Las Vegas — FINALLY, this is a great weekend to be a rock snob in Vegas, thanks to the Vegoose festival. Today's offerings include chances to see the sort of critically acclaimed bands like Spoon, the Arcade Fire and Sleater-Kinney that traditionally pass right on by the Entertainment Capital of the World.
"There is really this kind of indie rock circuit that we've done, and it takes you from L.A. to Phoenix and then you start heading to the Midwest," says Corin Tucker, Sleater-Kinney guitarist and vocalist. So in more than a decade of recording and touring, her Washington state punk band has never played here before today's show at Sam Boyd Stadium. "There hasn't been a venue in Las Vegas that has been appropriate for us over the years. There really hasn't been an audience."
"Artsy bands don't do well here," is the blunt assessment of AJ Gross, who has been involved in promoting a wide range of concerts, from Willie Nelson to Snoop, at venues on and off the Strip over the last decade.
But that may be changing. Max McAndrew, the talent buyer for House of Blues in Las Vegas, which is among the venues hosting Vegoose's shows, thinks so. HOB, in Mandalay Bay, for a time was the only venue to offer alternative music on the Strip. "The town has really become more a point on bands' West Coast routing over the past three years. We seem to finally have some momentum in terms in indie rock artists," McAndrew says.
Tucker, pondering Sleater-Kinney's Las Vegas debut in the festival promoted by AC Entertainment and Superfly Presents, who are best known for the annual Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, suggests: "I think that it will be really interesting to take the indie rock scene and put it inside Las Vegas. It will be really kind of bizarre to see how it all comes together."
Bizarre, yes; and complicated, like many things here.
For instance, the Empire Ballroom, featuring private booths and VIP bottle service, held its grand opening celebrations last weekend starting with a show by punk stalwarts Bad Religion. Just before going onstage, singer Greg Graffin fretted about the entire experience, especially the $35 ticket price and that no one under 21 was allowed into the club.
"I'm worried about that," Graffin says. "One of the things that still makes us viable is that the people that are excluded from this show still turn up in droves to see Bad Religion. I can't overstate that this is not a typical Bad Religion show."
So what has changed in Las Vegas these past few years? Graffin's simple explanation: "The demographic who will pay for a rock show is getting older."
For that very reason, this is a golden era for the sort of classic rock bands that once would have lost credibility by being associated with Las Vegas. After all, their boomer audience is here now and wants to see them. The curse of fat Elvis seems finally to have lifted, and no one worries anymore about the stigma of going Vegas. Among the last famous holdouts was Bruce Springsteen, who finally debuted at the MGM in 2000.
For '70s acts of all stripes, now seems to be the time to cash in on Vegas. Last week Aerosmith released "Rockin' the Joint: Live at the Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas"; earlier this month, hard as it is to believe, the New York Dolls played a private party at Tao in the Venetian. Also, consider that Elton John's "The Red Piano" is the most expensive production show ticket in town, beating not only all of the Cirque shows but even his hostess at Caesars, Celine Dion. Next month, Grandmaster Flash officially becomes one of the resident DJs at Pure (Caesars Palace) and Tangerine (Treasure Island).
Not that every '70s icon can score here now. When Lou Reed finally debuted in Vegas in 2003, the godfather of punk had probably not faced anything like us since his days in the Velvet Underground. Sales were so terrible that Hard Rock employees went table to table in Mr. Lucky's, the casino's cafe, offering free tickets and attempting to sing a few bars of "Walk on the Wild Side" to lure oblivious customers. Maybe they should have tried "I Love You Suzanne"? Neither was a song his Louness chose to play that night.
At the time, Reed's most recent original work was "The Raven," a two-disc sleeping pill interpreting the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe. Reed wound up storming offstage when the crowd refused to be attentive to a new song and would not return to play until the Hard Rock closed the back bar. My guess is that Uncle Lou will not be invited back.
While Vegas may finally be cool again, it's never going to be a place for the cooler-than-thou.