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Emerge Day 2: Cupcakke, Hurray for the Riff Raff and the benefits of hindsight

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Victoria Ruiz, lead singer of Downtown Boys, performs to the crowd off stage during day two of the EMERGE Impact music festival at The Mat Franco Theater inside the LINQ, Saturday, April 7, 2018. YASMINA CHAVEZ
Photo: Yasmina Chavez

Confession: I did not manage to see one of the artists I went to the Emerge Impact + Music festival to see, the "drag terrorist" Christeene, who played at Bugsy's Cabaret at the Flamingo Saturday. But no matter which showcase I visited over the course of the weekend, someone was there to tell me about his, um, mark of distinction. "He basically showed everyone his butthole, repeatedly," a friend said. "People walked out. It was amazing."

"Craziest thing I ever experienced in my life, hands down," another friend said. He went on to describe an hourlong set that was absolutely replete with butt stuff: plugs, "smell my finger," acrobatic self-fulfillment. He showed me a brief video of Christeene's junk more or less flapping in the wind, and added, "He performed music, too." (Christeene reportedly delivered impassioned versions of "Fix My D*ck" and a song that everyone seems to agree was called "My Stanky Place." Altogether fitting.)

I'm bummed that I missed Christeene. I missed his set because I went to another showcase by mistake: I caught a soulful set by Mike Xavier and Noir Movement, followed by a barn-burning performance from Cupcakke. (Cupcakke was listed in two showcases, presumably because one of them was just her talking about her career; hence my confusion.) But that's precisely what a good festival needs to do: It should make you envious of the stuff you weren't in the room for—while making you feel good about what you did manage to see. And on that tall order, Emerge succeeded.

For example, I'm truly sorry if you missed Cupcakke at Harrah's Cabaret. The Chicago rapper smashed through a strong set of her sexually-charged raps, to the delight of a young crowd that knew pretty much ever last word of "LGBT," "Spoiled Milk Titties" and "Spider-Man D*ck." I wish you'd seen Ponytrap at Harrah's Showroom on Sunday afternoon, and heard for yourself what it's like when a violinist and cellist play country gothic-industrial music accompanied by a slam poet and a towering robot made of drums. And I really, really wish you'd been at the Linq Theater on Saturday night for the Speaking Truth to Power showcase, because it was almost uniformly excellent.

I missed most of Grandson's set, but what I did hear of Jordan Benjamin's I liked quite a bit; in my notes, I called him "Faith No More, only protest-y." Comedian Jena Friedman spoke only briefly, but in that short time she dropped one hilarious truth bomb after another: She called Bill Cosby as "my favorite anesthesiologist," suggested that abortion might be more favored in Texas if it were called "fetus hunting" and declared that it's getting harder to speak truth to power "unless you speak Russian."

Downtown Boys dominated. This was my first time seeing the Victoria Ruiz-fronted punk band, and I was utterly transfixed by them even though I couldn't hear Ruiz's vocals terribly well. But that hardly mattered when she stalked the edges of the stage (the bands were situated pretty far back; more on that shortly), and when she introduced numbers with her twisty prose: "This song is about the things you lost in order to have no choice but to hold onto the things that you have." By the time the band ripped through "A Wall," all four of the Linq's had been reduced to rubble.

Also on the bill: locals Mercy Music, who delivered a typically energetic and bone-rattling set (and wouldn't you know it: They saw Christeene, too, dammit). Jeff Rosenstock took the liberty of inviting the audience up to fill the vast empty space between the edge of the stage and the monitors, and even raised a fist in solidarity with Vegas' unions: "Keep fighting, because the people up there in charge don't give a f*ck about you." And the Ehacatl Aztec Dancers simply mesmerized; honestly, it's difficult to describe how wonderful they were, so I'll simply tell you to pounce on them if they ever come back to this town.

The last band in the showcase was Hurray for the Riff Raff, a New Orleans band that crossed at least a half-dozen borders as we watched-from dreamy folk to driving indie rock, from backyard party band to galvanized protest outfit. (Their set included both "Kids Who Die"—a chilling anthem for the high-schoolers currently struggling to turn back years of gun-barrel ideology—and a cheesy but earnest cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." I strongly suspect that when Hurray for the Riff Raff returns to Vegas, it will play to a bigger audience than the one that stuck around to see it at Linq. I'd be surprised if it topped 100 people.

On that note: I would be remiss if I failed to mention the parts of the festival that didn't work. Showcases didn't start on time; bands canceled on the day-of; technical glitches abounded. (Downtown Boys had to complete their sound check while Friedman did her comedy set; the confusion seemingly put both performers off their game. And the Ehecatl Dancers had to carry their own gear on and off the stage; while not a terrible inconvenience, it did diminish the impact of their set.) And half-empty showcases appeared to be the rule, not the exception.

But that's a first-year thing. If Emerge comes back, it could take these hard-learned lessons and deliver a festival that will wow us all. And we'll all strive to be in the room, especially if Christeene's in there stanking it up.

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