Jack Johnson is a local musician. (Disclosure: He’s also my friend and former CityLife intern.) With his band Dude City, he tends to play locales like downtown, where his raucous Americana sound is most welcome, and Boulder City, his hometown. Locales Dude City doesn’t usually play are casinos, largely because his raucous Americana sound doesn’t have much overlap with the mainstream rock, pop and country favored in those venues. That, however, is slowly changing.
Dude City’s resume forever changed when The Cosmopolitan recently asked Johnson to share a bill with expats The Mad Caps at the property’s Boulevard Pool. He was quite proud of this feat, as he should have been. A show at the Cosmo is the mother lode for original-music bands in Las Vegas: The casino has the credibility of Fremont East, a Strip-sized budget and a potentially international audience.
To date, the property has only booked a handful of local acts in its venues. “We don’t specifically look for local bands, we put them in the same pit [as touring bands]” says Cosmopolitan’s director of entertainment and nightlife operations, Fedor Banuchi. “When we think they’ll fit our brand, we book them.” Still, it books them — indie-leaning ones at that — which makes it a Strip anomaly.
In general, an increasing number of valley casinos have jumped into the fray, leaning less on play-it-safe tribute bands and opting for original, homegrown and often alternative talent when appropriate. The Silverton has been booking local bands for a few years now, from rock to reggae and ska. Following the Cosmo’s Book and Stage, the Palms Lounge opened up its stage to original acts like Halloween Town, Rhyme N Rhythm and A Crowd of Small Adventures.
M Resort’s Ravello Lounge regularly hosts the signature events for Rock ’N’ Roll Wine, which books the room. It recently featured The Lazystars and Dusty Sunshine, among a long list of others. For RNRW’s Chris Hammond and Sonny Barton, its unconventional take on selling and exhibiting their wine includes performances by Vegas bands, with which they feel a kinship given that RNRW got its start in the downtown arts and music scene. “We love introducing people to new wines, but I can tell you, it’s just as enjoyable introducing these same people to great up-and-coming local acts that they may never have heard of,” says Barton.
Over the years, Station Casinos “dabbled” in the practice, says its vice president of entertainment, Judy Alberti. Though the local casino chain would seem to be the largest employer of cover acts in town, it has also booked original groups like Avalon Landing and Home Cookin’ that could easily draw a 21-and-over crowd.
Stations also has heavily booked two bands that signed major record deals this year: alt-rock band Imagine Dragons and hard rock act Otherwise. Both bands built large local fan bases through their consistent gigs at Stations, which in turn fostered a relationship with the acts as it would their regular gamblers. Otherwise has specifically credited Stations with helping steer the act toward a record deal; it remains loyal to the casino company, as it returns to Aliante Station on July 20.
“We have an eye toward really consistent customer service, because we want that guest back, and that same goes for an entertainer,” says Alberti. “You ingratiate yourself with people.”