A&E

The Big Blues Bender grows without sacrificing its comfort appeal

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Mavis Staples plays the Bender on Friday.
Photo: Kevin Wort / Courtesy

One person who won’t be singing the blues at this year’s Big Blues Bender is creator/promoter A.J. Gross. The fourth edition of the niche music festival—set to take over the Plaza hotel September 7-10—has been sold out for three weeks, which marks the event’s second straight sellout.

But oddly enough, Gross says he made fewer tickets available this year—capacity is capped at 2,200—which is the opposite of what most festival organizers would have done following a successful previous year. “We did more last year, but people felt it was a little overcrowded, so we held it back a little and withheld single-day tickets.”

That level of fan consideration differentiates the Bender from other music festivals. This isn’t Coachella, and nothing about it should feel daunting. “It’s like our tagline: Everything is an elevator ride away,” Gross adds. “That’s where we came from: all easy, all accessible.”

Bender-goers will have access to five stages, on which nearly 70 acts will play throughout the weekend, some more than once. Headliners include New Orleans legend Dr. John, R&B/gospel icon Mavis Staples and blues favorites Tab Benoit and Walter Trout. Among the diverse program offerings: tribute sets to The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead, a panel celebrating women blues musicians, a film screening and blues-themed yoga classes.

It’s a lot of growth for a new-ish niche festival, but Gross has had plenty of inspiration and experience: more than 25 years promoting Vegas shows and 20 years attending the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival. Most notably, the idea for the Bender came as he watched Gov’t Mule perform at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. He knew he could do something similar in Las Vegas, with the same focus on comfort, but with less expense and greater convenience to music fans. “I wanted to create the kind of experience I wanted someone to create for me,” Gross says. “I can’t do 16 hours of music. I want to be able to hit my hotel room [and rest] and then go back down [for the shows].”

That explains the Bender’s popularity with tourists—who are coming from every state and 12 different countries and for whom the immersive event is a full-blown escape—and how it struggles to draw Nevadans, who make up less than 10 percent of the attendance. That said, Las Vegans will be represented onstage, including The Moanin Blacksnakes, Vegas Strip Kings, The Trevor Johnson Project and, playing the Grateful Dead tribute, Catfish John—which would be a great candidate for the new music weekender Gross will launch at the Plaza April 12-15: the Las Vegas Bender Jamboree, which will focus on bluegrass and jam bands.

Altogether, it’s an ambitious slate for someone who was winding his music career down just five years ago. Now, Gross has rekindled his passion for live music events, evidenced in the year he spends making sure the next Bender is better than the one before it. “I thought I was kinda done,” Gross says. “I thought Vegas didn’t make sense for me anymore. But I figured out how to make a great brand. And I’m looking for the brand to grow. I hope to bring more of these. I truly believe it’s an uplifting experience for everyone evolved.”

Big Blues Bender September 7-10, $499. The Plaza, bigbluesbender.com.

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