In Retrospect I Was Perhaps Not Ready for a 3-Day Music Festival

“Life Is Beautiful”? Maybe not yet

Nicholas Russell
They're Better Live

Las Vegas’s Life Is Beautiful music festival, this year from September 17 to September 19, is like a carnival where everyone, even the teenagers, is cosplaying as a teenager. Gawker did not pay for me to be there. Instead, I used lessons from The Secret to manifest tickets into my life (my mom’s friend gave away her wristbands at the last minute). Said tickets were VIP, which meant access to spacious lounge areas, cleaner bathrooms, unobstructed views of the stages, and close encounters with a wide variety of assholes. Unbelievably, there were two tiers above VIP: VIP+, which was only slightly less crowded, and All-In, which cost $3000 and basically made everything free once you got there.

Despite the amenities, my expectations for the weekend were low. I’d been to Life Is Beautiful two years ago, and it felt like I was being subjected to a special kind of hazing. In her essay collection The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, Jessica Hopper observes, “Fans are supposed to believe that they’re enjoying some sort of meaningful collective experience at a big festival, with modern rock blaring from a bank of speakers the size of a condo complex. But such a grand scale actually tends to dissolve community — the anonymity and impersonality of an enormous event sometimes even encourages people to act shittier than they otherwise would, since they don’t feel accountable to anyone around them.” How true.

The 3-day free-for-all has a small footprint for a music festival, taking up eighteen blocks downtown. Compare that to Coachella’s 600-something acres, which is definitely much bigger though I’m not sure by how much because I’m not good at math. The unspoken truth about Life Is Beautiful is that it takes place in Vegas’s imagined future: flashy, young, loud, “green,” revitalized. We aren’t there yet. Despite the festival's insistence on keeping everything and everyone “beautiful,” it was mostly pretty gross.

Trash was everywhere, presumably to be picked up by volunteers and festival workers who would rather have been anywhere else. The dress code this year was fast fashion by way of go-go dancing: fishnets, bikinis, onesies, pleather (despite the Vegas heat). Most were adorned with some manner of string light, glow stick, or large head ornament, like the young woman with the massive cowboy hat that looked, in very dim light, to be made out of a giant slice of pepperoni. Guys were shirtless with bandanas and sunglasses, no matter the time of day, though the boldest look I saw, despite the proliferation of bros in top-down matching patterned outfits, was a young man in a High School Musical Wildcats jersey (Troy’s specifically). On a normal day, the whole area would have been quiet, the trendy half of downtown that was Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s pet project now a gathering place for hipsters and new residents living in prefab apartments where once it was “that scary part of town.”

Because this was a last-minute excursion, and because my girlfriend and I did not think that more than a year’s worth of restricted movement was grounds for throwing our bodies at every shiny thing, we decided on a select number of headliners: Tame Impala, Modest Mouse, St. Vincent, and Billie Eilish. On Friday night, around 11:30, Tame Impala took the main stage and a troupe of attendees led by a large man waving a hand fan stepped in front of us. Throughout the show, this man continued to turn around in a circle, arm high in the air, fanning everyone near him, which was nice, while also making it impossible to see anything, which was not.

Luckily, Tame Impala prepared a show so bright and colorful, it seemed specifically designed to freak out anyone who had taken hallucinogens. Kevin Parker, noted stoner, popped his hip out, awkwardly but endearingly singing with a red Solo cup in one hand on the tracks from The Slow Rush, while donning his guitar and ripping for basically everything else. A beefy rendition of “Elephant” sent lasers and spotlights over the crowd, bass shaking the ground. Above the band, a massive ring hung suspended like a UFO, sometimes skittering dominoes of light in a circuit, other times blasting an otherworldly red. Meanwhile, Parker peppered his stage banter with expressions of excitement and gratitude about being back in Vegas, being out in the world again. I was less sold on this than others. Yes, it’s been a long string of months, anxiety-riddled and isolating, but it’s easy to romanticize being in public with a bunch of strangers before you actually go hang out in public with a bunch of strangers.

The next night, around 7:30, Modest Mouse played on the same stage, their backdrop much sparer, mainly a screen projecting visuals from their new album The Golden Casket. Isaac Brock came out in an orange jumpsuit, sleeves rolled up, great tattoos. By contrast, his bandmates looked like a group of dudes who sit around and talk about the merits of John Mellencamp. Brock has the unenviable task of trying to keep up with his younger self’s verbose lyrics, which pushed their way out of his mouth as if he was conjuring them on the spot, eyes shut, lips puckered, head and shoulders jerking in all directions. But Modest Mouse’s catalog practically sings itself. “Dashboard” sent everyone into a joyous frenzy and even an oldie like “Paper Thin Walls” got a chorus from the crowd. “Laugh hard, it’s a long ways to the bank,” we sang. Then, like all non-closing festival shows, the concert simply ended and a younger swell made their way over for HAIM.

By Sunday, fatigue began to set in. We hadn’t even spent a full day there and the festival was starting to seem like a bad idea. It wasn’t just the sheer number of people, but the atmosphere. There were few masks, and more people open-mouth sneezing than I cared to count. Every artist commented in some way on how good it felt to be back, but this struck me as wishful thinking. Around 8, St. Vincent stepped onto the main stage in bleached blonde hair like a strung out ’70s housewife, the rest of her band verging on Party City chic. Annie Clark has always retained a flair for the dramatic, each tour accompanied by regimented stage choreography and costuming that turn Clark and her band into stylish automatons. For the new Daddy’s Home record, Clark enlisted three black female backup singers, cutouts of a city horizon, and a stagehand dressed as a diner waitress. In the middle of the show, a phone call interrupted the performance, an excuse for Clark to fawn over the crowd. All of this would have felt contrived if Clark wasn’t so insanely talented. She leads a tight group of musicians, each allowed to improvise and show off while holding fast to clean, propulsive rhythms. Her solos screeched and fuzzed with practiced dexterity and I was left, as always, pining for a St. Vincent metal album.

Young Thug went on after, and when he finally showed up almost an hour late, the non-black people around us lost their shit. Black aesthetics had been worn like Halloween costumes the entire weekend. We decided to spend his set laying down on a patch of grass that would, after the weekend, disappear.

We went back to watch Billie Eilish, which meant getting to witness a star at the peak of their fame. Every sound she made was met with a deafening howl from the crowd. Her performance was less focused on vocal prowess than raw energy. Eilish sang, but she was too excited and active for this to be a main feature of the show. After all, she was playing many songs from her new album live for the first time. She jumped high, pumped her fists, crouched to touch hands with fans, and sprinted down the walkway that jutted out into the throng. In between songs, she showered adoration on us, while also encouraging everyone to remember that we were supposed to be having fun. “It’s been a year and a half!” she cried, like we were marking something definite and important —and end to something bigger than the festival itself. Mainly I had spent my time there thinking how much longer we had to go.

***

I never was a big festival fan even before the pandemic, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that there’s still a lot about them I find irritating. It’s nice to think that while we’ve all been stuck alone people have improved, become more generous and somehow less likely to bump into you and spill their drink down your shirt. It’s easy to miss people and forget about the public.

More my speed was the Death Cab for Cutie show two nights before the festival at the Chelsea on the Strip. They opened with the long version of my favorite stalker ballad, “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Ben Gibbard, whose voice at 45 retains the same bright, youthful precociousness he had at 20, whose former marriage to Property Brother-lover Zooey Deschanel remains a sore point in many of his songs, bounced around the stage with the energy of a well-rested Golden Retriever. My girlfriend leaned over to me, saying, “He’s not sad anymore!”

Surrounding us, a gaggle of attendees, young and older, not exactly tuned in. Checking Twitter, downloading a podcast, making everyone stand up so they could get another drink, the smaller live music experience was, in some ways, exactly as I remembered it. But there was a sense everyone was making a night of it even though it was a Wednesday. Early on, Gibbard asked the crowd how many people were coming out to a public event for the first time. Most of the room raised their hands. It seemed people were treating the night as a tentative treat, less certain than the commitment it takes to buy tickets to a 3-day event.

And for a room of mainly millennials trying to remember what we used to be like, it was hard to beat a band playing classics from our heartsick youth. For “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” the band left Gibbard alone onstage with an acoustic guitar and the whole crowd belted out the lyrics. Afterward, a wave of people made for the lobby, presumably to get a stiff drink and/or misguidedly text an ex.

Gibbard’s metaphor-heavy lyrics, with flairs of magical realism, simultaneously pine for love lost and eschew love easily found in a way that can grate for listeners who favor something less whiny. But the grey area in between, the confusion and indecision about one’s convictions, which can be so palpably and personally felt, have girded most of Death Cab’s songs from being written off.

Every track, from 2002’s “A Movie Script Ending” to 2018’s “Northern Lights,” rang out in some meaningful way. Gibbard and Jason McGherr, one of mainstream music’s undersung drummers, are the only long-standing members of the band left, but these songs clearly still hold restorative powers for them. It was less about being in the room with other people. One aspect of the collective pining for the grand return that’s never resonated with me is the idea that a crowd, any crowd, is a good one to be in. That the communal experience of a live show somehow automatically triggers a warm, happy feeling might be more of a hopeful intention than a reality. For me, it was about being in the room with the band, whose enthusiasm was infectious, and my memories of when their music meant everything to me.