My Neon Reverb experience begins with a taco. Okay, technically, it begins with a run-in—almost literally—with the festival’s double-decker Red Bull bus, which is maneuvering its way out of the Yayo Taco parking lot onto Maryland Parkway as I’m driving in Thursday night. If the impressive-looking vehicle is any indication, Neon Reverb has definitely grown up this fall (see: last September’s scary kidnapper-van shuttle).
Then on to the taco, a carne asada-stuffed mess that’s neither remarkable nor terrible. That’s roughly how I feel about the kickoff night’s first two musical sets, courtesy of local bands Nothing With Numbers and Asterionella. Nothing With Numbers, a hardcore fivesome with some silly song titles (“Chicks With Dictionaries,” “Fuck Ted Nugent”), tries its best to energize the smallish crowd, and to some extent does, prompting a few folks standing close to attempt a sort of punk-rock square-dancing routine. Asterionella, a female-fronted quartet with a sound that ranges from straight-up alt-rock to sleepy dream-pop, has more trouble engaging an audience likely there to see the night’s heavier groups.
Nothing With Numbers is scheduled to go on at 7. By 8:30, the “stage” area just inside the eatery’s sliding glass doors remains empty. With posted set times comes great responsibility, and on that count the festival has failed thus far.
When Asterionella finishes, a little after 10, there are maybe two-dozen bodies inside Yayo Taco. By the time headlining Vegas outfit Caravels gets done setting up, it’s beginning to look like a real rock show. Neon Reverb’s coffers might not reflect that swell, however, with more than a couple souls skipping out on the $5 cover by slipping in door No. 2 behind the band.
I’m not gonna lie: I love Caravels. See ’em whenever I can. Even bought a red Caravels T-shirt, which I’ve been known to wear out on weekends (and around one music festival in New York recently). Earlier in the day, Punknews.org announced Caravels’ signing to Massachusetts-based punk label Topshelf Records, which plans to release a new 7-inch by the band and reissue its 2010 Floorboards EP in digital form. When I congratulate drummer George Foskaris and bassist Cory Van Cleef on the accomplishment they shrug it off, as I pretty much expected. They’re about rocking the stuffing out of their fans, not broadcasting accolades around town.
What follows is another powerhouse Caravels set. Hair and beards go blurry. Artwork on a nearby table falls to the ground. Frontman Mike R. loses control of his mic a couple times. A minor mosh pit kicks up in the middle of “Snake Plissken,” the song whose arrangement best embodies the Caravels appeal—a thrashing start followed by a restrained breakdown and then, an explosion of sound. Good times.
Okay, time to head Downtown and hit Neon Reverb proper. First stop: Las Vegas Country Saloon, where I’m hoping to catch The Growlers. Coming up the escalator to the second-story venue above Hennessey’s I bump into fest co-organizer James Woodbridge, who doesn’t look happy. He starts referring to the Aruba Showroom—site of Friday’s big Soft Pack/Crocodiles/Twin Brother /Abe Vigoda show—as a “construction zone” ... something about the hotel tearing up its primary venue just hours before the scheduled Neon Reverb event. Sounds like a significant issue.
Inside LVCS, The Growlers are just getting started. Imagine Jim Morrison wearing a Hawaiian shirt, fronting a surfier version of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and you’ve got some idea how the Long Beach six-piece looked and sounded. Though a crowd of around 80 seems relatively interested, the songs begin to blend together for me, and I consult my schedule for alternative options. Northern Arizona’s The Wild Complete might still be going at the Bunkhouse. I’ll try to make it over.
Ah, but no sooner do I head downstairs than I bump into filmmaker Mike Thompson and musician Brett Bolton (Kid Meets Cougar, Bee Movie the Band), who just came from the Bunkhouse. Wild Complete was on its last song when they left, so it seems I’ve missed it. Such are the travails of a multi-venue city fest.
Back up to the Country Saloon. The Growlers are still playing. “We’re never gonna fucking stop,” singer Brooks Nielsen declares, but eventually they do. And then it’s time for The Mad Caps, one of Vegas’ most consistently worthwhile live acts, to close out the bill. The duo, singer/guitarist Ted Rader and drummer Jon Realmuto, sounds different tonight—Rader’s still channeling Elvis, but his songwriting is evolving, to the point where individual songs, and not just the overall experience, are now memorable. If you haven’t seen The Mad Caps yet, now’s the time.
It’s closing in on 2 a.m. when they finish; time to rest up for Day 2 ... after one final stop. Pulling into the Aruba parking lot, I can already tell Woodbridge had reason for concern. The loading area behind the Showroom stage is filled with palm fronds and broken blocks of wood. The interior? Ugh. The lobby is piled high with tables, chairs and other furniture, blocking entry to a venue covered in dust and reeking of paint. In the center of the room: a fairly massive scaffolding structure. As he, fellow organizers Thirry Harlin and Jason Aragon and a few other Neon Reverb staffers begin what is sure to be a lengthy overnight cleanup, Woodbridge shakes his head in frustration, “I was here last week and it wasn’t like this. They knew we were doing this big show here tomorrow. Why would they start remodeling now?”