There’s something Stepford-esque about many modern-day mass-market music festivals. Take some marquee artists who have recently released new albums, cobble together a few legacy reunions, throw in a hefty helping of up-and-comers, sprinkle on a slew of art installations–and, of course, Spicy Pie–and voila! You have a money-making machine for the weekend.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. Music festivals are awesome, and Spicy Pie is scrumptious.)
For all its pejorative power, a Stepford house, like those that fill the rising suburbs of Las Vegas, can be a comfortable place to live, especially if the location is on point. So while Life Is Beautiful may not have been completely unique in its content, its execution and location set it apart.
To be sure, there was plenty to do that was straight out of Sin City and the wider, wilder West. Both the Blue Man Group and Cirque de Soleil made their way over from the Strip to strut their stuff for the tens of thousands wandering into and out of the festival grounds on Sunday; like many major festivals, Life Is Beautiful allows in-and-out privileges—not to be confused with the privilege of eating In-N-Out. Filling the Art Motel this year were the colorful, interactive installations of Meow Wolf, an arts collective out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. And though some of the art and much of the music at Life Is Beautiful wasn’t exclusive to this fifth-year festival in Downtown Las Vegas, that didn’t take away from the experiences themselves.
Does it matter that Muse played “Dig Down,” its latest release, at Firefly and KAABOO prior to its electric set at the Downtown Stage on Saturday night? Is it important that HAIM went H.A.M. at three West Coast fests—ALT 98.7 Summer Camp in Long Beach, Bumbershoot in Seattle and Ohana Fest in Dana Point—with hits from its new album, Something to Tell You, before banging out standards old and new at the Ambassador Stage on Sunday? What about all the audiences around the world that have already rocked out with Blink-182’s new lineup or got down to Humanz, the Gorillaz’s spunky spring release?
What made Life Is Beautiful, well, beautiful wasn’t just the eclectic lineup of bands, comedians, speakers, and chefs, but the setting they all shared. The sparkle of Fremont Street framed the festival grounds and beckoned to the crowds inside. The glow of Old Vegas, of long-ago go-to’s like the Golden Nugget and El Cortez, softened by the more grotesque outgrowths of that not-so-far-off stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard.
The free gelato and sorbetto near the main gate, courtesy of Talenti, was a nice touch, too.
In some respects, the booming art culture of Downtown Vegas was covered up or crowded out of the area to make way for the Life Is Beautiful and incoming festival goers. But a share of that overlay kept the spirit of the area’s quirky, creative “gentrevival.” And there was little the folks at Another Planet Entertainment and Wendoh deigned to do to shroud the bright, emotive murals already sprawled across some of the buildings.
Good thing, too. Vegas can be (and often is) garish and overwrought. So, too, can music festivals. Both are prone to self-parody. Put them together, and it follows that those threats would grow exponentially.
But at Life Is Beautiful, the over-the-topness of the two combined to create an experience that was at once enchanting and entrapping, enlightening and forceful, campy and conscientious. To call the festival Life Is Beautiful may be a bit on the nose, but in this case, it’s no less true or appropriate.
[photo via Life Is Beautiful Facebook]