We came through gates into a strange land we thought we knew by heart. Fremont East, the hub of our Downtown, fenced off and filled end to end with fresh sights, sounds and smells. It felt dizzying, taking in everything as we walked—pig roast here, band atop a bus there, and is the mural on that wall in 3D?—but stopping to sort it all out seemed too scary, as if pushing pause on this mixtape could eject us back into the ordinary.
For two days, that was our world, a continuous sensory flood. And for curators of this Life Is Beautiful festival, that immersive, interactive environment equaled success of vision, if not far more.
Most U.S. music fests are chances to unwind—lie in grassy fields, sip beer and soak in sound. Life Is Beautiful had plenty of beer and endless sounds, but apart from one pop-up park, fields were not to be found. This adventure was urban, set atop blacktop, and doing it right meant staying in motion, not seeking out rest. If your calves didn’t hurt Monday morning, you must not have been there.
Beforehand, Life Is Beautiful touted experience over performance, and we listened with skepticism, questioning if first-timers should take on so much. Music made sense, but food service from high-end Strip restaurants? Wine tastings, art galleries, chef demonstrations, speakers and streetside Cirque performances? Too many moving parts, surely, and all of it Downtown, with bars and businesses—including one entire hotel-casino—inside the fence line? Logistical suicide, with too many complications (traffic, parking, security …) even to contemplate.
And yet, locals’ impressions flowed in a consistent direction all weekend. This is actually pretty amazing. I didn’t expect to like it this much. I can’t believe they pulled all this off.
Not everything went smoothly. Wind knocked over a tall beam on Sunday, rerouting entering crowds but resulting in no significant injuries. Sound at the main stages varied wildly in quality—blown out at times, oddly demure at others. Trash cans overflowed Saturday, and charging stations were in mournfully short supply, scrambling our phones and our meet-up capabilities.
A case could be made, also, that the music felt too safe, that in efforts to sell wristbands (reported attendance: about 30,000 per day), Life Is Beautiful sacrificed some credibility. Where our previous large-scale live-music fest, Vegoose, played the role of bold tastemaker, booking key acts that had never hit Vegas (Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, Sleater-Kinney), Life Is Beautiful looked to the box office for inspiration, sticking mostly to choices with mainstream appeal. Acts famous (Beck, The Killers) and fast-rising (Haim) produced satisfying sets, but the fest never generated the you-needed-to-be-there! moments Coachella consistently delivers.
But that’s mostly a matter of taste and perspective, and overwhelmingly, Life Is Beautiful will be remembered for its secure, welcoming and interesting atmosphere. Lines for food, drinks and bathrooms were short or nonexistent, nearby parking cheap and plentiful, and with so many roads leading Downtown, traffic never looked anything like the mess we’ve seen snaking toward the Speedway for Electric Daisy Carnival.
Life Is Beautiful also seemed to do right by its Vegas bands, housing them on the first-rate Homegrown Stage, with ancillary activities to help them draw bodies. Local-scene skeptics will surely remain, but don’t be surprised to see some of them angling for spots on the 2014 bill.
Looking to next year, some minor fine-tuning could make for a marked improvement. Split the Culinary Village and Alchemy Garden, so parts of each are positioned near both main stages (why shouldn’t we have Green Flash IPAs with our D.O.C.G. lamb sandwiches?). Make band merchandise more visible and available (how about one booth per stage, selling gear for acts playing there?). Add additional aftershows (maybe in the clubs along Fremont?) to take fuller advantage of our town’s around-the-clock essence.
That we’re talking year two with year one just behind us speaks to the rush of our weekend Downtown. And what in life, really, could be more beautiful than genuine excitement about the future?