There’s no band playing when I walk into the Beat Coffeehouse around 8 p.m., an hour after Thursday night’s show is scheduled to begin. I’m not surprised. It is, after all, the first night of Neon Reverb, and the Downtown festival typically has last-minute fires to put out that early in its four-day schedule. This time, it’s sound—the venue’s PA equipment has just arrived and the first act is running through a hasty soundcheck. No worries. It gives me a chance to chat with festival co-organizer James Woodbridge, who seems remarkably calm given the many twists and turns sure to come his way over the next 100 hours. It does mean I won’t be able to catch San Diego alt-punk outfit Weatherbox at the Bunkhouse as I’d hoped, however, since that venue is running more or less on schedule.
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The kickoff Beat band, Vegas trio Shiny Boots of Leather, begins around 8:30, featuring two guitarists—one electric and one acoustic—and a substitute drummer (the regular guy shows up midway through the set, straight from work). The music could roughly be described as folky, though Tyler Huddleston’s many electric effects edge several songs closer to the band’s name-referencing Velvet Underground. Singer Dino Hatzis finishes the set with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” and though the group does little to make it their own, it feels like an appropriate choice in the seated, coffeehouse setting.
I like watching bands play the Beat, and not just because the Weekly’s logo adorns the wall above the joint’s front door. As a performance space, it feels both totally Vegas—a city famous for its odd DIY non-venue venues—and completely un-Vegas, the kind of cultural-appreciation center more commonly found in San Francisco or New York. Still, Black Camaro’s first show in months beckons from the Bunkhouse, so I’ll have to miss out on SoCal’s The Reverend Red and Boulder City’s Same Sex Mary at the Beat.
The time away seems to have paid off for the once-ubiquitous Black Camaro, judging from the large crowd assembling while the power-pop six-piece sets up. The floor is full as Tom Miller and a sunglassed Brian Garth trade vocals on über-catchy opener “Calypso,” and the tighter-than-I-remember Camaro keeps its crowd’s attention from there, working through a set worthy of a de-facto Night 1 headliner. Pick up a copy of the band’s new, career-spanning DVD, What’s Your Favorite Movie?, to get caught up.
Next up: Hosannas, a Portland pair previously seen onstage here as a four-piece. A friend of mine seeing the inside of the Bunkhouse for the first time describes the duo’s double-keyboard sound as “disco Tangerine Dream,” and that style predictably leaves the by-now-considerably thinned crowd split, some swaying near the stage to the sleepy dreamscapes, some drifting toward—and in many cases out—the door. I’m somewhere in between.
Word has it the next act, Vegas scene staple A Crowd of Small Adventures, has a new song ready to debut, a rare occurrence for a band that tends not to tinker with its setlist. As the night progresses, frontman Jackson Wilcox sounds unsure if he’s ready to roll out a rough version, but sure enough, midway through the group’s set, he relents. The untitled number sounds unlike anything ACoSA has played before—raw, punky, almost angry in places. It hints at a promising new direction, though we might have to wait a while to see where it leads. Wilcox & Co. say they’re going on performing hiatus after this show, in order to write new material.
And then it’s Portland, part two, in the form of Jared Mees & The Grown Children. The quintet features a trumpet, male and female vocalists and an indie-pop songbook that plays like a springtime romp through a field of flowers in full bloom: tons of wide-eyed fun. It’s 1:20 a.m. when they finish, but the late hour can’t stop co-organizer –and apparent superfan—Thirry Harlin from doling out big bear hugs to anyone in his general vicinity. Save some of that energy for the next three nights, man!