We were a sparse bunch. Saturday's first-ever Pure House Music Festival at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater did not draw a large crowd, though my observations only cover the afternoon and early evening. And, among those in attendance, many folks were out-of-towners: loyal fans or acquaintences of festival co-founders Jesse Saunders and Rory McAlister, who both live here but began their music legacies in Chicago. Questions abounded. Are Las Vegans only accustomed to nighttime house music experiences? Was the first-ever edition promoted well? Or ... was it "too house" for a Vegas crowd?
On this latter point, one DJ said he heard people he knew grumbling that the event would be "too underground" or "too urban" for them to attend. Saunders told me in an interview before the fest that he doesn't believe racism has diminished interest in traditional house music, but I suspect it plays a part, at least in Las Vegas. Most of the house music played on Sept. 29 boasted R&B, Latin, disco, funk and world music influences -- as it should have. The exploding "EDM" music heard in the most popular nightclubs on the Strip contains very little of those "urban" influences, instead usually favoring the European techno tradition and electro. Perhaps that's why the white and Asian demographics that dominate dance spots like XS, Marquee and Surrender were, for whatever reason, not well-represented on Saturday. It was one of those things that wasn't relevant to anyone's festival experience, but was nonetheless noticable.
While the crowd at the Amphitheater was small, it was also enthusiastic and sociable. I met some folks adorn in multicolored "old school house heads" tees. They were from Chicago -- where Saunders' summertime house music picnics draw tens of thousands -- and clearly happy to be there, often dancing in the hot 3 p.m. sun. It was also nice to go to a dance music happening where people weren't shuffling around aggressively, or grumbling about high drink prices, or getting too hammered. Even at 120 BPM, house music can have a calming effect, and as such, the afternoon felt relaxed. Combine the friendliness of the attendance, and you had a welcoming, feel-good vibe you aren't likely to find at many other local festivals. For the younger set, the music and the atmosphere might've been a revelation. For the house veterans, it was a time for nostalgia and reunion.
And the music rarely disappointed. During my visit, DJs David Harness and Evan Landes, of Groove Junkies fame, particularly had strong, exuberant sets. Solara joined Landes onstage, and was one of a handful of vocalists who accompanied the DJs throughout the event. Percussionists also accompanied the spinners at various points. Saunders programmed the festival as such to point out the importance of their contributions to house music. Electronic music in general typically deifies the DJs, which overshadows those who make and perform the actual songs the DJs spin.
Other contributors he and McAlister wanted to acknowledge were the players involved in the Chicago and Las Vegas house music scenes, which they did during an award and acknowledgement segment. Most of those honored hailed from Chicago, though Club Utopia owner David Cohen did receive an award during the segment. (DJs affiliated with the pioneering nightclub were honored offstage.) Even though Utopia reigned supreme during the last half of the 1990s and the early 2000s, the gesture highlighted the relative youth of the Las Vegas house scene. Perhaps the presence of an annual Pure House Music Festival will mark an important transition point in its maturity -- and hopefully propel its evolution and encourage its growth.