Reflections from Saturday, September 22 at Downtown’s Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival, which concludes today.
Blood Orange: When we think of music festival sets, we think of big hits, guest appearances and the sort of visual whiz-bang that’s geared for press and social media. On Saturday evening, indie R&B act Blood Orange—aka Dev Hynes, plus six-piece live band—went the opposite route. Under minimal lighting, and with few uptempo or familiar numbers, Hynes and crew performed alternatively introspective, sociopolitical and lovelorn R&B songs that created a level of intimacy not usually found in—and frankly anathema to—the festival setting.
It’s a testament to Hynes’ stage command that audience members didn’t start fleeing after he opened his 11-song set with a string of ballads, from opener “Saint” to “Chamakay” to “Jewelry,” the latter populated by a bassline so spare, and keyboard notes so subtle, it sounded defiant of Life Is Beautiful’s usual high-energy setting. From there, the band slowly increased the tempos in the setlist—briefly bringing it back down for “Holy Will” and Blood Orange’s tremendous backup singer Ian Isiah, who might have earned the loudest applause of the set—tearing through the last half of the set with groove-laden gems like the tropic-tinged “Best to You,” chestnut “You’re Not Good Enough” and the jaunty set-closer “It Is What It Is,” which ended in an instrumental flurry that contrasted the nuance and subtleness of the band’s preceding performance. And then there was Hynes, smiling at the end—maybe free of the demons he had just spent exorcizing, and perhaps pleased that he had kept and captivated such a large, appreciative audience smack in the middle of boisterous Las Vegas. –Mike Prevatt
Michelle Wolf: NYC-based comedian Jaboukie Young-White kicked off Saturday evening’s Kicker comedy set with seemingly effortless banter about his experiences being typecast as the gay kid every time he auditions for a new acting role. If you haven’t heard of Young-White—he’s a writer for Netflix shows American Vandal and Big Mouth—his opening set suggested he should be on every comic enthusiasts’ radar.
But it was Michelle Wolf, the woman responsible for sending the Trump administration into a tailspin at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner earlier this year, that everyone was waiting for. The comedian unleashed plenty of punches during her short set, like how today JFK would’ve surely been accused of sexual harassment—“He dodged a bullet,” she quipped—and how women need to be “less cute” and more blunt about the painful things they endure, like pregnancy. “The only thing that’s gotten better is sometimes you don’t die,” she said.
Wolf also lamented about social media, blogs—“a blog is just a conversation no one wanted to have with you”—manspreading and more. If it wasn’t already clear that she’s a comic to be reckoned with, her Life Is Beautiful certainly sent the message home. Wolf famously doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and that’s what makes her stand-up so hilariously clever—and to most women, so relatable. –Leslie Ventura
St. Vincent: There are few people who can claim a spot in the same echelon as David Byrne, Prince and David Bowie, but I’d argue that Annie Clark has earned her spot. Better known as St. Vincent, Clark completely overhauled her live show for this year’s Coachella, and she’s been traveling with the brilliant stage show since. I caught her at the Boulevard Pool following her eponymous 2015 LP, Clark has gone above and beyond that performance, merging art and music into one seamless, multisensory experience.
The Bacardi Stage has offered the best sound at Life Is Beautiful, and St. Vincent’s set was no exception—her soaring vocals and blazing electric guitar solos—like during the powerful and dynamic “Cheerleader”—were crystal clear throughout.
Visually, Clark’s touring show is stunning—videos of her and her band played on the giant screen behind them, at times creating a futuristic, spacey vibe (masked dancers in jump suits dancing in tandem) or a dark, macabre one (like when a pair of hands manipulated Clark’s face, pulling her lips down or up to form lifeless expressions). Wearing a nude bodysuit with red marshmallow-puff sleeves and red thigh high boots, Clark also changed out her electric guitar multiple times, each the same but in a different neon color.
St. Vincent’s set was easily one of the most dynamic of the fest thus far—even the track “Pills”—my least-favorite track off 2017’s Masseduction—was transformed into a catchy arrangement perfect for a festival, and bangers like “Los Ageless” and “Masseduction” kept the crowd fixated on Clark’s every move (and yes, she did her signature shuffle).
“This one’s for all the freaks and all the weirdos … you belong here,” she said before closing her set with her alternate, club-ready version of “Slow Disco,” appropriately titled “Fast Slow Disco.” It was the perfect ending to a memorable set, setting the bar extremely high for the rest of the weekend. –LV
N.E.R.D: During this high-octane, dance-heavy performance, Pharrell Williams was doing high knees as if he were leading an aerobics class. As N.E.R.D, Williams and Chad Hugo offered a string of energetic party beats punctuated by political messages. Williams dedicated the show to “all the weirdos, misfits and outcasts.” A stage full of talented, choreographed dancers and performer made being an outsider look good.
A few times, Williams actually stopped the show to encourage togetherness, saying “I don’t give a f*ck how many songs we lose. I only care we have a great time, because life is beautiful!” He called for the house lights to go up so that everybody could form one giant moshpit instead of separate ones. The festival lights stayed dark, but that detail didn’t stop the party or the message.
In addition to sampling Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like it’s Hot,” The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Beyoncé, Williams criticized the legislature, I.C.E. and child separations. Perhaps the first to connect immigration enforcement with moshpit etiquette, Williams said, “We look out for our brothers and sisters in the free world. When your brother or sister is crowdsurfing, you hold them the f*ck up.” Indeed. –C. Moon Reed
Miguel: Maybe it was the material he chose. Or the generic rock flourishes from his backing band. Or the wavering quality of his vocals or sensational banter (“Do you like drugs?”). Or, quite possibly, the expectation that comes with a breakout debut album, which elevated him to the top of the new-school R&B class. Whatever the culprits, Miguel faltered during his 10:15 p.m. Bacardi Stage set.
The LA-born singer didn’t lack for effort, as he worked all ends of the stage, demonstrated numerous singing approaches and was complemented by backup dancers with which he occasionally interacted. His opener, “What’s Normal Anyway,” was a great way to introduce him to his remarkably diverse (and enormous) audience—at a festival known for its positive affirmations, no less. And following that with the seductive throb of last year’s “Banana Clip” continued his solid start.
But after that, things began to fall apart, especially during “Come Through and Chill,” a dull slow jam worsened by pandering exhortations like “I wanna f*ck all night,” which Miguel had the crowd chant back. A new song, “So I Lied,” completely lulled the proceedings. His biggest hit, “Adorn,” reversed that energy vacuum … which was then squandered by the following—and poorly executed—number “Waves.” The sole remaining highlight wouldn’t happen until “Pineapple Shoes,” with Miguel in Marvin Gaye mode and the band sounding like peak-era Michael Jackson.
This was Miguel’s third-ever Vegas performance, all of which have been support or festival sets. And it suggested he should return to the rehearsal room before he finally tops the bill on a Vegas stage. –MP
Wolfmother: Wispy indie rock, pounding EDM and enlightened hip-hop dominate this year’s festival schedule, which made Wolfmother something of an outlier. The Australian hard rock band is best known as an aught’s take on Led Zeppelin, which certainly has its appeal.
The band, fronted by singer/guitarist Andrew Stockdale at the smallish, Huntridge Stage acted as a sort of palate cleanser between larger acts N.E.R.D and Florence + The Machine. Half the audience watched raptly, standing at the stage, the other half enjoyed passively, sitting on a nearby grassy area under the light of a nearly full moon.
Perhaps it was all the nearby buildings, which perhaps created an echo chamber, but distorted bass overwhelmed the vocals and melodies. Nonetheless, Stockdale bravely sang hits from Wolfmother’s 2006 eponymous album: “Woman,” “White Unicorn,” “Vagabond” and set-closer “Joker and the Thief.” Wolfmother also played “Gypsy Caravan” and Victorious” from 2016 album Victorious, but the old songs hit the best.
Stockdale’s self-deprecating between-song banter did little to foster a ’70s rock god mystique: “We’re almost as entertaining as a poker machine. Almost. We do our best.” There you have it, from the source itself. –CMR
Florence + The Machine: The Machine, from London, England, is a drum-tight baroque-pop outfit capable of producing a legit wall of sound. The band can go delicate (that’s when keyboardist Isabella Summers, harpist/xylophonist Tom Monger and violinist Dionne Douglas shine most brightly) or it can go full U2, pounding out an anthem to rattle the bones of someone sitting in their living room five blocks away. It’s a powerful crew, and that’s all we’ll say about it, because I imagine the only reason you’ve read this far is for the sake of Florence Welch.
Well, don’t worry; she’s fine. She took the Downtown Stage practically at a jog, her diaphanous pioneer dress flowing around her like smoke, and she never stopped moving. For a time, I catalogued all of Welch’s different types of movements—“she twirled, she jackknifed, she bunny-hopped, she pirouetted, she sprinted”—before I gave up and began using the catch-all “she Florenced.” And believe you me, she Florenced hard.
The group ripped through a set that included the band’s biggest hits (“Shake It Out”, “Dog Days Are Over”), its slightly less-big hits (“Ship to Wreck,” “What Kind of Man”) and five songs from its latest record High as Hope—which, let’s face it, will probably all end up being hits somewhere, even if only in our heart-of-hearts. The reason for this is Welch herself—her operatic singing voice, whose provenance might well be supernatural in nature; her physical performance, which is near-impossible to look away from; and her knack for speaking directly to her audience, which I suspect works better on younger fans. Her exhortations to the audience to join hands, to “embrace a stranger” and to hoist those strangers up on your shoulders veered between the earnest (like 1980s Bono) and the embarrassing (like modern-day Bono).
But it’s tough to maintain cynicism when Welch is actively Florencing away at it. I have rarely seen a performer with such a tremendous well of energy inside them. She can sing while she’s running and never loses breath, never drops a note. (And there was a bit of screwball comedy in watching security guards run after Welch as she ran headlong into the crowd, with surprised terror on their faces.) And even when she bared her feelings—which she did, often—there was something so sweet and disarming about it that I almost considered hugging that stranger before my wits got the better of me.
“My heart hurts at the moment, as many of yours do, but I believe in love,” Welch said, introducing “South London Forever.” “A revolution in consciousness starts with individuals, and that’s you.” And with that, she Florenced again, and the world along with her in rapturous synchronization. –Geoff Carter
Food & Drink: Itching for some free craft cocktails? (And who isn’t?) Take a free class at Cocktail School—3, 5 and 7 p.m. at the Writer’s Block. You’ll get an education along with a nice tipple. Seats are limited, and it’s first come-first served, so get there early. –CMR
The Malabar ‘Dum’ Biriyani by Chef Hemant Kishore at the Cookout was worth the trip. The $12 dish was cooked over an open fire and included basmati rice, chicken masala, ghee, delectable roasted chashews, raisins and crispy onions. Each day the Cookout—next to the Huntridge Stage—offers a rotating menu of dishes cooked over an open fire. It opens at 4 p.m. and offers food till it’s sold out, so get there early! –CMR
Try the frozen frosé at the bar inside Crime on Canvas. –CMR
At the Bacardi stage, try the Life’s a Beach, made with Bacardi Anejo Cuatro Rum, passion fruit puree, fresh lime juice, coconut water and pineapple. The coconut water is super hydrating, and the drink is sweet … but not too sweet. –CMR
Overheard: “I want to see as many people on shoulders as possible. Friends let friends be chairs.” –Florence Welch, asking audience members to hold hands, love strangers and, yes, hoist each other onto their shoulders
“I can’t f*cking believe Foster the People didn’t play ‘Pumped-Up Kicks.’” –some guy
“Dude, they didn’t even play ‘Pumped-Up Kicks!’” –some other guy, walking in the opposite direction a moment later
“Say Perhaps to Drugs” –slogan on a female festivalgoer’s T-shirt
Dude to lady with a clear backpack full of hand sanitizer wipes: “A big bag of Purell? Holy shi*!”
Sanitized lady: “Well, I got thrown up on, so it’s a good thing I had ’em."
“Hey Las Vegas, I don’t know about you, but I can’t turn off what turns me on.” –St. Vincent, pre-song banter
“The purpose of cocktail school is to let you know you don’t have to just get hammered on sh*t.” –Cocktail School instructor inside the Writer’s Block
“Welcome to Diagon Alley.” –a young Slytherin, greeting first-years at the halfway point in Playmodes Studio’s “Beams” art installation
“She’s a white girl, she spins like Stevie Nicks … I mean, I get it.” –a woman in the Downtown Stage VIP area, trying to puzzle out the secret of Florence Welch’s appeal