Reflections from Sunday, September 23 at Downtown’s Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival.
Karamo Brown + In-Q: The only event in the “Ideas” portion of the festival featured a slam poet and a reality star. LA-based poet Adam Schmalholz, aka In-Q, recited uplifting poetry under the shade of the Fremont Stage arch. Some of it veered into the territory of overserious lecturing, like when he gave a hypothetical treatise on how he imagines life—and sex(!)—will be when he’s an octogenarian: “Now I’m 85/Somehow I feel more alive/Turn my hearing aid up and listen to Jurassic 5.” Later, he said, “If you’re not inspired by life, you’re not paying attention,” which also happens to be the message on my step-mom’s refrigerator magnet.
Next up was Karamo Brown, a star of Netflix’s popular Queer Eye reboot. “Every single one of you have the tools to create the life you want,” Brown told the audience. “I’m a therapist, and I still had to learn this.” Brown’s messaging was more effective than that of In-Q, perhaps because Brown opened up about his own insecurities, even discussing past suicidal ideation. His message to the audience: “You are perfectly designed.”
Brown urged listeners to turn so-called negatives into positives: “I’m too gay? I’m going to be gay on TV! I’m too hood? That means I’m cultured!” He ended his powerful 15-minute talk with an exhortation for each member of the audience to forgive themselves. “Forgive yourself for listening to crap. Forgive yourself for believing in crap. Forgive yourself for forgetting that you are perfectly designed.” Amen. –C. Moon Reed
First Aid Kit and Mt. Joy: Americana acts don’t see much mainstream festival action; they’re usually relegated to more niche weekenders. But Life Is Beautiful not only booked two different acts under that musical umbrella, it conveniently slotted them one right after the other: Sweden’s First Aid Kit, which played to a modest but enthusiastic Downtown Stage crowd, and Mt. Joy, which enjoyed a relaxed, mostly lawn-positioned audience at the Huntridge Stage.
First Aid Kit, led by vocalists/musicians Klara and Johanna Söderberg—and backed by three instrumentalists—skewed more traditional of the two groups, and it only augmented its resplendent and relatable charm. This is not to say the band clung to the bosom of convention. While songs like “Emmylou” (“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June/If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too/No, I’m not asking much of you/Just sing little darling, sing with me”) and a location-relevant performance of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” put a fine point on the act’s American country worship—to say nothing of guitarist Melvin Duffy’s pedal-steel wails—Sunday’s inclusion of feminist anthem “You Are the Problem Here,” crafted more than two years before the #metoo movement, defied both Nashville mores and the positivity branding of Life Is Beautiful. That dynamic made the act far more dimensional than its festival-bill peers—and more of a welcome presence than most of them, too.
In contrast, Mt. Joy found a balance between its folkier influences (most notably, Bob Dylan and Neil Young), and its modern indie rock inclinations (possible comparisons range from My Morning Jacket to Gomez to on-hiatus Vegas act Rusty Maples). Furthermore, the Philadelphia-to-LA quintet also peppered the occasional, if brief, exploratory passage into its otherwise focused songwriting. That lent the band’s music some needed character, as did the dominant keyboard lines of Jackie Miclau and the varied rhythmic structures of drummer Sotiris Eliopoulos. If there was a primary lure to Mt. Joy, one of this year’s most buzzed-about bands, it was the vigor of its performance—which, one album into its short career, portends a more prolific festival presence. –Mike Prevatt
Boast Rattle: L.A.-based comic Kyle Ayers brought his live show Boast Rattle: A Competitive Compliment Contest to the only air conditioned stage at Life Is Beautiful. Magician Penn Jillette turned up as a guest judge.
Ayers began the show by joking that the comics would be out of their comfort zone by giving and receiving compliments because, “We’re a notoriously defensive, angry breed.” But the reverse-roast came naturally and hilariously enough. To punctuate compliments, Ayers sampled his dad’s pre-recorded affirmations from his iPhone at timely moments: “Good for you” and “I support your decisions.”
Going head to head in three separate compliment competitions were comics Langston Kerman and Baron Vaughn; Patti Harrison and Brandon Wardell and identical twin brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas. In the first match, Kerman lost out because he bagged on Vegas. In the second, Wardell won for repeating a cheesy joke structure (“I’m really hurt. Call 911. No, really I’m hurt. I cut myself because Patti’s comedy is so edgy.”)
Jillette loved the repetition, citing his friendship with comic Gilbert Gottfried and saying that he loves “anybody who takes a premise that doesn’t quite work and does it four more times.” But the Lucas brothers, who tied, won the hearts of all with their sweet dispositions and hilarious Yo Mama jokes.–CMR
Santigold: Just before the Philadelphia singer took the stage, my friends and I went back and forth on how we’d describe Santigold’s music. “Indie dance-pop?” “Tropical boom-boom?” “Nuevo wave-o?” Finally, we settled on “M.I.A. you can whistle,” meant in a way that didn’t diminish either artist.
Aaaaaanyway, Santigold delivered an energetic set that largely ignored the easy crowd-pleasers—she didn’t perform “Banshee” or “Lights Out,” and “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” would have been an absolutely fitting theme for the most Instagram-crazed festival in my memory—but did lean heavily on songs from her 10-year-old debut (it was good to hear “L.E.S. Artistes,” “Unstoppable” and “Creator”) and from her latest record I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions. There’s really no telling if she would have pivoted back to those hits, because her set obviously ran over time; she left the stage abruptly after “Brooklyn Go Hard” with a surprised “Oh! Good night.”
Well, at least we shared a moment. We moved with her backup dancers, who were dressed in gym whites with headbands and sunglasses; we marveled at her red stage cape (festooned with plastic bottles and dollar bills) and her green hair, which made her look a bit like a Dr. Seuss character; and at least 50 of us rushed onto the stage to dance to “Creator,” like some of us did during M.I.A.’s Vegoose set 11 years ago. All things old-wave-o are nuevo again. –Geoff Carter
Lizzo: “What you’re about to see is all body positivity and self-love,” Lizzo announced during her Sunday-night performance at Life is Beautiful, a set that not only sent a powerful message to the women, queer folks and femmes in the crowd, but sent an even stronger message to the scrubs. “Haters will say you’re being self-centered—if I ain’t full of myself, who am I supposed to be full of? I used to be full of Hot Cheetos and f*ckboys, but that didn’t work out for me,” she said after delivering her feel-good single “Scuse Me.”
Dressed in a red leotard and black bustier and accompanied by two backup dancers and a DJ, Lizzo won over the crowd—many of whom likely didn’t know the singer/rapper coming in but fell in love by the end. And how could they not? She had her backup dancers give the crowd a twerking tutorial; sang her disco-laden hookup anthem “Boys” and shouted to the audience that she just “deleted every f*ckboy’s phone number and unfollowed every f*ckboy on Instagram,” all of which was met with applause from the audience.
But the standout moment came when she performed her not-yet-released slow jam “Jerome.” That track, which she unveiled earlier this year while touring with Haim, illustrated the power and wit Lizzo exudes, and showcased her strong vocal range (think Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain,” but written about a player).
If there was one performance during the festival that was best captured LIB’s inclusive, love-yourself ethos, Lizzo was it. –Leslie Ventura
Arcade Fire: On paper, the setlist for Arcade Fire’s headlining set at the Downtown Stage might have frustrated longtime local fans. Not only did it lack any deep cuts or rarities (save the brief passage from last year’s non-album cut, “I Give You Power”), but all except two songs were also performed at the band’s October 22 show at Mandalay Bay. Furthermore, Vegas was denied the full-album performance of debut album Funeral, a surprise addition to the band’s three California shows leading up to Life is Beautiful.
Frankly, that was just as well. We didn’t need a 48-minute nostalgia trip—we needed a varied, high-energy performance to keep our weary bodies from dropping to the asphalt. And a well-oiled Arcade Fire accomplished that, mostly with brisk renditions of largely uptempo songs (examples: “Ready to Start,” “Reflektor,” and “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” which dare I say sounds better now than it ever did), and moving from song to song with either turn-on-a-dime transitions or inventive segues.
And kept up the crowd did, showing its most vigorous responses during main-set closers “Creature Comfort," a new favorite from last year’s Everything Now, and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” still Arcade Fire’s most raucous number. Sure, the set wasn’t the same dance-a-thon—and wasn’t as generally celebratory—as the Mandalay Bay show. But that night was all about catharsis and escape after the October 1 shooting. Sunday’s performance had to consider its 100-minute time constraint, a festival attendance that likely wasn’t at last fall’s show—or any previous Arcade Fire show, for that matter—and, again, an audience well into its third day of revelry. That it appeased all those factions so spiritedly made the set feel triumphant.
Speaking of October 1: Lead singer/instrumentalist Win Butler once again dedicated “The Suburbs” to those killed or affected in the shooting, adding that it’s time to “get rid of these f*cking guns already.” He also lambasted Donald Trump twice within in the show’s first half hour, also deviating from the usual Life Is Beautiful affirmations.
And with regards to catharsis: Perhaps it was Arcade Fire’s turn for release as it sprinted to the end of its 15-month tour—its second finale in Vegas, if you add the band capping its Funeral tour at Vegoose in 2005. Given those two milestone shows, and the momentous October 20 show, it’s clear Arcade Fire is on Team Vegas. –MP
Final thoughts: This year, selfies seemed to be replaced by full-on photoshoots. Instead of a few discrete shots, people paused in the middle of crowded thoroughfares or in front of murals and posed until somebody else took their place and posed some more.
Fashion Trends: In: sequins; face and hair glitter; iridescent, geometric temporary tattoos; boho pants; thong-induced underbutt; black lace lingerie as tops; fanny packs. Out: the candy kid raver look; tutus.
Festival totems: People wielded giant inflatable crayons and Sharpie markers as if they were parade batons. A simple helium balloon tied to a hat or backpack was also a thing. Also spotted clear plastic hearts on sticks with LED lights, purchased from the art store inside the Crime on Canvas art area.
Meal of the day: Justin Kingsley Hall’s stone fruit and citrus grilled over an open fire and served with cardamom cream, peanut granola and honeycomb.
Also amazing: Black Beer Garlic Chicken by Chef Brian Howard. It was super tender Jidori chicken on a green onion pancake.
Interesting discovery: White Claw Hard Seltzer. It’s spiked sparkling water with 5 percent alcohol and 100 calories per can. It was refreshing on a hot day without being too sweet. Comes in grapefruit, cherry and lime. Not too much like a Zima to be embarrassing.
Bring this to Vegas: The California-based Pig Pen Delicacy had a booth at LIB offering indulgent delights such as the MacDaddy Burger, which combined a mac and cheese bun, hamburger patty, bacon and barbecue sauce. Also: cheeseburger totchos, in which nacho cheese, ground beef and 1000 Island dressing were slathered on tater tots. –CMR
Overheard: “Science makes dinosaurs less cool.” –comic Kevin Ayers at Boast Rattle
“Do you guys ever wonder if heaven is like this—just one long music festival and you never come down?” –girl to her friends at the Bacardi Stage bar