This fall’s Life is Beautiful Festival held is first local showcase at Artifice on Wednesday, giving Las Vegas bands the opportunity to show their chops for a chance to play at the festival. The bar was packed to the gills when the show kicked off at 8 p.m., and stayed that way for the next four hours as bands from across a spectrum of musical genres tried to prove they have what it takes.
Play for Keeps: The quartet brought a set of palatable alt-rock that at times dipped into pop-punk. The group was clearly well-rehearsed for the gig, with tight harmonies and well-orchestrated melodies, but technical prowess doesn’t make up for a lack of originality. Their radio-friendly tunes might find a welcome audience on power-rock stations, but judging by the crowd’s stoic reaction—save for a single girl rocking out in front of the stage—PFK doesn't yet have the engaging stage presence that’s right for a festival.
Coastwest Unrest: The early part of Coastwest’s set leaned toward newer indie-folk flavored tunes, and it didn’t serve the band particularly well. That probably had as much to do with Artifice’s unforgiving sound system and echoing acoustics as it did with Coastwest's skills, but the subtleties of the fiddle and cello were lost behind the singer’s voice as they tried for a layered sound that seemed more akin to Vegas peers A Crowd of Small Adventures than their own folk-punk background. When they returned to those roots halfway through the set, the crowd pressed close to the stage and barflys in the back came in to fill the main room. Fast tempos and aggressive melodies work best for Coastwest and give singer Noah Dickie’s lyrics a chance to shine. If they stick to that side of their sound, they could be an impressive hometown rep at the festival.
Same Sex Mary: Given their onstage swagger and bravado, it’s hard to believe Same Sex Mary has only just finished recording album No. 1. The Boulder City quintet performs with the kind of confidence usually reserved for bands that have toured behind a record or two. They worked the crowd, prowled the stage and kept the set engaging even when there were technical difficulties. Where other bands might stop and make awkward banter when a string breaks, SSM’s singer (James Adams) and keyboardist (Tsvetelina Stefanova) improvised a simple, catchy blues-rock bit while their guitarist dealt with the issue. Their blend of '60s psychedelia, garage rock and punk lends itself to a sound that if not wholly unique, was decidedly the most distinct of the night’s lineup; and if the crowd’s whoops and howls were any indication, definitely the most fun.
American Cream: A mostly new crowd filled the bar at this point, shifting from shaggy hipsters to older women and guys in college hoodies, who seemed to show up especially for American Cream’s set. Their anticipation is understandable, as the band channels alt-radio heavy hitters like Bush, Muse and Audioslave, with the kind of bombastic energy to back it up. Still, the lead singer’s wail, which attempted something between Axl Rose and Matt Bellamy, was constantly at odds with the band’s more tempered, straightforward rock sound. That struggle and their repetitive sound wore on many of the observers, who by the end of the set were half-watching from the back bar.
Rusty Maples: Rusty Maples was the night's indisputable crowd favorite, refilling the performance space as the band took the stage after midnight. The quintet has been building a devoted local fanbase in recent months thanks to steady gigs at venues like the Griffin, and there were crowd singalongs aplenty. The practice has done them good, and a bigger stage has done them even better; with room to move and a larger crowd to feed off of, their catchy, danceable folk-pop got a jolt of ferocity that might make Rusty the most palatable group for a mainstream festival audience. Even after an encore, the audience was still chanting for more.
Note: A sixth Vegas band, The Perks, also performed, but finished most of its set before I got inside the venue.