Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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Special: Life is Beautiful Festival Recap

I just got back from the third annual Life is Beautiful festival in Downtown Las Vegas and couldn't wait to share some of the things I saw, heard, and tasted. It really is a fantastic event from a bunch of different perspectives. Of course you have great music, abundant food and drink, cool art, and inspirational speakers but it's all done without a lot of the typical festival drawbacks. Everything ran on time (or close to it); there were plenty of portable toilets and they were kept tidy; the lines were long at some of the bars but not outrageously long; and the crowd was mellow, happy, and having a great time. The festival really lives up to its name.

It's held in Downtown Las Vegas, covering about a dozen blocks of the Fremont East Entertainment District including with Fremont and 7th acting as the main entrance and spreading north and east from there.

This includes the Downtown Container Park and its signature fire breathing praying mantis sculpture.

There were four music venues - the big Downtown stage head all the big acts; the Huntridge stage had a lot of rock and up and coming bands; the Ambassador stage had an eclectic mix of artists; and the Troubadour was an enclosed hangar-like space showcasing EDM DJs and acts.

In between there were several "culinary villages" with food from local restaurants including Hash House a Go Go, Itsy Bitsy Ramen & Whiskey, Culinary Dropout, and about two dozen more plus food trucks scattered here and there. This is where you could also find the plentiful bars serving everything from craft beers to wine to champagne to hard liquor.

Sponsor experiences included special bars from Jack Daniels and Ketel One, a party tent from Toyota where several bands including Duran Duran made appearances, a 7-Up branded EDM viewing platform, and more. And of course everywhere you looked was art - giant murals on the sides of buildings, random sculptures, art cars (including one shaped like a boombox), and funky gallery spaces. It's a good thing the festival has expanded to three days because you need that much time to see it all.

I visited on Friday evening and most of Saturday. The festival at night is quite a visual feast with LED lights in the trees, a flashing Ferris wheel, and spotlights reaching up into the Vegas sky.

But sunset was pretty cool also:

I'll get to the music and the food eventually but I want to start with the art, which was odd, fun, and sometimes silly - a bus with a family of rats on the side, a giant inflatable octopus coming out of a building, and a box truck with babbling brook and forest scene created inside.

The centerpiece is the Art Motel, an old Vegas motor lodge that was converted into gallery spaces in the former rooms and performance art stages in the former parking lot.

The individual galleries were creative, thought-provoking, and sometimes just downright weird. One was done a submarine complete with periscopes and portholes (even though submarines don't have portholes, but whatever - it's art). Another had 80s video games splashed with black light paint. One was done as a nice living room only sideways - the wall was the floor and the floor was the wall.

Another thing that sets the festival apart is the Learning series. Several dozen speakers from the worlds of business, sports, entertainment, charity, and public service gave lectures and presentations about how they interpreted the concept of "Life is Beautiful." I caught a little bit of Bill Nye the Science Guy being very Bill Nye in all the best possible ways and Kina McAllister, a 24-year-old who created a company called StemBox, which aims to get young girls interested and engaged in science and math. The highlight for me was the appearance by actor Justin Baldoni, best known for his role as Rafael on Jane the Virgin. In addition to his acting work he also runs a production company that produces documentaries including one, My Last Days that became the most-watched digital documentary series in history. It's about people who are leading and living incredible, inspirational, and edifying lives despite the fact that they are dying. He turned over a big chunk of his time to one of the people featured in the documentary, Claire Wineland, an 18-year-old living with Cystic Fibrosis, and she spoke so passionately, eloquently, and intelligently about living your best possible life that I immediately felt like I had accomplished nothing. Then she fixed that by stressing that no one's life is better or worse, we should embrace the good and the bad, and to achieve the life you want you have to appreciate the life you have. Cool young woman and a cool guy for giving her the stage.

In terms of food, there was a wide variety of offerings including lots of veggie and vegan options but I was lured to the dark side by some of the festival's really-bad-for-you items such as a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich from Honey Salt:

Fried bacon mac and cheese with a chipotle ranch dipping sauce from Truffles and Bacon Cafe:

A mashed potato bacon slider from Hash House a Go Go:

Chicken teriyaki from Itsy Bitsy Ramen and Whiskey, which I forgot to get a picture of because I was too busy devouring it, and the festival winner: bacon wrapped smoked BBQ meatballs from Pot Liquor BBQ:

The main draw is, of course, the music. There were more than 60 bands and artists with the big names including Stevie Wonder, Duran Duran, Imagine Dragons, Kendrick Lamar, Hozier, Snoop Dogg, Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer, and Major Lazer.

I caught all or parts of about a dozen different sets. Stevie Wonder played Friday night and was as amazing as you would hope Stevie Wonder would be. Even at 65, he sounds fantastic and had the huge crowd at the Downtown stage dancing for the better part of two hours.

Duran Duran mainly stuck to their classic hits but managed to sneak in a couple tracks from their new album. Hozier sang "Take Me to Church," which is of course the only song by Hozier that I know - still, entertaining. I had never heard of the group Big Data but they were fun in a rocking kind of way. Local DJ group Miics had the crowd in the Troubadour arena bouncing up and down pretty much non-stop. I tried to go catch some of the Snoop Dogg set but the clouds of pot smoke drove me back.

My favorite by far though was Clean Bandit. You probably know who they are - they one massive hit in the US (so far) with "Rather Be" featuring Jess Glynne and have done well with their follow-ups "Real Love" and "Stronger." The group consists of classically trained string players who mix evocative violin and cello arrangements with upbeat dance music. I can't get enough and neither could the rest of the crowd.

One of the coolest things about the festival is that many of the music artists do special fan appearances in small, personal venues. Duran Duran did a Q&A at the Toyota tent and I got to be a total geek and get a picture with Clean Bandit at Cafe Bustelo.

But the entertainment was not limited to the main stages and sponsor tents. Witness the drum group on the sidewalk:

And the pop-up performance from Absinthe in front of the Downtown Container Park:

There was even a flash mob just inside the main entrance (and in various other places I overheard):

Put Life is Beautiful 2016 on your calendar for next September - it's an experience you don't want to miss.