Capital Cities spliced covers of The Bee Gees and Weezer into their set.
Beck weaved material from the Queen of Disco and the King of Pop into his own songs.
But the most ambitious mashup last weekend was the successful blending of a traditional music festival with a massive art exhibition and a culinary extravaganza in downtown Las Vegas.
“We’re very glad to be back in Las Vegas for this auspicious Life is Beautiful festival,” Beck told the crowd during his Saturday performance.
Auspicious — portending future success — is certainly an adjective organizers wouldn’t disagree with considering the inaugural festival hosted electrifying music performances, drew 60,000 in attendance and closed a 15-block swath of downtown without major logistical nightmares.
Perhaps most surprising was how seamlessly Life Is Beautiful combined visual and culinary arts with its main draw of live music. The giant murals throughout downtown were more responsible than anything in creating atmosphere, and the Art Odyssey, a shuttered-weekly-motel-turned-art-gallery, was a welcome quiet place to tour after a day of eardrum pummeling.
Even the celebrity chefs’ performances were immersive, some accidentally so; during a butchery demonstration Sunday, salumist Elias Cairo’s was hacking into a severed hog’s head when errant pieces of pig flesh flew off his carving knife onto audience members. No one seemed to mind.
But the main attraction was the music, and the array of performers largely delivered.
In 20 years of playing Las Vegas, Beck has turned in performances that were awful (Huntridge Theater, ‘94), amazing (Huntridge, ‘97; Tropicana, ‘99), mediocre (Hard Rock, ‘02) and head-scratching (‘05 Vegoose). He was back in rare form Saturday with an energetic set that drew on his best material (“Hotwax,” “Lost Cause”) and snippets of others’. He incorporated the chorus of Donna Summer’s groundbreaking disco smash “I Feel Love” as a coda to his own “Think I’m In Love,” and unleashed his ‘80s beast on a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
The King of Pop also surfaced in Janelle Monae’s thrilling Sunday set, when she performed The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Yet Monae’s nonstop shake, shimmy and shout routine in front of an airtight 10-piece band owed more to the Godfather of Soul. (An assistant actually draped her in a cape James Brown-style during her knockout closer “Tightrope.”)
A criminally small audience of hip-hop heads caught rapper Danny Brown’s furiously fast delivery on Sunday. Clad in a long-sleeve tunic/layered-skirt outfit, Brown was a lock for most bizarre fashion choice for the fest. But dark horse Brandon Flowers of hometown heroes The Killers bested him late Sunday with a short-sleeve, patterned button-up and shellacked hair combo that paid tribute to Ed Grimley of ‘80s SNL fame.
The Killers’ festival-capping performance had several buoyant moments, and drew the largest crowd for highlights like “Read My Mind” and “A Dustland Fairytale.” They noted the Sunday morning passing of Lou Reed, an alternative rock icon for his pioneering work in the Velvet Underground, by turning in a spare reading of the Velvets’ “Pale Blue Eyes.”
Earlier, Vampire Weekend walked onstage to Reed singing the Velvets’ “Sunday Morning.” The set that followed had a workmanlike, no-nonsense quality as they worked through a dozen songs that sounded identical to their studio versions, Leader Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson exchanged brief smiles during “A-Punk,” a rare moment of levity. The quartet’s set was a safe and bloodless operation nearly devoid of risk or surprise, like Lasik surgery and only slightly more fun.
The festival was also a place for musicians to be fans.
Zach and Ben Yudin, the twins that lead sunny pop group Cayucas, hung around the Huntridge Stage after their breezy set Saturday to catch Cults’ doomed-romance rock. After turning in an unexpectedly raucous performance, the three Haim sisters planted themselves amongst the Downtown Stage audience to geek out to Vampire Weekend.
For a first-year festival, Life is Beautiful had notably smooth logistics. Sets mostly started on time. Signage made the site easy to navigate. Sound problems proved rare. Wait times for food, beer and toilets were brief. Police officers were friendly.
The two major failures were cell coverage and garbage collection.
It’s fair to give a pass on the former, as established festivals like Coachella, ACL and Pitchfork still struggle each year with providing adequate cell phone coverage. (It’s 2013: can’t temp cell towers be erected to meet demand surges from swells of people?)
But a lack of trash receptacles and cleanup is an inexcusable planning oversight. By sunset of both nights, you couldn’t move toward the Downtown Stage without a crunchy trudge through strewn garbage. Once situated near the main stage, you couldn’t stand still in the litter without passersby sending discarded plastic cup missiles into your feet.
However, these are minor atmospheric failings for a festival that delivered on many of its founders’ ambitions.
Just a few tweaks and life will be even more beautiful at next year’s festival.