Las Vegas is renowned as an old-school casino town, better known for bad lounge music, washed up entertainers, and half-naked showgirls than anything else. Thus, the first ever Vegoose Festival, which took place over the Halloween weekend at the University of Nevada, conspicuously clashed with its host city, a gambling town that has never been particularly famous for its overall hip-ness. Yet, somehow, Vegoose’s mixture of jam band music and alternative rock made the usually barren musical desert seem like Austin, TX, for a moment at least.
Let’s be frank: Las Vegas is not a college town. The main road to any university—even community colleges, for Pete’s sake!—is usually populated with bookstores, coffee shops, head shops, and record stores. Not so with UNLV! Without the road signs, you’d never guess there was a college nearby. This campus is surrounded by a few new tract homes, a bunch of undeveloped land, and little else.
31 Dec 1969: University of Nevada, Sam Boyd Stadium Las Vegas
Before entering the university grounds, concert attendees had to park their cars in a dirt lot. We all know this is a dirty town, but that’s just ridiculous! Apparently, any property that doesn’t feature the continuous ringing sound of slot machines isn’t worth the time, the trouble, or even the blacktop to pretty up.
After surveying the crowd, you began to wonder if Jerry Garcia’s death was just a hoax—the deadhead contingent had appeared in great numbers. Every first, second, and third generation hippy made it out. Just what were these anti-capitalist, back-to-the-earthers doing in this greedy, money-hungry, formerly-mob-friendly town? Obviously, they didn’t come for the buffets.
Setting these oddball social and environmental factors aside for just a minute, Vegoose’s organizers deserve kudos for the way they put this show together. The four main stages were carefully segregated. The main stadium stage was reserved for big name jam-ers, like Dave Matthews and Trey Anastasio. The two outdoor stages featured either all-alternative or all-jam music. And the hip-hop tent had, well, strictly hip-hop. This meant that if you liked one particular brand of music, you could settle in for the day instead of wasting time nomadically traveling around the grounds to chase down all of your favorites.
Although Vegoose’s overall atmosphere was comparable to most other big modern rock festivals, it was nevertheless impossible to ignore its unique location and seasonal (late October) timing. A few acts got into the Halloween spirit by dressing up for the occasion. The costume-ball vibe was best exemplified by the Shins, whose members outfitted themselves as nuns, and Beck and band, who were adorned in Boy Scout uniforms. ALO was slightly less successful, however, when its members covered themselves with various silver accessories. These guys explained that they were merely honoring Nevada’s reputation as the silver state. But they mainly just looked like freaky sci-fi characters.
Of all the acts that played Day One, the Decemberists seemed most out of place in the outdoor setting. Vocalist Colin Meloy’s precise and effeminate songs belong to hushed concert halls, rather than nacho-munching, beer-swilling soirees. Against great odds, though, the group impressed with its light-hearted spirit, infusing “Eli, The Barrow Boy” with country-ish banjo and opening the intro of “We Both Go Down Together” with a few snippets from “The Entertainer”.
Other Day One highlights included Gov’t Mule: lead guitarist Warren Haynes transformed Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” from an upbeat dance-along into a blistering blues jam.
And in the hip-hop tent, Atmosphere also left a positive impression. This was a tent, by the way, that only VIPs could enter. Only a few such VIPs ventured inside, however, which meant that Atmosphere was also playing to a large crowd just outside the tent. Why they didn’t just let folks inside is anybody’s guess. It sure would have made more sense, because Slug was on fire, spitting out the words to “Always Coming Back Home To You”.
As Day One turned into Night One, many of this event’s costumed ones came out the way all freaks come out at night. Members of The Shins explained their nun garb by saying, “We found God,” but the band members didn’t let their black clothing prevent them from filling this desert with plenty of beautiful, jangle-y rock.
Beck and band may have been dressed as young boys in Scout uniforms, but the singer himself turned in a manly set. He’s just as comfortable getting funky as he is quieting down, but here he pumped up the volume with mighty guitar rock. Beck played a lot of the guitar licks, but his band was equally enthusiastic during standouts like “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut”. He might be best known for his quirky charisma but Beck proved, as night fell, that he could stand tall with the rest on this musician-friendly bill.
Headliner Dave Matthews hit the stage late, but he was worth the wait. Ably assisted by a few friends - including Trey Anastasio—Matthews exemplified the kinder and gentler side of jam. He sent the crowd home happy, after filling the night air with quiet, improvised music.
The Magic Numbers
On Day Two, the best sounds were played under the sun. The Magic Numbers brought sweet bits of British Invasion rock with male-led, female-supported vocals. Still, the best daytime-hours group was Spoon. How an Austin, Texas group can sound so much like David Bowie is a mystery that may never be explained, but this group’s catchy guitar rock, sometimes complimented by piano, was an afternoon delight.
The Flaming Lips summed up the contradictory nature of this festival perfectly during their set. Wayne Coyne mentioned how cool it was to have an eclectic music festival in a town better known for its lounge music and strip clubs. Then, ironically, the group turned its video screen into a massive group karaoke for a sing-along to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Despite his negative remark about strip clubs, these screen shots combined Freddie Mercury’s words with video of a naked woman sunning herself. Go figure. But then again, this was anything-goes-Las Vegas. Vegoose had to give us at least one dirty twist.
// Notes from the Road
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