Life Is Beautiful 2015 Brought Weezer, Duran Duran, Stevie Wonder & More To Downtown Vegas

Life Is Beautiful has the makings of a unique festival, the kind that would be tempting to choose over some of the usual suspects (e.g., Coachella or Lollapalooza). It takes place in the city-as-playground of Las Vegas, a place that obviously already has many mechanisms in place for partying and entertainment, because it essentially exists for partying and entertainment; but considering some of your of-the-moment-type artists might make less frequent visits here than, say, Los Angeles or New York, the idea of a new music festival situated here could be an exciting one. Specifically, it takes place in Downtown Las Vegas. Insofar as Vegas has a cool or hip part of town, Downtown would probably be it. You can never really get away from the overwhelming weirdness of this city, but here there are cooler restaurants, and ancient-looking mid-century signs all over. There’s a little more grit, there’s a little more youth.

And Life Is Beautiful takes advantage of all of that, situating its main entrance within sight of the Fremont Street Experience walkway that cuts between old casinos like the Golden Nugget and Binion’s, and just a bit past the trendy bars that line Fremont Street beyond that. In a welcome departure from a festival out in the middle of nowhere or a city festival tucked away in a park or around a stadium or something, Life Is Beautiful shuts down a bunch of blocks Downtown and weaves itself into the city for three days; a few of the stages are basically just in parking lots. For a festival that bills itself (but don’t they all these days?) as also being about art and food and local culture, it’s a great environment. I spent large chunks of time in Vegas in 2013 and 2014, and this was the area where I spent most of my time. It’s a little surreal to see the place set up with a festival spread out amongst it, but it makes the festival feel like a part of this city — it could be out in the middle of the desert or something; instead it molds itself with some of the most likable parts of town, and feels like a truly urban festival.

Right now, though, the setting is still the best part of Life Is Beautiful, in spite of the hundred-degree temperatures that persisted the whole weekend. As with most festivals of a certain size these days, the lineup was a little all over the place. There was some good stuff mixed in there, even if it was the kind of good stuff you could find at several other festivals this year. Royal Blood’s distorted bass and drum assault was the exact sort of thunder needed to wake up audiences in the stifling heat of the festival’s second afternoon. Weezer did their thing exceptionally well, offering up a festival set lined with all the massive riffs and massive hits. (Also, Rivers Cuomo is currently sporting a beard that makes him look like Walter White in exile toward the end of Breaking Bad.) Future Islands and Run The Jewels — two artists who are such constant gladiators on the festival circuit that I now feel as if I’ve been following them both on tour this year — showed up and leveled the place like they always do. At this point, I really try to see other artists when they conflict with Run The Jewels. I really do. But it’s like a biological response; as soon as RTJ’s set time approaches, I find myself at their stage. (This time around, that meant I actually missed something pretty notable in Brandon Flowers bringing the Killers onstage for a bunch of songs during what was nominally a solo set. This was a tough one, because Flowers’ new record is one of the best things he’s ever been involved in and, even without being the biggest Killers fan, I have to imagine that seeing them do “All These Things That I’ve Done” was one of the peaks of the weekend.)

Life Is Beautiful has always been anchored by hometown heroes — the Killers headlined its first year, and (ugh) Imagine Dragons played that year as well as headlining Saturday night this time around. But in terms of hometown heroes, the best and most exciting is Shamir, and it’s not close. Shamir might’ve been playing to a smaller crowd (which seemingly had a bunch of old friends of his in it) in a mid-evening slot, but the energy of the material off his debut, Ratchet — one of the year’s best albums — is exactly the kind of elastic, effervescent stuff that weaves amongst the old signs and lights of downtown, and plays off it all so well. He wore a Baywatch T-shirt and walked around the stage smoking a cigarette during the rising synth crescendoes of set-closer “Head In The Clouds,” continuing to look like a star in the making.

CREDIT: Mallory Turner

But beyond that stuff, the lineup became something indistinct, composed of just a few too many up-and-coming names to anchor a festival, and way too many middling, anonymous rock-pop bands of some sort or another, and blights like Hozier and the aforementioned Imagine Dragons. Suddenly, the kinds of bands that always seem to be everywhere — think Metric, think Best Coast — went from the sort of band you’d see on a lineup and think, “Yeah, it’d be cool to catch a few songs of theirs in between other stuff,” and turned into something approaching highlights. It’s still a young festival, so hopefully Life Is Beautiful’s stature can continue to grow so that it can more consistently achieve lineups like last year’s, where the quantity of exciting artists matched the excitement of having a festival in such a unique city and such a unique space.

One thing that has to be said for this year, though, is it had a pretty idiosyncratic set of headliners. Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, and Imagine Dragons were the top of the bill, but right below them were Duran Duran, whom I’m going to consider the real Saturday night headliner. Stevie Wonder is, as you’d expect, the kind of guy who walks onstage and just has an effect on a crowd; legends are like that. Kendrick, meanwhile, is one of the most ferocious and exhilarating live performers out there, and he always seems to be in take-no-prisoners mode on festival stages.

CREDIT: Mallory Turner

But as much as Kendrick is one of my favorite people to see live, and as much as his conclusion to the weekend was the exact kind of visceral intensity needed at midnight on a Sunday, for me the thing that outshone everything else at Life Is Beautiful was Duran Duran. (I talked to the band’s Nick Rhodes at the festival, and he shared some thoughts on our recent 10 Best Duran Duran Songs list.) It’s been a year of legacy ’80s acts showing up at festivals (OMD at Primavera, Tears For Fears at Bonnaroo, Pet Shop Boys at Flow in Helsinki) and being way better than they have any business being these days. And that is probably truest in the case of Duran Duran. Here they are in their 50s, synth-pop pioneers aging surprisingly gracefully and delivering sets lined with iconic ’80s hits that still have all their power three-decades-plus later. (The new songs actually fit in well, too, considering it was a festival set — “Paper Gods” is an effectively moody and anthemic opener before they break into “Hungry Like The Wolf”; “Pressure Off” sounds like a long-lost minor hit from their heyday.) Of course, if you’ve never seen Duran Duran before and might never wind up seeing them again, you do want to hear the hits. And a current Duran Duran set is a dizzying reminder of just how unstoppable these guys were as a pop force, whether with jams like “Notorious,” “Wild Boys,” and the immortal “The Reflex,” or elegies like “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone.” They hit the end of their set time at the end of “Wild Boys,” and for a second it actually looked like they weren’t going to play “Rio,” their customary closer. They returned for what seemed to be an encore not entirely sanctioned by the festival, and delivered with all the triumph those synth surges deserve; Simon Le Bon belting out the chorus in a voice inhumanly unchanged since his youth. It was in that moment that things clicked at Life Is Beautiful — a band like Duran Duran, who have both seediness and glamour in their DNA, both luridness and shimmering earnestness, echoing out with the lights of Vegas in the backdrop. There are things Life Is Beautiful could do better next year — but in that moment, the promise was there.

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Check out our portrait gallery from Life Is Beautiful 2015, too.