"I drove past the billboard and saw ‘Sleep, Electric Wizard, Boris’ … all playing here? I thought it must be a joke.”
That’s how one Las Vegan described his initial discovery of Psycho Las Vegas, and he had reason to feel skeptical. Many of the bands on the psychedelic-rock festival’s mammoth bill had never played here before, so the notion of all 100-plus plunking down for an extended weekend—inside a casino, no less—felt like a pipe dream. Surely, Psycho could continue finding far larger local crowds in Southern California, where it staged its first three editions (in Santa Ana), than in Las Vegas.
Yet to Vegas it came, its organizers trusting in the appeal of Psycho’s sonic curation, which ranged from Black Sabbath’s end of the metal spectrum (Electric Wizard, Sleep) through classic rock’s heavier side (Alice Cooper, Blue Öyster Cult) and fanned out with some hardcore (Converge), noise-rock (A Place to Bury Strangers) and electronic (Zombi) acts. Comic Brian Posehn even told a few jokes Friday night, roughly a third of them about Slipknot.
And that faith paid off. Psycho succeeded not only as a destination—it nearly sold out at $250 a head—and as a worthwhile musical endeavor, but also as a sort of social experiment: What happens when you jam a multi-stage, multi-day musical festival inside a casino?
Okay, so Matador Records did it in 2010, bringing a few dozen bands to the Palms for three nights, but that was a one-off anniversary celebration for a beloved indie label. The rest of Las Vegas’ many music festivals take place outdoors, in Downtown bars or in single arenas. Inviting music fans—many of them middle-aged metalheads—to take over your resort for four nights takes some guts, so props to the Hard Rock Hotel for living up to its name by hosting.
The bands played in three venues: 4,000-capacity main hall the Joint, 700-cap club Vinyl and the sprawling Paradise Pool, best known for its sunny Rehab parties. It all took place near the property’s south end, which made shifting from stage to stage quite painless.
That went for most everything at Psycho, aside from the Joint’s $15 beers. For festival regulars used to frying in the sun while lining up for Porta-Potties, this was not that. Air conditioning, casino bathrooms, free drinking water and free parking made Psycho amazingly comfortable, and those staying at the Hard Rock were never more than an elevator ride from bed. As for food, dinner options included a giant slice of Forte pizza, a club sandwich at Mr. Lucky’s or, hell, a quick sushi splurge at Nobu.
The fest kept to its rigorous schedule—most bands played hour-long sets, separated by 20-minute changeovers—and, best of all, sound was routinely excellent everywhere (though more dynamic use of lighting and video screens could have enhanced the Joint experience).
It went so well, Psycho founder and promoter Evan Hagen is already promising a return to the Hard Rock next year, vowing to the Weekly that 2017’s fest will be “bigger and better.”
Sonically speaking, that’s tough to imagine. Hagen built this year’s version around two pillars of the stoner-metal scene: Electric Wizard and Sleep, whose most celebrated albums are titled Dopethrone and Dopesmoker, respectively. Both bands lived up to their reputation for extreme heaviness, with the British Wizard’s brain-cleansing Saturday-night set—something more like focused ambient noise than what most might think of as traditional “metal”—the high-water mark for the entire weekend, and Sleep’s Sunday performance a reaffirmation of the Northern California trio’s hypnotic intensity.
Those two bands mostly filled the Joint, and High on Fire (led by Sleep guitarist Matt Pike) played to what looked like the largest crowd of the fest Saturday night. But turnout fluctuated throughout the weekend, as Vegas visitors explored other options in the casino or beyond. Some of Psycho’s most veteran acts drew well, like longtime metallers Pentagram (Friday) and Candlemass (Sunday), but freak-rockers The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (Friday) and even Alice Cooper (Sunday)—the latter the fest’s highest-billed (and surely priciest) booking—looked out over somewhat undersized audiences.
Even fewer caught the righteously shredding guitars of Friday’s top-billed act, post-hardcore foursome Drive Like Jehu, with much of that night’s crowd instead lounging by—or in some cases, in—the pool for Detroit proto-punks Death. That pool, which opened with a Thursday-night pre-party capped by the fuzzed-out Mudhoney, remained a popular stop on the Psycho tour all weekend, as did an elongated merch room loaded with black band shirts.
Like every great festival, Psycho offered up plenty of new discoveries, from shoegazey LA outfit Highlands, which opened Vinyl around noon on Saturday, to Scottish space-rockers The Cosmic Dead, who closed out the pool late Sunday night. And the fest featured a stack of expectedly stellar performances, like those by Southern metal quartet Baroness, proggy Boston trio Elder and Japanese experimentalists Boris.
After the final amp had been unplugged, Jeremy Brenton, drummer for Las Vegas doom band Demon Lung—which played for an appreciative and sizable throng Saturday at Vinyl—giddily dubbed the weekend “Heavy Metal Band Camp” on Facebook, and called it “the most professional thing we have ever been part of.” It felt pretty pro on this end, too, Psycho. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many Vegas versions.