Neon Dreams: Life is Beautiful 2014

Life is Beautiful is quite possibly the only music-related event I can think of where merely saying that it met my expectations is actually a glowing review.

Having gambled (see what I did there?) on the first year of the festival in October 2013, I was absolutely blown away by the musicians, the food, the setting, and the entire atmosphere of the event. So, after having bought my tickets for this year’s festival before the lineup was even announced, I was expecting the same experience again–and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

Llamas stay for free!

For those unfamiliar, Life is Beautiful is a fledgling music festival based in the heart of Downtown Las Vegas. Except, if you take more than just a passing glance at the festival, you’ll see that it’s so much more than that; it’s about learning, about art and culture, about life, really. The event is all ages, and, overwhelmingly, the attendees are just damn good people. They won’t give you a hard time or steal your stuff, they won’t get sloppy drunk or otherwise woefully incapacitated. They’ll strike up a conversation with you about the Arctic Monkeys as you huddle together for hours making your way to the front. You’ll sing along together as you’re running between stages to catch performances, they’ll strike up a conversation about art as you plop down on a curb to rest your weary bones, they’ll wish you a belated happy birthday as they check your ID and send you on your way with an overpriced but well-worth-it drink.

And that’s why LIB is so near and dear to my heart. Not only does everyone in attendance have music in their veins, but they’re also such genuine people, passionate about so many of the things I love, too: a weekend spent in the desert with good food, unique art, and quality time with family and friends, just sipping a cold drink, soaking up the good vibes and forgetting about the not-so-beautiful things in life for a while. And the atmosphere is infectious, even for the performers; from the smallest stages to the most chaotic show-closers, each and every performance felt intimate, unique, and completely unforgettable.

View from the top (of the Ferris wheel)

I know, I know, I sound like something of a hippie (it’s the adopted Southern Californian in me) and I’m about to out myself as something of a hipster, too: after the magic of last year’s festival (performances by longtime favorite acts like The Killers, Vampire Weekend, Andrew McMahon, Passion Pit and Portugal the Man had me walking on air) I truly was a little wary about the success of the first year leading into a commercialization of the second.

More than a few people were upset when headliners including Kanye West and Outkast were announced for 2014, crying that “life isn’t beautiful” with Kanye, and that Outkast made LIB appear to be so desperately pandering to the Coachella crowd. So I’ll admit, it was with just the slightest bit of hesitation that I packed my bags for Vegas, slapped on my wristband and temporary tattoos, and made the trek down to Fremont Street this past weekend.

Showing some love at Fitz and the Tantrums

But once I passed through the festival gates and into the heart of Downtown Las Vegas, passing by a Life is Beautiful logo emblazoned on the sidewalk with the words “Here you stand in the middle of everything/Do something beautiful,” it all came flooding back, and all was good again. Aside from a few more marquee headliners, and the addition of a Friday lineup to the previously two-day festival, not much seemed to have changed. In fact, I couldn’t believe a year had already passed since I was there last. The stages were configured nearly identically to last year, with the exception of a welcome patch of grass at the Huntridge stage, and the absence of one of the Ferris wheels (tear.)

Since the festival was spread out across three days this year, the bulk of the action happened after dark, and I was just fine with that. Twilight was the magic hour at last year’s fest, with the sun setting low over the red rocks and turning them indigo, but this year was a neon dream. From the lights of the Fremont Street Experience, to the whirling Ferris wheel, to the impressive light shows and omnipresent confetti, balloons and beach balls that inevitably made an appearance at some point in each performance, Life is Beautiful 2014 was lived in technicolor, to be sure.

Despite the lineup skewing less alternative than last year, I was still more than content to sing my lungs out for Arctic Monkeys and Alt-J (far and away my festival favorites,) The Head and the Heart, Broken Bells, Fitz and the Tantrums, Kacey Musgraves, St. Lucia and more. Interestingly enough, I actually found that, though not even a single act I saw was a disappointment, some of the smaller indie bands failed to hold my attention the way they likely would have at a more intimate, indoor venue, whereas artists I would never have paid to see on their own, like Girl Talk and Neon Trees, were rollicking fun.

And this is what I love about music festivals, and Life is Beautiful, in particular; I am able to see artists I would never pay to see individually. To try food I would probably never eat normally. To be exposed to art, and culture, and people and ideas, that I would typically never even see. I was particularly impressed this year by the art gallery set up in Container Park, although, in all honesty, it may have been there last year without me even noticing. Either way, the art inside was weird and wonderful, brash and understated, familiar and foreign, and so distinctly Vegas. For a noir-loving, neon-dreaming, desert-dwelling old soul, it spoke to me, for sure.

The magic hourIf I had one complaint about this year’s festival, it’s that cigarettes, for one reason or another (my guess is the differing crowd demographics from last year) were obnoxiously omnipresent. Living in LA, it’s easy to forget how many people still think smoking is a good idea, but in Vegas, anything goes; in casinos, in hotel lobbies, right in stranger’s faces…sure, why not go ahead and smoke your cigarette! In an ideal world, LIB would ban cigarettes altogether (after all, aren’t they the antithesis of what this festival is all about?) but I’d settle for designated smoking areas next year because honestly, my lungs were not having any of it.

After three days of jumping and fist pumping, of desert sunsets and moonlit nights, of bruises and aching bones and drifting off to sleep happily humming with neon lights burned into my retinas, I felt myself leaving a little piece, or rather another piece, of my heart right there in Downtown Vegas, in that weekend. As I was practically dragged out of the festival with more than a few longing backwards glances Sunday night, as if in a trance, hailing a cab to our hotel and then hopping a flight back to LA, I knew that my reluctance to leave was evidence enough of a weekend well spent, blissfully rediscovering just how beautiful life can be.

All photos and video taken with Samsung Galaxy Note 3.