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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
November 4, 2013
Life is Beautiful Recap
I have to admit that I was not expecting much. The Life is Beautiful Festival was aiming to be one of the largest urban street festivals in history, spread across 15 blocks of Downtown Las Vegas, with more than 60 bands and music acts on multiple stages, dozens of food vendors and live cooking demonstrations, art displays and interactive art exhibits, a lecture series, live theater performances, and even carnival rides. That's hard enough when you've been doing it for years but this was the inaugural event and I was kind of dreading going to it, thinking there was no way it was going to go well.
I am happy to admit when I'm wrong and in this case I was totally wrong.
The Life is Beautiful Festival drew an estimated 62,000 people to Downtown Las Vegas across two days and by all accounts, including mine, nearly everything went off without a hitch. Getting in and out was a breeze, events and performances all started on time or very close to on time, if there were more than 2 or 3 people in front of you in a line for food or beer that was an aberration, and there were so many bathrooms that I never saw a line at all. The execution was darned-near flawless and it reflected well with the crowd who seemed to have an almost blissful "life is beautiful" attitude about everything.
There were a few minor arrests (mainly for drunken stupidity type stuff) and when winds kicked up on Sunday afternoon the entrance had to be relocated due to a fallen pole, but those were the only incidents reported. The only thing I saw involved the copious amounts of trash on night one that made the streets look like garbage barges but that was all cleaned up by the start of day two and they had extra waste containers and staff on board to manage it all day long.
Parking was also reported to be a bit of a pain and/or expensive but I got there early on both days and found a free spot on the street within a couple of blocks of the main entrance.
Really the only major drawback was that there was simply too much to do and see and not enough time to do or see it all.
There was lots of food and I mean lots of it. More than 50 restaurants and food vendors set up shop including local favorites and out-of-town specialties. I sampled a fried chicken sandwich from Honey Salt, a local restaurant on the west side of town; a BBQ pork sausage with spicy Cajun mustard from Butcher out of New Orleans; meatballs from Bratalian, an Italian cucina in nearby Henderson run by Carla Pellegrino; a traditional Bulgarian sausage from Bar Forte, a tapas join on the northwest side of town; a roasted pig sandwich with sweet chile slaw from 'Wichcraft, the sandwich spot inside the MGM Grand; a contemporary version of the Philly Cheesesteak with white American cheese and caramelized onions from Martorano's at the Rio (and Paris in 2014); and a roasted BBQ pork sandwich from Couchon, a famed BBQ joint in New Orleans. There wasn't a bum note in the bunch and the only thing that bummed me out was not having the eating stamina to sample things from KGB, Nobu, Nacho Daddy, or any of the dozens of other outlets that were offering tempting treats.
I also attended two a live cooking demonstration from Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, otherwise known as TV's Two Hot Tamales and the founders of Border Grill. They started by making mojitos (because they find that doing cooking demonstrations are much more interesting when there is alcohol involved) and then moved on to a seafood paella. I was going to go to the one by Kerry Simon but it got cancelled at the last minute.
For music I attended all or parts of concerts by Family of the Year, Beck, Childish Gambino, Kings of Leon, Living Colour, Janelle Monae, Zedd, and The Killers.
Monae was the most memorable of the bunch, proving why she is such a fast rising star with a set that would have blown the roof off the joint if there had been a roof to blow off. Her fierce funk/soul workout had the crowd going crazy.
Zedd was also an interesting experience to say the least. I'm a huge fan of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) and have seen big name DJs perform at clubs, but I've never been to a festival experience like this one. Seeing thousands upon thousands of people dancing, jumping, and otherwise losing their minds while someone just plays music (instead of making it with instruments) was astounding. I asked a nearby 20-something if this is what the Electric Daisy Carnival was like and she looked at me like I was her grandfather and said, "Times about a bazillion." I totally want to go next year.
Several of the Las Vegas shows got in on the fun by doing numbers from their shows or just getting up and doing stuff. I saw Million Dollar Quartet do some classic rock and roll; Mystère's strength duo and O's contortionist acrobats both performing in the middle of the street; several numbers from Michael Jackson ONE, including the phenomenal animator soloist doing "Human Nature" and the "Smooth Criminal" number complete with the mind-blowing lean; Recycled Percussion banging on stuff; and the Gazillionaire and Penny Pibbets from Absinthe proving that people will do ANYTHING for free stuff. I won't go into too much detail regarding the latter except to say that there was nudity and a particularly disturbing (and hilarious) lap dance involved and leave it at that.
The art installations around the Downtown area were endlessly fascinating. One featured a 3-D mural with the classic paper movie-theater glasses hanging on a fence opposite it so you could get the full effect; another mural literally etched into a wall with industrial sanders; a pop-up park with live art exhibits; and an entire motel converted into a multi-space gallery. They also had hands-on art projects including canvasses being created with a paintball gun and a wall built out of bricks painted by festival-goers.
The lecture series was also a really unique concept. People from the worlds of business, entertainment, sports, medicine, and more got up and talked about what made life beautiful for them. I caught several of them including a panel discussion from multiple creative folks from Cirque du Soleil and a really amazing session with Harry Shum, Jr. of Glee. Shum is predominantly known as a dancer and so he told his life story through motion, a recording of his voice that he "interacted" with, and multi-media photos and video. It was inspired and inspiring as he talked about going from a shy kid who never felt like fit in to someone who found his voice through movement.
The festival organizers have promised that this will become an annual celebration and that next year's event will be even bigger and better. I, for one, plan on being there.
An Early Review of the Downtown Grand
Is the resurgence of Downtown Las Vegas a revolution or an evolution? One look at the Downtown Grand and you may be forgiven for thinking it's a little of both.
The hotel once known as the Lady Luck closed in 2006 with promises from the then owners that it would be reborn within the year as something bigger, brighter, and better. It took more than seven years, and a completely different set of owners and management, to get the old gal back up and running, but it is back in both a familiar and uniquely original package that keeps the good stuff about Downtown and turns the rest on its head.
The property is spread across two blocks of Downtown Las Vegas on either side of 3rd Street between Ogden and Stewart. Just as a point of reference, this is a block north of the Fremont Street Experience and right across the street from the Mob Museum. They call this area Downtown 3rd, just in case you were looking for one more neighborhood moniker to add to your collection.
The main part of the complex is on the east side of 3rd Street and features the casino, a rooftop pool and recreation deck, multiple restaurants and bars, the lobby, a valet parking and porte corchere entrance (on 4th Street), a sundry shop, and one of the two hotel towers. The other tower is located on the west side of 3rd Street, connected by an overhead walkway. That building will have more restaurants and bars and is adjacent to the strip of businesses that includes Hogs and Heifers, Triple George Grill, Pizza Rock restaurant, and more, all of which are considered to be part of both Downtown 3rd and the Downtown Grand ultimately (Triple George, for instance, is listed on the hotel website dining page).
The design is funky retro modern industrial chic, a phrase I just invented to cover the disparate yet wonderfully complimentary decor elements in the public spaces. It's got exposed brick and ductwork, giving it the industrial vibe, plus beautifully done iron and crystal chandeliers adding the chic element. The furnishings have a distinctly "Mad Men" era vibe to them but all done in a contemporary mold. It feels both comfortably yesterday and totally today at the same time, furthering fueling the revolution versus evolution debate.
The casino is small by Strip standards - about 35,000 square-feet - but one of the biggest in Downtown, falling in between Main Street Station and Golden Nugget in terms of floor space. It's basically one big room with a big center bar; lots of slot machines that are mostly of the penny, nickel, and quarter denominations; a handful of gaming tables covering all the basics at low limits; a small sports book; and two small high limit areas, one with about a dozen dollar and above slots and the other with a couple of blackjack tables. It isn't a destination casino in terms of its offerings but it is a really nice place in which to gamble, especially if you are sitting in what has to be the nicest, plushest gaming table chairs in all of Las Vegas.
There are several restaurants right off the casino floor including Stewart + Ogden, a contemporary American diner that serves both classic comfort food and "adventurous" meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Red Mansion, an traditional Hong Kong style Chinese bistro; and The Spread, a deli at the sports book. The Commissary, a new twist on the food court concept, will open in 2014. There are also the aforementioned Pizza Rock and Triple George Grill restaurants along the Downtown 3rd corridor, just steps away from the casino.
In addition to the big bar in the middle of the casino called Furnace, there's also Art Bar just off the lobby, with framed paintings on the ceiling and little exhibits spread around the small room, and a new version of Mob Bar, the popular speakeasy that moved from across the street into the hotel. The Commissary will also have an after dark bar setting complete with a DJ. Yes, the food court will have a DJ at night.
The pool area, branded Picnic, will open in 2014 and is located on the roof atop the casino. In addition to a pool, naturally, there will be a cafe, a bar, grassy areas for lounging (and picnicking, I suppose), fire pits, a DJ, and room for concerts and special events like movie screenings.
The rooms come in several different configurations. Deluxe rooms are 350 square feet and feature one or two queen beds, a 40-inch flat screen, high speed Internet, a docking station/alarm clock, and pillow top mattresses. The decor is more of that retro modern funky, done in an eye-searing shade of neon green that doesn't glow in the dark despite its appearance. Premium rooms are done in slightly less shocking red and have 450 square feet, a 46" TV, and slightly larger bathrooms. A variety of suite configurations go up the chain from there.
Prices go as low as $49 per night for the deluxe rooms during the week and $89 on the weekends with premium rooms running about $20 more per night. That's not including the $11 per night resort fee that includes Internet, bottled water, local and toll free calls, morning coffee at one of the restaurants, and a coupon book.
A comfortable package, lots of dining and entertainment options, a low-limit casino, a funky and modern design, a luxurious atmosphere, friendly service, and reasonable prices. Put all that in the proverbial blender and what do you get? Both a revolution and an evolution, I think. I'll have a more in-depth review sometime after the hotel has gotten its legs under it, but my initial reaction is very positive - if I was going to stay Downtown, this is where I'd want to be.
The Downtown Grand
Downtown Las Vegas
3rd and Stewart
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Entertainment News & Notes
There were several big stories out of the Las Vegas entertainment scene this week including the final findings on the death of the performer from KÀ and a nightclub that just got a lot more interesting to me because of its association with Absinthe. But let's start with what must be the weirdest show idea in the history of Las Vegas and I'm including Triumph (the steampunk magic musical) in that assertion.
It's called PANDA! Yes, all caps and with an exclamation mark. It'll be opening in December at the Palazzo and will feature artists from the China National Acrobatic Troupe, kung fu masters from the Shaolin Temple, music, dance, and a giant LED wall that will tell the story of... and I swear I'm not making this up... the heroic quest of LongLong, a warm and caring panda, on an adventurous mission to rescue his beloved Peacock Princess from the malicious Demon Vulture, who has kidnapped her on their wedding day. In the face of desperation, LongLong seeks counsel from Immortal Old Man, who prepares him for the dangerous mission to save his true love.
And Long Long is a guy in a giant, tuxedo wearing panda costume.
My guess is that this is the kind of show that appeals to audiences from Asia but it will need to translate to a decidedly jaded American audience to have any kind of lasting impact on Vegas.
Meanwhile Spiegelworld, the company that produces one of my favorite shows in Vegas, Absinthe, has struck a deal to provide the entertainment for Rose.Rabbit.Lie, the new nightclub/showroom/theater set to open at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas in December. Exactly what they are going to be doing is a bit of a mystery, but it will be called Vegas Nocturne and will involve an immersive (and most likely subversive) experience that won't be performed entirely on a traditional stage. Instead it will spill into, and be directed at times by, the audience turning what would otherwise be another nightclub into interactive performance art.
It sounds weird but nowhere near as weird as PANDA! and I'm such a fan of Absinthe that the whole thing has me completely intrigued.
And finally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has completed their investigation of the tragic accident that claimed the life of a Cirque du Soleil performer in KÀ at the MGM Grand. They found that the incident, in which 31 year old Sarah Guillot-Guyard plunged more than 70 feet to her death during the climactic battle sequence, was partially the fault of the performer and of the equipment. The investigation found that Guillot-Guyard ascended on her rigging to the top of the stage too quickly, causing the wire rope to become dislodged from the housing that held her in place.
MGM Grand and Cirque du Soleil were cited with several, mostly minor, safety violations.
The battle scene, which was removed after the accident, will be reincorporated into the show at some point in the future.
Sorry. I hate ending things on such a down note so let's make fun of PANDA! some more... you go first...
Las Vegas News Roundup
Shooting at Bally's Leaves 1 Dead, 2 Injured
A dispute over a nightclub cover charge ended in a shooting at Bally's that left one person dead and two injured.
The incident reportedly started at about 5:45am on October 21 when 41 year-old Benjamin Frazier of Las Vegas arrived at Drai's After Hours nightclub. According to witnesses Frazier allegedly asked for permission to go in and check out the club before paying the $30 cover charge, which he was allowed to do. Frazier allegedly came out a few minutes later, paid the cover, went inside, and then came back out and demanded his money back. When he was denied a refund, Frazier allegedly pulled a gun and shot the nightclub's manager.
40-year-old Kenneth Brown of Las Vegas apparently tried to jump in to subdue Frazier and wound up getting shot himself. A security guard was also shot during the melee before several other bystanders got involved, wrestled the gun away from Frazier, and kept him detained until police arrived.
The three victims were transported to the hospital where Brown later died. The other two men were expected to recover.
Frazier, who has a long history of criminal activity including a 1997 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, is in custody pending charges of murder, attempted murder, and illegal possession of a firearm.
Caesars Being Investigated for Money Laundering
The IRS has reportedly launched a probe of Caesars Entertainment over the possibility of money laundering at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The bombshell revelation was unveiled when the Treasury Department posted a letter recommending that the state of Massachusetts deny Caesars a license to operate a proposed casino in the state.
The investigation is apparently focusing on big money transactions from high rollers at the Vegas casino. Federal law requires companies to report cash transactions above $10,000.
A company spokesperson says Caesars is cooperating fully with the investigation and believes that it has the necessary safeguards in place to prevent illegal activity in its casinos.
Comments from other government officials indicate that this might not be the only investigation into big cash transactions at casinos.
Casino MonteLago Closes... Again
The small Casino MonteLago at Lake Las Vegas has had a turbulent history. It opened with the MonteLago Village complex in 2003 but struggled financially for years before finally closing in 2010.
It reopend under new ownership and management in 2011 and was then purchased by another company along with the neighboring Ravella hotel (formerly the Ritz-Carlton) in 2012.
The casino has now closed again, victim of a lease dispute between the new owners and the land holders. The hotel, now branded the Hilton Lake Las Vegas, remains open.
The company says it is working on a plan to reopen the casino but isn't putting a timetable to that.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Cowboy Up Award of the Week goes to Garth Brooks, whose November 29 concert at Wynn/Encore will air live on CBS (on the east coast, tape delay on the west). The show will be a version of the fantastic, stripped down acoustic set he did at the hotel for more than two years and was one of the best concerts I ever saw (so set your DVRs).
The Constant Kraving Award of the Week goes to Krave, the gay nightclub that has made a comeback on the Las Vegas Strip at the former Boulevard Theater just north of the MGM Grand. The club was at Planet Hollywood for years but then tried to move Downtown and failed spectacularly. Now under new ownership, the club will run Friday through Sunday nights.
The Kitchen is Closed Award of the Week goes to PJ Clarke's at the Forum Shops, a branch of the New York City eatery that has been in business for roughly 130 years but couldn't even make it for three here in Vegas. It closed suddenly last week with no word on why or what will replace it.
The Made Man Award of the Week goes to the Mob Museum, which will celebrate the anniversary of the Kefauver Committee hearings with free admission for locals and two-for-one admission for out-of-state residents on November 15 from 10am to 8pm. The Kefauver Committee was tasked with uncovering mafia influence in all forms of business and some of the hearings were held in the building that now houses the Mob Museum.
The Just a Jump to the Left Award of the Week goes to Bally's, which is having midnight screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in its Windows Showroom every Friday and Saturday night. Tickets are $15-$20 and guests are encouraged to come in costume and participate.
Show Review: Shania Twain
The story of Shania Twain is certainly worthy of cheers all by itself. The Canadian born Twain's 1997 album Come On Over is the best-selling studio album of all time by any female artist in any genre and is the best-selling country album of all time, moving more than 40 million copies. More hit albums followed and then the singer retreated from the public eye for the better part of a decade after suffering from debilitating stage fright that left her unable to perform.
Her return to singing last year at Caesars Palace was considered a triumph by many standards and now, as she comfortably enters her second year of headlining the big Colosseum there, it appears as if Twain has found her groove.
Unlike some of the other concert spectacles that have run in this room (Celine's first gig, Bette Midler, Cher, and even Elton John to a certain degree), you really should be at least passingly familiar with Twain's music before you consider coming to her show. This is more of a straight-ahead Shania Twain concert than a Vegas-style, a little-something-for-everyone extravaganza.
Don't get me wrong, there are certainly some eye-popping moments including entrances on a flying motorcycle and two different horses at various times. There are sets that range from an old west street scene to a woodsy campfire, all enlivened by the now trademark massive LED screen at the back of the stage. There's even a moment where it snows (confetti) in the theater, a nice effect that isn't quite as cool as the real water-based snow that falls during the Michael Jackson ONE show at Mandalay Bay.
But at the core of it what you have is Shania Twain singing. Most of her big hits are represented here including "That Don't Impress Me Much," "Man I Feel Like a Woman," "Still The One," "Come On Over," and "From This Moment On" to name a few that even non-country fans like myself should be familiar with. She sounds good and sings live throughout although she seems to be relying on her backup singers in some places a little more heavily than she may have when she was out filling arenas and racking up radio hits.
The problem for people like me whose Shania Twain familiarity pretty much ends with the five songs listed above is that Twain's stage presence and the overall production are a little on the bland side. For the bulk of the show she is standing and singing or walking to one side of the stage or the other and singing and then she sits and sings for awhile. The she changes into another beautiful outfit (she looks amazing, by the way), and does that some more. Even her onstage patter is a little bland and feels kind of rehearsed.
It's when she gets off the stage that she really comes alive. Several times she comes down into the audience and sings entire songs while walking up and down the aisles, shaking hands with and hugging fans. She commented that it is her favorite thing to do and it is obvious as her energy and the energy of the entire room went up by about a thousand percent every time she did it. And when she brought up nearly a dozen people to sing with her around that faux campfire, you could tell that this is the concert that Shania Twain really wants to be (and probably should be) doing.
Her audience probably expects arena style spectacle, but I think she and they would be better served with a stripped-down Garth Brooks style show, one that focuses on her down-home charm and connection to the audience as opposed to one that puts up massive graphics and yeehaw sets flying in and out behind her all the time.
If you are a fan of Twain or country music in general, this is absolutely a worthwhile show to see. Twain did not get to be the Queen of Country Pop music for nothing and she still knows how to put on a really good show.