“Spindrift just went on at the Bunkhouse!” James Woodbridge’s words and all that they implied should have been preposterous, given the hour when Akron/Family finished its Aruba Showroom encore on March 14, 2009. It’s 3 a.m., and a band just hit the stage? And he’s telling us this because he expects what, exactly? But Neon Reverb being what it was, my friend Aaron and I simply ran to the car, and five minutes later we were inside the Bunkhouse, shaking off our sleepiness by rocking out to Spindrift.
Neon Reverb, the scrappy Downtown music festival that recently announced it won’t return this spring and could be gone forever, will be remembered differently by the hundreds of musicians and attendees who participated during its six-year/10-fest run. I’ll think back on sets spent close to The Walkmen, Moonface, The Dodos, Braids and Ty Segall, not to mention all the acts I hadn’t heard before they bowled me over. I’ll picture packs of local bands gaining new fans, exchanging ideas and making key connections that led to future sounds. And I’ll shudder at the thought of mapping out coverage for a multi-venue, multi-night affair that sometimes seemed to operate with blatant disregard for the notion of a clock.
Whatever your personal feelings about Neon Reverb, let’s all agree on this: Las Vegas is better off for having had it. And if anyone calls it a stopgap, between Vegoose and Life Is Beautiful, kick them in the shin or someplace higher, because for lots of folks in and around our Valley’s music scene, it meant more than both of those combined.
Did it change Downtown? Not in a Tony Hsieh kind of way, but the energy Reverb brought to Fremont East felt undeniably like a spark. Could it have grown larger? Almost certainly, had its organizers—Woodbridge and co-founder Thirry Harlin, and later third partner Jason Aragon—had the corporate connections to land critical sponsorship arrangements. As it was they “started from scratch” financially for each edition, in Aragon’s words, a brutal road at best for any project with long-term aspirations. In mission if not in paperwork, Neon Reverb operated like a nonprofit, aimed at elevating its neighborhood, scene and fanbase without hope of making money. Woodbridge drained his own accounts booking acts in the early years, such were his commitments to live music and Downtown, and if he ran out of steam before the end, well, who could really blame him?
Ironically, while those big-dollar bands might go down as Reverb’s long-term legacy, its impact on the local scene could be its real-life contribution. In an era when Vegas bands outside the town’s traditionally strong punk, hardcore and metal scenes were struggling to make their mark, Reverb swung its doors wide open. Within the festival, homegrown acts could find camaraderie, support and fresh exposure. And for savvy local listeners it could be a bonanza, where they could hear the likes of Love Pentagon, The Mad Caps, Afghan Raiders and The Petals, in close proximity if not a single night.
All those groups are gone from Vegas now, living only in our memories. Barring some unlikely comeback, Neon Reverb has played its last note, too. But it might be argued Downtown music was at its strongest with Reverb riding high, and that as the fest has faltered, the local scene has also, to some extent. It could just be coincidence. Or maybe Neon Reverb was a force, unifying and motivating as it strained to gain a foothold. I, for one, will mourn its loss, even as I sleep more soundly through the spring.