Two years ago, 27 bands — most of them local — played four Downtown venues over the span of four September nights, drawing a modest crowd to Fremont Street. And though organizers of the budding festival calling itself Neon Reverb spoke of grand plans for future installments, few Las Vegans would have fallen from their chairs had the musical happening proven to be a singular experiment. This is, after all, a town whose largest music, comedy and film fests have fallen victim to tough economics.
And yet, here we stand, 24 months later, preparing for Neon Reverb 5. As they promised, co-founders James Woodbridge and Thirry Harlin have grown their shoestring-budgeted dream of a mini-South by Southwest into a reliable twice-annual production. For proof of its evolution, check out the top line of this weekend's festival poster, where The Walkmen reside. In name recognition, if nothing else, that East Coast indie outfit easily eclipses previous festival headliners The Ruby Suns, The Warlocks and Akron/Family.
Woodbridge and Harlin, who work in tandem with third partner Jason Aragon these days, found the money to book The Walkmen by solving Neon Reverb's toughest riddle to date: sponsorship. "The whole reason we could do this big jump is because we finally got sponsorship," Woodbridge says. "We got actual money from Budweiser. We probably would have done The Walkmen anyway, but it would have put us thousands of dollars in debt." The Palms has also provided assistance, sponsoring Friday's Aruba show featuring The Soft Pack and Crocodiles, as has Red Bull, in the form of a double-decker bus for use as a shuttle between venues throughout the event's four nights.
Also new for fall 2010: a short-film program, which runs twice at the Sci-Fi Center, and a comedy night, Thursday at the Aruba. And in news that surely signals Neon Reverb's arrival among fully formed music fests, this edition will be the first with advertised set times, taking the guesswork out of attendees' planning. "We had to get that nailed down," Woodbridge says. "I think it'll help keep bands on schedule, to be able to hold up a sheet of paper with times on it." This weekend's installment will also feature more early-evening activity than ever before, with music at Yayo Taco, the Griffin, the Gypsy Den and the Beat Coffeehouse starting up at 7 p.m., before the action moves to Beauty Bar, Bunkhouse, the Aruba, Las Vegas Country Saloon and Boomers.
It all speaks of growth. "We made a big jump from the first festival to the second one, and then we sort of held steady at that level the past couple of festivals," Woodbridge says. "I feel like this time it's a whole additional jump in terms of the number of quality national acts and the infrastructure we've got."
There's still room for development. Attempts to lure a large national act for an all-ages, outdoor show in the El Cortez promenade proved unsuccessful — this time. But Woodbridge is quick to remind that, unlike, say, three-years-and-gone Vegoose, Neon Reverb's goals remain long-term — and decidedly local. "We don't have an expectation that this is going to be the hugest thing ever," he says. "This is a grass-roots, DIY event that brings a cultural element to the city we live in. As long as it continues to get support from the community, it should continue to grow."