Words: Chris Zacharia
They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but Las Vegas doesn’t even blink.
3am traffic jams, turning the streets into rivers of yellow and red. Slot machines in the lobby of every hotel, in the concourse of the airport, in the dreams of every wide-eyed hopeful and seasoned gaming veteran in town. And a screaming choir of neon, smiling widely at you in the car, in the elevator, in the street.
I’m here for Life is Beautiful, a critically-acclaimed music festival in downtown Vegas. It might not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Sin City, but hosting an enormous celebration of music and culture in Las Vegas is like having a particularly raucous Mardi Gras in Jurassic Park. It promises to be wild.
‘Las Vegas spoils you for other cities’ my cab driver tells me. ‘No matter how much fun you havin’ in other cities, you’re never havin’ as much fun as Vegas’.
Fun, or pleasure, is the city’s endlessly repeated catechism, its ultimate justification. Why build a full replica of Venice’s Piazza di San Marco, complete with canals and gondoliers? Why add a series of thousand-metre ziplines above the city’s oldest arcade? Why let strippers roam the streets, playfully whipping passers-by and cajoling them into photographs? Because it’s fun. It’s Vegas’s idea of fun, anyway.
All this hedonism makes Las Vegas a promising venue for a music festival. Life is Beautiful is now in its fifth year. An eclectic mix of pop, rock, hip hop and EDM, the annual festival occupies over eighteen blocks of the city’s historic downtown. I repeat: the festival occupies eighteen blocks of Las Vegas, sweeping up roads, houses, bars, you name it, into a swirling melange of colour and music.
You walk through streets filled with partygoers, traffic lights blinking uselessly overhead, the curbs transformed into ersatz dancefloors, the parks filled with spliff smoke. Despite the tented metropolis of Glastonbury, despite the mass revelry of Notting Hill carnival, nothing like this exists in Britain.
The festival’s unique setting is not the only impressive aspect: the line up is compelling, too. Muse, Gorillaz, Wiz Khalifa, De la Soul, Bonobo, Chance the Rapper, Lorde, The XX, Blink 182, Sean Paul – in their attempt to curate a festival that could legitimately be enjoyed by all, Life is Beautiful have emphatically succeeded. Across two main stages, a smaller stage and two dance venues, raps are spun, guitar solos detonated and beats are emphatically dropped.
‘I go to festivals all over the US, and Life is Beautiful is definitely in my top three’ says Chelsea, who works in GoldSpike, a bar on Fremont Street, just by the festival’s main entry gate. ‘Which is lucky, as a Vegas local’
Although Life is Beautiful is a festival in Las Vegas, it’s not a Las Vegas festival. It tries to be something different, to offer an alternative to the city’s unapologetic brashness. The fact that the founders chose to give it a positive ethos-in-a-name like Life is Beautiful reveals its spiritual independence from Sin City.
Situated in downtown Las Vegas, a world away from the Strip, Life is Beautiful is a great way to experience a different side of Vegas. Artistic exhibitions, experimental installations and a be-nice vibe characterise the festival. When Posdnuos of De la Soul preaches to the crowd about how hip hop is about breaking down walls and bringing people together, he doesn’t even have to finish his sentence before receiving an almighty cheer.
Arriving in Las Vegas on a Thursday, I check into the Linq, an MGM-owned hotel near the city’s famous Strip. Like its more illustrious neighbours, the Linq is a casino. A sprawling ground floor is festooned with slots, manned day and night by gamblers. Upstairs, my sixth-floor room overlooks the swimming pool. Surrounded on all four sides by the hotel’s steep shoulders, the Linq’s pool is in constant frat party mode: beer pong, poolside cocktails and a chart hit-infested soundtrack, played at a volume making speech impossible with anyone who isn’t directly next to you.
A twenty-minute cab ride takes you down to Fremont St, and the festival’s entrance. Here, the streets are narrower, more tightly integrated, reminiscent more of the East Coast than the space-is-no-object sprawl of uptown Vegas. We head inside the festival as the sun begins to set, with the festival’s artistic structures – a fire-breathing praying mantis among them – to cast long shadows across the streets.
From the first night, the line-up is so compelling that we’re forever debating what to do. Lorde, Tycho and Chance the Rapper or Sean Paul, The XX and Blink 182? Either way, the gigs themselves are impressive. It’s often taken as a given at a music festival, but the sound quality is peerless – Muse’s set is a hurricane of decibels unleashed, so powerful that you instinctively want to grab onto something during the enormous chorus.
The light shows are spectacular, too. Each band is elaborated by an individual pattern of colours, swirling neon green and petrol blue against the glossy Nevadan night. A vast screen brings the bands up close and personal, even if you’re way at the back.
After Blink reel off their hits, we swing by Chance the Rapper’s set before pouring out into the city at around 1am. For many other festivals, this would be the beginning of the end – either a prolonged search for a late-night dance cave or acoustic tent, followed by the long trudge to the tent.
Not in Vegas. Here on Fremont St, the night’s only just starting. Traffic is queuing around the block; so are those hoping to get into the bars and clubs.
Saturday morning, and I’m feeling pretty ropey. It’s not one of those humbling hangovers which leave you feeling purged, but one of the smaller, more spiteful ones, which trip you up and slow you down.
We head to the Venetian, one of Vegas’s classier hotels, for a Rolling Stones exhibition. As tributes to bands go, I can’t imagine anything better. From Mick Jagger’s legendary Fenders, through to original lyric sheets and even a recreation of the Rolling Stones’ first apartment together, this touring exhibit captures the band’s anarchic spirit. Watching the Stones perform I Can’t Get No Satisfaction in 3D at the end of the show, I feel proud to be hungover.
After walking through an eerily accurate replica of Piazza San Marco, corridor after corridor of Renaissance marble, punctuated by chandeliers and maroon-coloured columns, we find ourselves in a beautifully understated courtyard.
This is Bouchon: impeccable service and on-point brunch classics, in what must be one of Las Vegas’s most tranquil settings. The courtyard’s peacefulness cures my hangover as much as the champagne. A brunch buffet of salmon, eggs and freshly baked pastries does the rest.
There’s so much going on in Las Vegas, that even when we’re not at Life is Beautiful there’s still so much going on. Downtown, we head to the Downtown Grand, where pop group Capital Cities are playing a gig on the rooftop. It’s like a scene from an American music video – girls in bikinis, guys waist-deep in the pool water, and on stage a band giving it their all.
‘These guys met through Craigslist’ a girl in the crowd tells me. ‘The lead singer put an ad out looking for a band, and now they’re huge’
With keyboards, a metallophone and a trumpet backing up the lead singer, there’s a fitting tropical breeziness to Capital Cities’ songs. The crowd are loving it, not least when the lead singer, in a Breton jumper and Matrix-esque sunglasses, dives into the crowd for a final hurrah.
If that wasn’t enough of a warm-up for the festival, cocktails at the Gold Spike do the trick. Featuring an adult playground with games and jungle gyms, a well-stocked bar and Milkshake-based creations bring us Cap’n Crunch cereal mixed with rum, Reese’s chocolate with vodka, and even a ‘breakfast’ boozy milkshake with actual streaky bacon dunked into the cream like a salty straw. The chances of a tactical chunder have just increased.
My only criticism of Life is Beautiful is that, occasionally, the crowd doesn’t seem that into it. Oh they’re huge fans, alright – just listen to that applause – but compared to the lairy moshpits, face-paint and fancy dress of British festival crowds, it sometimes feels restrained. Where’s the guy dressed as a toilet cistern? Why is no-one in drag? Is this not Vegas?
Saturday night picks up. I change into some purple spandex and a sparkly gold waistcoat, to help get things started. From Wiz Khalifa’s mazy, confident one-two rhymes to Muse’s uppercut of adolescent rock, it’s another big night. I wake up the following morning, still in my spandex, to a pillow full of glitter.
Las Vegas is such a bubble of egos and sins, that it’s easy to forget where you are. The southwest corner of Nevada is spectacular. A frankly nigh-on impossible 5.45am start takes us to Sundance Helicopters. They fly guests to see the Grand Canyon. The forty-five minute ride to the canyon is spectacular in and of itself – the skyscrapers of Vegas, looking strangely isolated amidst the vast expanse of desert, giving way to the foothills surrounding the Rio Grande and the mightiness of the Hoover Dam.
But just as the sunlight begins to conquer the land, we’re treated to something far greater. The Grand Canyon always looks impressive, but in the sharp contrasts of breaking dawn it’s unbelievable. Twisting and turning, our helicopter dips into the canyon, giving us a perfect view of the strange shapes and sediments of the rock. Five minutes later, we land on a plateau, decorated with shrubbery and cacti.
‘This part of the canyon is owned by the Hualapi tribe’ explains Alex, our pilot. ‘They kindly allow us to take tourists to this spot, so treat them with respect – don’t leave anything behind’
For half an hour, we frolic in the sun and shadow of the canyon, gawping up at the steep walls of red rock above us or the winding river below. After satisfying the irresistible urge for the selfie, using the ancient landmark as a backdrop for our narcissism, we sit down for a quick picnic breakfast before boarding the helicopter.
After a weekend of hedonism, insanely loud music and man-made marvels, this is the perfect cleanse – an unforgettable sight of natural wonder. Of course Las Vegas is the city that doesn’t even blink. Who’d want to miss any of this?