It’s summertime in Las Vegas, which means that most bands are avoiding Sin City due to the sweltering heat. But something is going down at the mysterious Area 15, a new venue just off the Strip holding electronica-oriented concerts. They’ve got a two-night event billed as “Secret Garden” on 30 June and 1 July, featuring the jamtronica stalwarts of STS9 (aka Sound Tribe Sector 9) headlining both nights. Thus fans from around the region travel to town to seek a sonic jackpot.
The event also features artists like the electronic music pioneers of the Crystal Method on night one and rising electrosoul phenom Maddy O’Neal on night two as DJs in the opening slots before STS9 and several other acts for a festival vibe. Those visiting Area 15 for the first time are surprised to learn the venue’s main stage – the A-Lot – is actually outdoors! This seems like it could be an issue with the temperatures warranting an “Excessive Heat Watch” as high temperatures rise into triple digits, but then it’s learned that STS9 will be performing from midnight to 3:00 am. This will mitigate the heat somewhat, though it’ll still be a factor to deal with as the midnight forecasts are in the 85-90 degree range.
Upon arriving at Area 15 on Friday night, attendees find that the building does indeed resemble a secret warehouse along the lines of the Air Force’s legendary Area 51 facility about two hours to the northwest (at least as far as the Area 51 where Henry Jones Jr. was taken by Russian spies to help them identify some of the Roswell salvage in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) Legend has it that Area 51 is connected to the nearby Nellis Air Force Base in North Vegas by underground tunnels, so it’s not inconceivable that some alien/human hybrids might be moved to show up for a cosmic dance party.
The Crystal Method perform from 10:30 pm to 11:30 pm at the indoor stage known as the Portal, where air conditioning helps fans beat the heat. Partner Ken Jordan retired from music in 2017, leaving Scott Kirkland to go it alone. But Kirkland’s still dropping the tight beats, and the 360-degree wraparound visuals in the room help raise the dance party vibe. The A-Lot outside is still rather steamy as midnight nears. But it’s also got a mystical enchanted forest vibe with attractive eye candy from installations featuring a unicorn pegasus, exotic angel dancers, and other decorative scenery that makes it feel a bit like stepping into Alice’s Wonderland.
The vibe goes higher as soon as STS9 hits the stage. Old school jams like “Kamuy” and “F. Word” find the quintet dialed in early on, with the signature polyrhythmic percussion of drummer Zach Velmer and percussionist Jeffree Lerner sounding tight. “Dusk” has something of a spooky vibe until STS9 execute a buttery smooth transition into the classic fan favorite “Tap In”. Bassist Alana Rocklin is spotlighted here as she lays down the song’s signature low end while Area 15 falls into an uplifting trance dance groove. Keyboardist David Phipps adds some crisp piano lines to elevate the sound, while guitarist Hunter Brown plays spacey psychedelic melodies as STS9’s renowned sonic alchemy takes deeper effect.
The heat doesn’t seem to affect Zach Velmer, who has long seemed like a superhuman being due to his sensational talent for drumming with impressive speed and powerful intensity. Could Velmer himself be a starseed sent from another galaxy to assist humanity’s musical evolution? Or a terrestrial mutant with extra powers of endurance and agility like in The X-Men? Such speculations have floated around throughout the band’s illustrious career of more than 25 years.
“Glogli” catalyzes a sublime desert dance party to conclude the first set in style. It’s one of those tunes that epitomizes the collective skill of these tone scientists, with swirling layers of melody blending over the infectious groove for a stellar journey through time and space. The second set finds STS9 laying into heavy riffs on “Menacer”, a tune with a dynamic jam as it shifts from a minor key to a triumphant major key groove where Phipps’ piano lines generate an uplifting wave of euphoria. The seminal “Moonsocket” takes a minute to get into gear, but the audience is soon taken for a ride to outer space, with Hunter Brown’s nimble riffs powering the big groove that helped launch STS9 with one of their earliest jam vehicles.
“Modular” soars like it could be a soundtrack tune for a Rebel Alliance mission against the Empire, with some tight cowbell action and the dazzling interplay between Lerner, Phipps, and Brown. “The Rabble” ends the set with a trippy funky vibe, where one can imagine an alien who shapeshifted into a human form like the Roswell survivor in Steven Spielberg’s 2002-03 Taken miniseries, then caught a ride to Vegas where he’s trying to figure out how to pursue that old fashioned American Dream.
Night Two – Saturday, July 1 – Maddy O’Neal Blasts Off at Area 15
Rest and relaxation are surely the main activity for most Area 15 attendees in the 100-plus degree afternoon. But there’s a good crowd on hand when Maddy O’Neal hits the A-Lot stage at 10:30 pm. Known for blending dirty low-end frequencies into soulfully psychedelic soundscapes, O’Neal has been rising as a self-taught producer and DJ in the electronic scene. Her second album even features a track with guest appearances from STS9’s Alana Rocklin and Eric Benny Bloom from Lettuce (on “Affected” from 2022’s Ricochet.)
“I always love a good STS9 party! These guys are so great about curating the right vibes pertaining to the lineup and overall experience. I’ve been doing events with them for about eight years now, and they’ve always been such amazing supporters of what I’m doing,” O’Neal told PopMatters of her background with STS9.
It all makes sense now as it quickly becomes apparent that O’Neal’s set has been curated with groovy good vibes in mind. Many DJs just stand there twisting knobs and dials, but O’Neal is one of the party people as she gets down while throwing down the jams. Her new release focuses on the positive vibes with a lead single titled “Free Yourself” from the forthcoming EP Mind Over Matter. “The track offers our unique perspective on the UK garage style while introducing the EP’s central theme: a freedom of mentality,” O’Neal said in a press release regarding the collaboration with Sofasound. The cathartic song has an upbeat vibe for emancipating oneself from mental slavery, as does O’Neal’s entire set here as she lets the good times roll with an impressively sustained feel-good energy level.
The friendly crowd is really amped up now, with the only hint of bad vibes coming from some complaints about overzealous security. Some fans probably thought the rise of legal cannabis in Nevada meant Vegas clubs would be more laid back like San Francisco or Denver now, but that is apparently not the case (nor much of a surprise for long-time visitors to Las Vegas.) The beer selection isn’t great, although Golden Road’s Mango Cart ale provides a solid choice for the desert heat with its 3.2 percent ABV.
STS9 – Night Two
STS9 open on a cosmic level with “Lift You Up”, which starts with what sounds like a woman calling in a UFO sighting to local authorities. They soon gets more jammy on “Grow”, and the quintet’s chemistry is what’s growing here, with Jeffree Lerner’s percussion elevating Zach Velmer’s groovy beats to a higher level. Then David Phipps comes in with some happening piano lines while Hunter Browns weaves the guitar melodies behind him as the music seems to play the band. The tightly syncopated groove of “Be Nice” keeps Area 15 rocking nicely with another fan favorite before upping the ante still higher with the anthemic “EHM”. The tight syncopations and mystical tones crank the energy level in an ongoing tribute to author John Perkins’ insightful 2004 expose, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
The second set opener, “Blu Mood”, lights up Area 15, with the guitar and keyboard melodies acting almost like additional percussion instruments as the band dials in a tremendous collective groove. The energy seems to dip during “Scheme”, until the song’s second half surges into a deeper territory that ignites the dance party to a higher level again. STS9 keep feeding dilithium crystals into their warp drive engine as a peak moment occurs on “What Is Love”. Lerner is going off on the intro jam before a shift into a more melodic section as Brown’s infectious guitar melodies seem to summon angels and aliens from Orion here to Area 15. “Poseidon” mixes things up with a mystical mid-tempo foray before a big jam on “Rent” concludes the set with an energetic romp. Encoring with the rare “Be Pulse” hits the sweet spot, with the tune’s mystical vibe putting a fitting coda on the Secret Garden weekend.