Summer festival season is already a time of such glorious excess that to graft seven stages onto a place like Downtown Las Vegas feels like the ultimate act of gilding the lily. Usually, remote locations do just fine at establishing the vibe, and without distraction. But like an atomic collider that smashes quarks together to discover fascinating new particles, last weekend’s Life Is Beautiful vaulted thousands of people into the shadow of mid-century motels along a few blocks of Fremont Street. In spite of temperatures that kissed 100, it was more than manageable — wonderful, even.
Vegas has a well-oiled way of filtering out everything it doesn’t want you to see. Apart from an unpleasant incident involving a firecracker toward the end of Odesza’s set and a minor ruckus when a group of teenagers jumped the perimeter fence and disappeared into the crowd at a sprint, there was no hint of anything untoward. Nobody wants to be reminded of it, of course, but the massacre that tore apart last year’s Route 91 Harvest Festival still hovers over large gatherings of this type. But instead of any, we got a full moon and the Ambassador Motel sign spelling out lyrics from Sylvan Esso: “Hey Mami, I know what you want, Mami.”
With apologies to everyone who played at an hour when the sun was genuinely beating down Day One led off with arch-summertime duo Poolside, whose expanded touring lineup played virtually every track of note from its two albums except “California Sunset,” which would have been only a little out of place in Nevada. “It’s 97 degrees, but we’re going to make it a little hotter,” said frontman Jeffrey Paradise, who went on to share a story about Vito the drummer being asked about mustache rides in the elevator before alternating cuts from 2012’s Pacific Standard Time and 2017’s Heat, along with the well-known and -regarded Neil Young cover, “Harvest Moon.” Poolside’s sink-into-your-lounge-chair-and-call-for-a-margarita aesthetic is pitch-perfect for when the sun starts sinking behind the stage; even the video projection shows a sun rising and falling against a Popsicle background. They sounded a little sloppy, however, and at one point a percussionist’s stand broke.
No one embodies the disjunction between home listening and the immersive festival experience like Justice, the French nu-disco duo. Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay are pure kitsch, the hair metal of distortion and at some point in the late aughts they buried Ratatat under six feet of loose gravel and slapped basslines. It’s the Vegas of sets: a totalizing, overwhelming sonic experience — and they’re not above looping around to play segments of the same song twice, in this case “Love S.O.S.,” “Fire,” and perennial favorite “D.A.N.C.E.” Are some of the songs barely distinguishable? Are they even any good? Can you hear them orbiting around fellow French duo Daft Punk just a little bit? It almost doesn’t matter — especially when they break for an extended pause in a formation that’s almost an optical illusion. Justice makes it marks every time.
Like a candle whose flame flickers and flickers and doesn’t go out, Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine danced wildly across the stage. Her sweet-natured set at Outside Lands was well-received, but warmer climes are even kinder to her as she opened with “June” and “Queen of Peace” ended on “Shake It Out” by way of a detour in Calvin Harris-land, covering “Sweet Nothing” as if to lure him out of his residency at Hakassan. (Too bad, he’s there until 2020, at least.) It is simply mesmerizing to watch the auburn-haired Florence emote in a white wedding dress and twirl around as if she were in a music box.
No festival is complete without an exciting discovery, and this year it was Neil Frances. A standard rock band fronted by a Kurt Cobain lookalike, they’re a combination of MGMT, Cut/Copy, and Tame Impala, which is a good lineage to have. They’re touring with Jungle, the British neo-funk collective that gets as much mileage out of a falsetto as Chic — and another can’t-miss act at every festival, especially on “Happy Man” and “House in LA.”
By far the best thing that wasn’t on a stage was a spooky, synchronized synth-and-smoke piece on an alley that everyone with any sense traversed to get from A to B. Granted, Barcelona interactive mapping installation Playmodes‘ tunnel to Hades that sent more than a few people scrambling for another route, but the block-long experience was worth venturing down again and again (especially in kaleidoscope glasses).
Five Other Notable Acts:
These Aussies just get better and better. A+ for putting The Presets and Justice back-to-back. This was probably the best performance we’ve ever seen, including closers “Downtown Shutdown” and “My People,” but turning the ordinarily four-minute “This Boy’s In Love” into an 11-minute freakout with a crazy-long build-up.
Once among the biggest rock bands of the early 2000s, Wolfmother took to a smallish stage and killed with “Woman” and “Joker and the Thief.”
These guys were definitely not on autopilot, taking control of the audience by playing their 2014 album Down to Earth in its entirety.
The mid-aughts rang and Life Is Beautiful picked up the phone.
We actuallyjust couldn’t even take notes during this one, it was so damn good.
Disaffected London YouTube geeks who do not care what you think about lo-fi prawns, Superorganism took to the Fremont Stage in the middle of Sunday afternoon. They’re more of a multimedia art project than a band, and they’ve only been around for about a year-and-a-half. Wearing mom jeans and a shirt that said “I’m fat,” frontwoman Orono Noguchi betrayed just the slightest bit of motherly affection by insisting that everyone hydrate, but the almost-too-slow tempos are fertile ground for self-consciously goofy choreography from the three backup dancers (who at one point clutched an apple, a pear, and a banana). All the 8-bit undersea graphics look at lot more jaded than any sea-floor orchestra from The Little Mermaid, but the lyrics to crowd favorite “Everybody Wants to Be Famous” show this multinational collective has pulled off a neat trick: achieving that universal dream with a minimum of effort.
Fuck They! SF Weekly has championed Sofi Tukker more than almost any other band, and at this point they don’t need a lift from anybody. The good-naturedly silly-serious beauty queen and king led off with quasi-ceremonial drumming before tearing into a set full of hits: “Best Friend,” “Drinkee,” and the quieter “Benadryl,” which reminds people that the Brazilian-inflected Sofi Tukker is capable of genuine beauty in addition to party jams. Notably, “Batshit” didn’t set the audience on fire quite the way it did at Lightning in a Bottle earlier in the summer, but at Life Is Beautiful, “Awoo” created that amazing moment of pure oblivion, when the air is thick with the energy of everyone waiting for the cue to lose their shit and dance without a trace of inhibition, powered by the joy of every single body in the tent. Nice work.
Arcade Fire is a band this writer has never fully appreciated. Like a junior version of U2, they often seemed capable of little else besides soaring, and Win Butler et al. definitely get a lot of traction out of pounding the same key at the upper register of a piano and building entire songs around that. This writer is now in full retraction mode, because Just as Sofi Tukker provide that perfect moment of oblivion, Arcade Fire brought communion. Co-frontwoman Régine Chassagne is a dazzling stage presence, and she shows up a lot on 2017’s Everything Now, which is simply an outstanding record.
As such, Sunday night was her night. Arcade Fire opened with “Everything Now,” the 3D graphics for which can almost take your eyes of the individual members for the entire duration of the song. They played all three “Neighborhood” songs from their 2004 debut, Funeral — although not in numerical order. They played “No Cars Go” and “Intervention,” from 2007’s Neon Bible, which made them famous. But mostly, they stuck to Everything Now: “Put Your Money on Me,” which sounds like a Portishead banger, and “Creature Comfort” and “Electric Blue,” and the wonderfully Blondie-esque “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” with Chassagne’s intentionally girlish vocals. The screen technology was as sophisticated as it gets, with dueling images of Win Butler in profile, and when they rounded the bend in the encore with “Wake Up,” the last single from Funeral, it hit the parking lot full on. It was then that everyone, along with the friends they brought and the friends they made and everybody else with your line of sight in all directions burst into song, for the extended choruses. And then we turned the summer into dust.