board with, and for the most part, the event does its part to convince that the world is indeed a beautiful place, filled with beautiful, inspiring people.
But maybe it is the cynic in me, but a music festival in 2015 is hardly the transcendental experience that organizers sometimes pretend it is. At its best, it is a place of community and shared experience to discover new music and appreciate old favorites. But at its worst, it is also an endurance challenge, fighting the elements of weather, crowding, and mass-appeal bookings to somehow squeeze pleasure out of the act of survival.
For its part, Life Is Beautiful softens the blows of many music festivals’ sharpest edges. Its downtown landscape provides tons of shade from the sun while water refilling stations and air-conditioned cooling stations made the 100-degree heat as bearable as possible. The food is curated masterfully, and its Vegas location means that drinking isn’t relegated to a beer garden. And for those willing to commit to the VIP experience, you get a grassy viewing area, free lemonade, and celebrity chefs demonstrating their craft.
Where Life Is Beautiful fell short was its lineup. Maybe it was just impossible to follow a year where Kanye West, Foo Fighters, Skrillex, Arctic Monkeys, Outkast, and The Weeknd topped the bill, but this year, particularly a rough Saturday that found Imagine Dragons and Metric on the main stage at night, didn’t quite have the luster required to elevate Life Is Beautiful up among the year’s best-booked fests. But that didn’t take away from the attendance, with nearly all acts able to draw a significant audience to their individual performances.
And that was heartening to witness, as Life Is Beautiful still felt as vital in its third year as any other successful festival, its future looking very secure. And one act, with a little help from a super blood moon eclipse, did manage to provide the sort of religious moment that made real the idea that music festivals can be something more than the sum of their parts. It really did make life seem beautiful.
Twenty One Pilots
Entering the festival on Friday, Twenty One Pilots were easily the most represented band in terms of fans wearing their t-shirt, but their evening set would not really reveal why. If anything, Twenty One Pilots seem like the patron saints of people who are casually into music and like a little bit of everything, as the band can bounce between influences as disparate as Limp Bizkit, Sublime, Hollywood Undead, and Jack Johnson on a dime. In fact, all their tasteless nods are to bands that have been massively popular at one point, so maybe Twenty One Pilots’ ascension isn’t that inexplicable, but we can at least be certain that they will be gone soon, as quickly as they came.
We can all joke and have a good laugh when Win Butler vents about the evils of major labels because, yeah sure, Arcade Fire rely on them to get their records to their massive audience. But even beyond that, major labels produce a wealth of quality music that doesn’t let commerce get in the way of art. Watching an act like BØRNS, though, is where you think maybe Butler has a point. Having the stage presence of Kelso and the engaging banter of a Derek Zoolander, BØRNS strikes as the kind of act evil studios brew in laboratories, bribing Taylor Swift to mention she is a fan for a much needed cosign, with the only redeemable quality being that he’ll look good on teenagers’ bedroom walls. Pop can do better, your little brothers and sisters can do better, and major labels certainly can and will do better.
Set in a Quote: “Do you guys have Snapchat?” – BØRNS, speaking the language of his prospective fans.
For those curious, the Hozier demand is still alive and well. Despite the fact that “Take Me to Church” is played out to oblivion, casual music fans waited patiently throughout the gently rocking set to hear the radio hit. In a year, in five years, Hozier’s main stage placement will likely just stand as a sign of the times, a mosquito coated in amber for us to look back at 2015’s lack of breakout festival stars. For the moment, though, he packs a lowest-common-denominator punch and isn’t a complete drag to watch.
Set in a Quote: “Life is beautiful.” – Hozier, clearly inspired.
Glass Animals are essentially what alt-J would sound like if the guys in alt-J knew how to have a good time. With a stage adorned with pineapples, frontman Dave Bayley waved his hands and bent his microphone, showing that British bands with faux-intellectual appeal can groove, can spark pleasure rather than brooding, and can, ultimately, still feel just as empty. To Glass Animals’ credit, they do seem like better performers with every gig, and despite seeming to have achieved popularity more based on a sound than on a song, their sunny performances do provide unifying moments among people with varying tastes. To their discredit, though, their music lacks any semblance of a soul.
Set in a Quote: “It’s our first time in Vegas. It’s a cool spot.” – The baby-faced band expressing their happy-go-lucky spirit.
Metric’s recent album is called Pagans in Vegas, but that didn’t really make their appearance after dark on Saturday night feel any more special. If anything, it’s a bit of a wonder to watch the band and think how close they came to breaking through in a big way, how “Help I’m Alive” should have been an alt smash, and how that chance has probably passed them by. Whenever the band offered up their latest material, it felt reaching, just as Haines reached during a mid-set sermon about individuality and empowerment. Maybe the weirdest thing about Metric’s set was the plush spot they were given, at night on the main stage, speaking more to the bill’s hit-and-miss booking than Metric’s actual draw. But in the spotlight, Haines and her band shine as confident performers, only aided by a neon cape that glowed around Haines for the middle of the set.
Set in a Quote: “You are the only you, and that’s what makes this world great” – Metric’s Emily Haines getting uncomfortably preachy
Snoop Dogg was a late add to Life Is Beautiful, and he remains a festival sure thing. Sure to entertain, sure to revisit his many, many hits, sure to smoke a bunch of weed on stage, sure to encourage women to “get crazy.” It’s also the kind of set that doesn’t improve with repeat viewings, and at this point, it has to be only the youngest in the audience who haven’t seen the rap legend perform tracks from Doggystyle and get real pleasure from his appearances. Following someone as explosive as Chance the Rapper, Snoop felt uninspired, right down to not even completing his allotted set time. But you can get much worse than what Snoop has to offer.
Set in a Quote: “Which of you ladies wants to get up on stage?” – Snoop, giving the people what they want while smoking a blunt in front of a projection of a chalice of weed.
We were supposed to get this dope blood moon eclipse during Halsey’s set, but instead, cloud cover made the first half of the event a mystery to the Vegas crowd. Similarly, Halsey’s hype and album sales promised a grandiose revelation that never quite made itself apparent. Though playing on the festival’s smallest stage, Halsey drew rabid fans, earning a fan’s bra during her opening song, even receiving yells of “Halsey, you’re a goddess.” It was the kind of fanfare you wanted to believe in, but beyond a commanding stage presence, the songs remained shrouded behind the delivery, their appeal still a bit of a mystery.
Set in a Quote: “I heard we’ve got some strange astronomical phenomena happening right now.” – Halsey, adding to our collective disappointment at Las Vegas’ unforgiving clouds.
It’s been a year-and-a-half run that may go down as the best of Against Me!’s career, and with a new live album, 23 Live Sex Acts, just out, the band is in need of a regrouping period. Sunday evening’s set lacked in no way, but also came across as a little road worn, a slow-burning fire from a band that has been touring for a long while. Still, one of the most encouraging sights of the festival were the amount of Against Me! fans standing on the outskirts of the audience, singing songs old and new word for word — lyrics with content that says a lot more than the typical festivalgoer expects to hear in a dance tent. With just a shirt that says “Gender Is Over,” Laura Jane Grace made her punk rock set matter more than most artists even attempt when given a microphone onstage.
Set in a Quote: “Gender is over.” – Text on Laura Jane Grace’s t-shirt.
Weezer have had one of the weirdest touring cycles behind their quite good 2014 album, Everything Will Be Alright in the End. The band has been content playing mostly festivals of greatest hits rather than going on a full-blown jaunt behind the album, which is nice enough but does a bit of a disservice to the record. Their festival setlist has slightly morphed over the months, meaning that seeing them in September is fortunately different than seeing them in March, but for a band with such a rich back catalog, they really do play to the casual fan. This is nice for the typical festival attendee, but for anyone with more of an investment in the career of Weezer, the band’s 2015 live output leaves us waiting for what’s next.
Death Cab for Cutie
Like Weezer, Death Cab for Cutie have a sort of cruise control that their festival sets take, with a smattering of their latest album mixed with their expected hits and a couple tracks (“Company Calls”, “President of What?”) from their earliest albums to please those who have been following the band for 15 years. Unlike Weezer, the band’s Life Is Beautiful performance had a few notable footnotes, specifically the inclusion of Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan on bass because Nick Harmer was back home with his wife expecting a child. Plus, Death Cab has a slight edge on emotional engagement, though both bands could use a refresher in how to make these festival stops seem like more than just another date on the calendar.
Set in a Quote: “The name of this band is Death Cab for Cutie from Seattle, Washington.” – Ben Gibbard, introducing his band the same way he always does.
There’s a ton of angst in Meg Myers’ music, and she sells it onstage from moment one. Smiles are scarce, and her eyes remain wild. When the music gets loud, she convulses without much regard for her appearance. The confidence she has in her delivery makes passable songs come off as something a little bit better, which is the most you can hope from any live performance. Still, if Myers is going to make the jump, she’ll need more than just a ’90s alt rock sound. She’ll need ’90s alt rock hits to go with her rock star capabilities.
It’s been said before, but the rawk duo of Royal Blood are primed to be the next big alt radio flag wavers on the back of their confidence, chops, and ability to make the ground paved by Arctic Monkeys and Queens of the Stone Age seem fresh. Life Is Beautiful wasn’t a particularly on-fire moment for the band, but it did cement their status as a festival act that will convert the uninitiated. Simply getting people in the same place as their band is a victory.
Set in a Quote: “There’s a lot of people here to watch us, and that’s very good for us.” – Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr, not the most modest gentleman, but charming nonetheless.
Dan Deacon is the last person you’d expect to lose his temper. But a hot day and a stage in the sun saw plenty of technical difficulties, causing Deacon to blow up before his set even began. But Deacon, ever the gentle soul and lovable performer, would apologize to the audience and manage to reel them back in for a fun-filled set. The dance contest portion had particular high hopes for Deacon, as he acknowledged there might be actual professional dancers in his Vegas audience. Afterward, during the great “Learning to Relax”, any ill thoughts of him losing his cool evaporated, and Deacon was left to cast his musical spell on the engaged crowd. Crisis averted.
Set in a Quote: “I feel like I’m both characters from Bad Boys 2 on stage right now.” – Dan Deacon, apologizing for losing his temper.
Though she hasn’t quite blown up out of the gates like hoped for, watching Ryn Weaver at festivals this year, and in particular on Sunday afternoon at Life Is Beautiful, should give those involved with the artist a lot of hope that she is a break away from being a star. Whether that break will be the right feature appearance or writing the right song remains to be seen, but Weaver has the personality, stage presence, and sheer talent to hold onto any success she lands. For now, catching Weaver live will have you believing that you’re seeing a future pop star in the moment right before everything changes.
Set in a Quote: “I love Vegas. Last time I was here, I went to Spearament Rhino. Eh?” – Ryn Weaver, relating to her fans.
In what figures to be the last mile of Future Islands’ marathon for Singles, the most remarkable thing is how Sam Herring and his band still pack the same punch as they did 18 months ago. Songs from throughout their history get the same face-slapping, chest-pounding, leprechaun-dancing experience that the band has come to be known for, with the guys still very much impressed that people even come to see them. “We’re up against some pretty stiff competition right now. I love Snoop,” Herring acknowledged, before giving the much smaller audience than Snoop received a show that would put Snoop Dogg’s to shame.
Set in a Quote: “We’re Future Islands. This is what the fuck we do.” – Sam Herring, going for broke like the band does on a nightly basis.
Despite an acclaimed album and a song on an Apple commercial, it’s right now with the launch of his tour that Shamir seems ready to truly enter the music world’s consciousness. Despite a meek and humble beginning to the set that found the singer sitting onstage, his opening song, conveniently titled “Vegas”, instantly revealed a performer more than ready to entertain a festival crowd. Playing to a hometown audience, tidbits like “this is a song I wrote on my mother’s couch in North Vegas,” won over the fans, while dance-infused songs that often incorporated duel vocals from a female counterpart added some showmanship to the act. A surprising cover of Joyce Manor’s “Christmas Card” was just the icing on a fun and unique performance.
Set in a Quote: “It’s so weird to be singing my song “Vegas” in Vegas, where I’m from.” – Shamir taking in the moment at a hometown show.
Chance the Rapper
We spoke about Chance the Rapper (along with Tame Impala, Florence + the Machine, and Alabama Shakes) as being some of the breakout festival artists of 2015 in our recent Power Rankings article, and Chance did nothing to dissuade that opinion in his predictably amped-up Saturday night set. What Chance has really perfected over the course of the year is his job as an entertainer, selling his songs with his conviction and treating each show as if it is a proving ground. Interestingly, Snoop Dogg was placed directly after Chance, a pretty big gaff by festival schedulers who expected Snoop to hold a candle to one of music’s most captivating young stars.
Kendrick Lamar’s been trotting out a similar, slightly evolving set over the course of the summer at an assortment of festivals. The reason that Lamar keeps getting high marks is because he is tightening every time and capturing what is very much his moment. They say people like concerts because they like watching someone believe in themselves, and watching Lamar seizing his time, his peak, is an infectious experience, one that lets the audience walk away with their own head a little higher. Bringing out Jay Rock for opener “Money Trees” was nice, but Lamar doesn’t need anything but his great songs, enormous talent, and captivating charm to make a headlining set seem like a success.
One of the big question marks of Life Is Beautiful was how one of their most unique bookings, Duran Duran, would play to a 2015 festival audience. Would a young crowd reject the band more famous among their parents, or would the English icons draw in an older audience more suited to their style? Well, there was definitely a contingent of die-hard Duran Duran fans present, but even better, the group produced a set that could impress even the uninitiated. Despite opening with new song “Paper Gods”, the hits would soon rain down, with “Hungry Like the Wolf” igniting the massive crowd and the James Bond visual imagery for “A View to a Kill” giving younger attendees a point of reference. Later, “Come Undone” was performed as a duet with a backing singer, shining a light on one of the stronger, less revered hits in their catalog.
It was a set worthy of a headlining appearance, which Duran Duran seemed to think it was, returning for an encore of “Rio” to fans’ delight.
Set in a Quote: “Is anybody hungry?” – Simon Le Bon, giving a certain song the most obvious, and endearing, intro possible.
There’s an inherent reverence that coincides with an appearance from someone like Stevie Wonder, with even the young Life Is Beautiful audience popping by for at least a short while to tell their parents they saw him (before heading over to dance at the evening’s other closers, Major Laser and Porter Robinson). But Wonder, to the surprise of few, isn’t just a figurehead of music from days of yore. He still can deliver a two-hour set packed with hits from decades past that come across as vital as ever, making omissions like “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Isn’t She Lovely” mere footnotes to a successful performance.
Whether impressing on his own songs, like “Master Blaster (Jammin)” and “Higher Ground”, or covering his “favorite” Bob Marley song, “Wait in Vain”, Wonder was fun, feisty, and an all-around class act. Maybe the best thing that can be said about him is that he exceeds his own massive reputation.
Set in a Quote: “Be my choir for me.” – Wonder, asking the audience to switch the lyrics of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” into a spiritual.