Once in a while we get back from an adventure in The Van and it takes a minute to figure out what to write down in the journal. It’s all well and good to jot down the bands that came through and jammed and the ones I caught on a festival stage, but that’s so vanilla. I don’t have that problem with this journal entry, here it’s figuring out what not to include. This after all was The Van’s first trip to Las Vegas for the first ever Life is Beautiful Festival.
I myself have not been to Vegas in a hot minute, some five years I think. That last trip ended with a lot of student loan money going on black and that little silver ball going on red. That was before the Jam Van though, so logic (or stupidity) would figure that luck would be in my favor this time.
Our digs for the weekend were certainly swell. Planet Hollywood was the official hotel sponsor of the Life is Beautiful Festival, so they put us up. I got the “Coneheads” room. It had the prop for Beldar’s tool in it, it was sweet. Dove Yeaman (aka Kings of Leon) got the “Johnnny Mnemonic” room, also sweet. Spud got “Lost in Space,” probably sweeter to him because he’s old. When asked what room the Perfect Hippie (aka PH) got at the PH (aka Planet Hollywood), his response was “some stupid movie with Jack Black in it. Jack Black’s awesome though!” The Perfect Hippie just likes to be dramatic.
Friday night was a free night for us as the festival didn’t start until Saturday. I had one goal to accomplish for myself in Vegas, eat a bunch of crab legs at some gluttonous buffet, it is after all my stately duty as an American to participate in this moderately foul form of patriotism. It was Spud’s birthday weekend so Beez (our sound guy) and I went to the buffet with him for his first birthday dinner. Spud dressed to the nines in a black on black suit, which he pointed out made it black on black on black. Spud is into being metta lately.
When we got to the buffet there was a long line of people waiting to pay $36.00 to gorge themselves. There was also a short line for people who were “Diamond Level Guests.” We remembered having checked in at the Diamond Level counter, and so we got to cut into the short line. A juice head in the big line took offense to this and pointed out to us where “the line” started. Spud informed him that we were Diamond Level, and therefore ballers to which he replied “oh, you guys are like rock stars.”
“Yes, you could say that,” returned Spud, and there we were, three rock stars waiting to eat all you can eat snow crabs, prime rib, and soft serve ice cream. It was a big moment in my life. It was not a big moment for Spud, as he’s known of his rock star status for decades, it’s only now that the world is getting wind of it.
Saturday began with myself up slightly at the tables, well rested, and setting off for Life is Beautiful at around eleven AM. It was a relief to get away from The Strip and spend the day avoiding all of the temptations that Vegas thrusts at you.
Life is Beautiful was set in the Fremont St. area, a historic part of Vegas, where old relics like the Golden Nugget and the Ritz are weathered with the residue of a seedy yet flamboyant past. The festival blocked off a large section of the neighborhood and took place within the city, upon its streets and amidst its buildings. It was a a festival setting unlike any we’d been to. The casinos and Vegas atmosphere gave the sectioned off location a theme park vibe. A fantastic job was done by the organizers to make every step that you took within this park a visual experience. Art littered the walls of buildings, sculptures and statues jutted up above them, and musicians performed between them.
We were parked at the end of Fremont St., between a ferris wheel and Atomic Liquors, a bar that was being used as the press area, of course it was a bar… We were also in sight and ear of the festival’s Ambassador stage.
First up to jam on Saturday was a band that a whole bunch of folks told us we had to record because they’re like the next thing, the next band. The Rusty Maples showed up on time and did not disappoint. It’s crazy to speculate on what band is going to break, there’s way too many, but it’s easy to speculate on what band should break, they’ll get that endorsement from this corner. I’m soft though, I’d give that endorsement to most of the bands we recorded over the weekend. That’s a big part of why we record them.
Following right behind the Rusty Maples was Dusty Sunshine, our first ever all girl band. They also provided us with our first ever chance to use a washboard camera. Meaning we strapped a GoPro to a washboard. There was really no limit to what we strapped those GoPro’s to on this trip, but washboard cam might have been the best one. The Lagunitas beer bottle cam is a close second. I see our relationship with the fine folks at GoPro being a pretty awesome one going forward, I can’t wait to strap one to my dog.
Dusty Sunshine was followed by Portugal. The Man. They arrived a few minutes behind schedule, but their equipment bags had tags on them from Paris so we figured they’d come a long way to get to The Van. We got three out of four of the boys from Alaska to play two wonderful songs for us. They also took a liking to Spud and he took a liking to their track “Modern Jesus,” you know, cause Spud is a religious man. They thanked us just as much as we thanked them, and that never gets old. Thanks is such a little word, but it always does such big things. Portugal. The Man in The Van was a big thing for us.
At some point during Portugal. The Man’s set a couple of dudes came over to say what’s up to Spud. One went by the name of Jay R the other by the name Trey. Jay R was the more outspoken, he had a manager type lady with him, and all were curious as to what was going on in the van. We explained the deal to him, at which point his eyes lit up and he produced a business card for a “Jay-R Beatbox.” Any beat-boxer with a business card gets my immediate attention, and when he explained his deal to us, via beat-boxing, well that sealed it. “Come by in an hour, we’re filming you,” and so our first chance to use our new sound activated trippy lights arose.
Jay-R Beatbox got the first ever beatbox-mic-cam as well, lots of firsts on this trip. They freestyled for five solid minutes about things like rap music and Jam Vans, both good things. I didn’t hear the words Versace, turn-up, or bad-bitch in there a single time. It confused me as to whether or not this was still rap music, but given that it was so legit I had to assume that it was a form of hip-hop that didn’t glorify ignorance, which was exciting. Not that I’m not a fan of the other formula, I love to hear people yell “turn up,” over and over again. Seriously, I do.
The Van’s day closed out with Cosmic Suckerpunch. They handed out lollipops (suckers) and little boxing glove toys that had suckers on them. Spud especially enjoyed that, which you’ll be able to see in an episode of Cuz’s Corner that we filmed with them. He also thought that the French members of their band were scientists. He based this off of their accents. Your guess is as good as mine here.
That wrapped things up for our sessions and we got some time to explore the festival proper. One of the headiest parts of this event was that it had a big emphasis on art and food as well as music. The food part was especially superb. They had pretty much every chef in the Vegas area participating. Most had booths in the food court section with scaled down menus prepared specially for the festival. I met Hubert Keller and chastised him for not having a gluten free option. He apologized, Hubert and I are cool now.
As for the art portion of the festival, one of the headiest things that I found there was a 3D mural. They hung glasses on street signs so you could look at it. Also, a giant metal preying mantis that shot fire out of its antennas, yeah, I enjoyed that a lot. They did not sell a smaller version in a gift shop which was fairly disappointing.
As for the evening’s musical offerings, Beck was the first of two headliners. Small in stature he may be, but his stage presence is gigantic. He rifled through tracks from most of his catalog, hitting all the big ones that you’d want to hear and ending it all with the one that you really wanted to hear, “Where It’s At.” He also broke into an impromptu Michael Jackson interlude, Beck’s moves were solid as ever. He had the crowd moving with him, especially one very loose Spudnick. He’d gotten a bit of the whiskey into his bones and was feeling real good about “this here white people music.”
After “Where It’s At,” we shuffled over to Portugal. The Man’s set, because that was for real where it was at. They’d played acoustic in the van, and while it was excellent, when they plugged in and really let loose in front of a large crowd, they are simply put, ballers. I had to tell Spud that these were his homies from earlier in the day cutting loose, he didn’t recognize them until they played “Modern Jesus,” that he remembered. To compliment the music they had fog machines working over-time and some really poignant colored lights cutting through the fog and illuminating the band from behind. It made for an intense performance. It also made us realize that we need a fog machine in The Van.
Kings of Leon were the evening’s main attraction. They did their Kings of Leon thing, large and loud. I was a little disappointed in the shortage of glow sticks at the headliner, and in general at the festival. I’d say that would be my one complaint, and it’s not really a complaint, it’s just a note that I think can be fixed next year. So I would have liked to have seen more glow sticks flying through the air at Kings of Leon, but I was wearing a pair of glowing glasses and Spud had a giant glow-skull necklace, so there wasn’t a complete lack of glowy stuff.
In regards to my glasses, they were a big hit at the event. Some chicks came up to me at Kings of Leon and marveled at them for like five minutes. I’m not sure if they were strippers or not, but they could very well have been strippers, so we’ll call them strippers. Anyways, they were passing them back and forth and taking pictures of one another in them, and in general having an extremely awesome time. Then they returned the glasses to me and we all went back to watching the show. About five minutes later one of the strippers, who looked just like Selena Gomez (no lie) feinted backwards. Spud and I caught a glimpse of her on the ground and her eyes were rolled back and it did not look awesome. Her friends and I huddled around her and I was just about to run for an EMT when she came to. I guess the flash from the show or the flash from the glasses or all the flash combined was a bit too much for her, or perhaps something else was in play there, but she was ok, and we breathed a breath of relief.
Crazy how things can change in an instant. Life is both beautiful and fragile. Downer, yeah, I know, but it was such an intense moment it had to be recanted and it needed to be put into perspective, and it just so happens that the festival’s name is such a catch all for shit like this. Any how, I hope that stripper is ok, wherever she is…
Day two began with a visit from Nico Vega. If you’re not familiar with their work I will describe it as such, they made The Van shake more so than any other band in the history of Jam in the Van. That’s a damn good compliment because a lot of bands have shaken that thing, just never like this. Lead singer Aja Volkman definitely explored the space she was given, girl was all over the place, even throwing Clyde the Puppet some love. The only downer was that Nico Vega’s drummer accidentally stepped on a bag that contained my glow glasses. They broke in half, and yes this was a serious problem for an adult, but I took solace in the fact that they died a rock and roll death. Nico Vega, I hope we meet again, because I dig your music and you guys a lot, I just hope that the next time we kick it you bring me a new pair of glow glasses, that would mean the world to me.
Nico Vega were followed by Most Thieves, lads who called Vegas their home town, clad all in black, and almost too tall to stand inside the Van. Their members included the drum tech for The Killers and the guitar tech for The Killers, so they definitely knew how to tune their instruments. Their session proved they knew how to play them as well.
Next up were The Kingston Springs. They might have been the most youthful group on the weekend. Young fellers from Tennessee, they did not say no to free beers. Some of these grown up bands hold off before they get into their beers. They’ve been around enough green rooms to where complimentary beverages aren’t that exciting anymore. I always like the young groups who are easily excited. Their eyes look so much wider, their excitement is sometimes just a little more palpable. The Kingston Springs had that eagerness about them, it’s visible in the way they play their music. Rock and roll as it’s meant to be played, with a smile on the face and sweat on the brow.
We closed out the day of sessions with two equally green units. American Cream and Moondog Matinee both seemed to be getting their sea legs ready to become touring artists. Props to American Cream’s lead man for the red, white, and blue striped slacks, those were a nice touch. During their set Allen Stone dropped by and caught up with us. He told us how he dug Bernhoft’s Jam in the Van session, so Bernhoft, wherever you are, Allen Stone dug it. Also, Allen Stone, wherever you are, American Cream said to tell you “hey,” so hey.
Moondog Matinee got the trippy lights for their closing set, because you’ve got to go out with some flash. They dedicated a cut to none other than Spud, he’s gonna be touched.
I did my rounds that day, catching a little bit of everything on the eclectic lineup. While walking away from the Ambassador stage with Janelle Monae providing my backing track I had a quick epiphany about how diverse the festival’s attendees were. I was taking notice of how loose and varied the dancing that Ms. Monae’s music provoked in the crowd was, and then I took note of how completely different everyone in the crowd appeared to actually be from one another. Now, of course we’re all unique and blah blah, but when you’re at Bonnaroo you get a lot of young white folks. When your at Coachella you get a lot of young pretty folks. When you’re at High Sierra you get a lot of hairy dirpie folks, etc. etc., and that was not the case at Life is Beautiful. It’s nice how the name worked out like that.
My epiphany carried me over to Danny Brown’s set. Upon arrival he was rapping about taking pills and cocaine. My thoughts wandered a bit from that whole wonderment at the diversity thing. I have Danny Brown to thank for bringing me back to earth.
I managed to peep solid Red Bull Sound Select Stage sets from both The Kingston Springs and The Smith Westerns. The Redbull Sound Select Stage is a bus that converts, much like a Transformer, into a stage. It’s pretty bad-ass. The Perfect Hippie kept telling me that’s what the Jam Van has to do, and I kept telling him that then it wouldn’t be Jam in the Van. We’re still at a crossroads here.
The night, and thereby the festival, concluded for me with Empire of The Sun. Albeit, a good majority of festival goers were watching hometown heroes, The Killers, on the main stage, but I had to catch Empire of the Sun. I’d missed them at too many festivals already, and every time someone would tell me how crazy the visual show was.
Prior to the show, while standing in the crowd, a magical thing occurred. A man dressed as Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” came up to us at random and told Dave “Kings of Leon” Yeaman that he looked like the dude from Kings of Leon. It was magical, and although Dave probably still thinks I paid the guy to say it, I did not. I’d like to thank that dude for making that happen. It pretty much secured that Empire of the Suns set would be awesome before it started. I was also awesome after it started.
I lasted about thirty minutes at the front of the stage. The visuals were as excellent as advertised, I’m strongly for dancing bubble people. I am however amazed that nobody told me beforehand about the bass, which pretty much shook my entire being. So when I said that I lasted thirty minutes I literally meant that my body just said “no more dude.”
So we retreated to the Planet Hollywood where I was able to finally spend some time losing at the tables. The money gets pushed goes down that slot by that little glass tool every time. Same old story. I didn’t push it though. The Strip wasn’t where it’s at this time around. Our luck was left over on Fremont. We’re in on the ground floor of something legitimately special. What a bold move to name your event Life is Beautiful. Bravo for living up to that billing. Very interested as to how beautiful it will be next year.