We landed at Trudeau International Airport in Montreal at 8:30 on October 1st. I was speaking at and attending the International Smart Cities and Sports Summit. After a quick meal at a local restaurant, we retired. The television was on at 1:30 AM-EST, when I picked up the first hint of problems in Las Vegas. As most news, it developed slowly with a report of two dead at the Rt. 91 Harvest Music Festival. Not much more for an hour. I fell back asleep and awoke again at 5:30, to the realization of what really happened. At that time, it was 50 dead. All four days in Montreal we saw what happened here, through the eyes of CNN.
It’s been a month since my last blog. I wasn’t at Route 91. Those I knew who were there, escaped unharmed, physically. But, the images of that night and the aftermath dampened my appetite to write about live music. What people have not heard, is how quickly this festival developed into what it is today.
In 2013, MGM built the Las Vegas Village on a 15-acre parking lot across from Luxor on the south Strip. The Village has a stage and 12,000 square feet of field turf in front of it; on each side stage are eight triple- decker VIP suites seating 125. On October 3-5, 2014, Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival launched. The festival was the brainchild of Chris Baldizan, senior vice president of entertainment at MGM Resorts and Brian O’Connell who runs a division of Live Nation that stages country music concerts. The festival was named for the original US highway that ran between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The foundation of the festival is “The Village”.
The festival runs 10 hours a day. In its first year, the festival drew 15,000 a day. Year two, 2015, with Florida Georgia Line, Tim McGraw, and Keith Urban headlining, it sold out its capacity of 25,000 per night. Ditto in 2016, with Luke Bryan, Toby Keith, and Brad Paisley headlining. Sunday, October 1st, should have been a round of high fives for its third consecutive sellout. Instead, it marred the lives of the 22,000 that were there.
We are all looking for answers to the senseless massacres that plague our country. However, without the resolve to break through the political obstacles that allow the sale of repeat weapons, we will be left with plans to ensure safety at all outdoor events. So, where do we go from here.
I don’t know about elsewhere, but the plan in Vegas will be swift and thorough. Route 91, like all the festivals here, had an exceptional plan to secure 22,000 fans. It however, did not account for a madman that concocted a massacre that required weaponry with repeat, 400-yard range capabilities. In the future, it will.
Route 91 will be back. 45,000 runners will run the strip at the Rock ‘N Roll Marathon, November 12th and 300,000 revelers will be there New Years Eve.
It’s rocking! The Who, Steely Dan, Van Morrison and now Joe Bonamassa. I have seen Clapton, Van Halen, Richards but none had the energy and precision and then the knock-down, drag-out solos like the performance I saw October 22nd. “Joe Bonamassa is one of the most technically proficient guitarists in the world,” says Rolling Stone. I couldn’t agree more.
-Bonamassa’s parents owned a guitar store where he started playing when he was four. At age eight, he opened for B.B. King and at age 12, he was playing regularly around upstate New York. He hooked up with the band Bloodline before releasing his first solo; A New Day Yesterday. Demonstrating his diversity, in 2013 he released a live CD/DVD set called An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House and followed it up in 2014 with he and Beth Hart, Live in Amsterdam, my favorite concert DVD.
Bonnamassa puts on a killer live show which has allowed him to build a passionate fan base. “Truth be told, my whole career has been based on underground support and a cult following and I’m fine with my fans, because that means we a have real solid foundation, says Bonamassa. I have nothing but foundation. All of my bricks are bricks, there are no compromising points. As long as you keep your eye on the ball, do a quality show, and put out a quality record, those things stay with you.”
With no video and a clean stage, the show focused 100 percent on the music. He has no hit songs, so his performance included cuts from his new album, Blues of Desperation, past songs and covers.
“This Train” and “Mountain Climbing”, the first two songs from his new album, are a pair of bare-knuckled blues-rockers that evoked not only Stevie Ray Vaughan, but bands like Mountain and Led Zeppelin.
Behind him was a dream band, with Reese Wynans (of SRV’s Double Trouble) on keys, the legendary Anton Fig (of the Letterman band and much, much more) on drums, veteran bassist Michael Rhodes, trumpeter Lee Thornburg, saxophonist Paulie Cerra and two soulful backup singers from Australia in Jade MacRae and Juanita Tippins.
Bonamassa’s sound is tight, clean, and thick. A good sounding show requires an acoustically sound venue, a good sound man and artists that know its limitations. All three were hitting on all cylinders. The show filled up every corner of the Colosseum. The separation of sound was absurdly good. Each member of the eight-piece band came in clear from the whistle tones of the soprano to the foundational bass. Bonamassa’s raw display of skill, builds tension as he repeats the same lick dozens of times and each song featured at least one extended guitar solo.
He does not do a lot of talking, but was proud of the light purple suite he bought at the Forum Shops.
The encore was ‘Hummingbird, a BB King track that set up a series of grandstanding solos. For the number, he wore an Evel Knievel motorcycle helmet. The audience was on its feet. Any reticence during the earlier part of the show was long gone. The gig ended with spiraling solos, big brass sweeps, soaring backing vocals, pumping bass and swirling Hammond organ. A performer at the peak of his powers.
My choices for my 2nd concert of August was either Australian Pink Floyd at Joint or YES at Smith Center. I saw APF last year, so I opted for YES. The August 31st show was the first time I’d seen them since April 24th, 1984. They were the fifth concert at TMC, so I really did not see much of them.
Over the years, YES has played a dozen different Vegas venues. In fact, YESFestival, including Carl Palmer (ELP) and Todd Rundgren played the same week at the Joint.
Smith Center is the most refined concert experience in Vegas. It opened in downtown Las Vegas’ 61-acre Symphony Park on March 10, 2012. The 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall features stunning balconies, a dramatic stage, and a full orchestra pit. Most venues on the Strip have carpeted aisles. The Smith Center has a reflective surface to create a more live room. The incredible acoustics and sound were immediately noticeable.
The older audience did not have all their phones out recording memories, but those that did, had their film time managed by the friendly ushers. The sound from the show followed you everywhere; even the restrooms.
YES is “symphonic rock”. No song was shorter than eight minutes and the twelve they did averaged ten minutes a piece. At seventy-two, Jon Anderson has great range with his voice and was enthusiastic with the crowd. His unique voice and delivery coupled with the stunning guitar mastery of Rabin possessed elements of the transcendental. Trevor Rabin, uber-guitarist from Yes’ 1980’s mega-stardom, was firing on all cylinders. During “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, Wakeman and Rabin wandered up and down the aisles like latter day minstrels chugging out on a portable synth and guitar.
Wakeman was surrounded by an impressive fortress of keyboards, all of which he used at one point or another during the night. He delivered an astounding performance that was amazingly on point and consistent across the night. He played close to flawless, and brought incredible energy to the stage, swaying and dancing to the music, alternating a variety of accessories, including his signature tambourine, acoustic guitar, bells and even a harp during “Awaken.” The rhythm section was also solid, with drummer Louis Molino III and bassist Lee Pomeroy adding expert performances as well as additional voices that helped complete the thick wall of vocal harmonies. Pomeroy, in particular, had the biggest shoes to fill, playing Squire’s classic parts who died in June, 2015.
YES played 12 songs in two hours. (That’s ten minutes a song).
I used many books, videos and magazines for background research for Rock Vegas. The following is an excerpt from Rock Vegas and a review of the five set DVD: History of Rock n’ Roll.
History of Rock and Roll-Excerpt from Rock Vegas
In the late 1940s, expressions of faith and hope bellowed out of the churches in the South, as gospel was transformed into the blues. Rock ’n’ roll and almost all forms of live music today were, according to Quincy Jones, “bred from Africa to the black church to gospel, which turned into blues, jazz, and country music. It cross pollinates and that’s the way it ought to be.”
From the energy coming out of the churches, blues artists such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf spawned riffs that were mimicked and interpreted by generations of guitarists to come. Ray Manzarek of the Doors said, “If it hadn’t been for black Americans, we’d be doing the minuet and dancing on our tippy toes.”
In the mid-’40s, black artists were not only relegated to playing to their own, but getting a record published was as likely as landing a white-collar job. Their music, ragged, crude, and explicit, couldn’t get anywhere near the radio. A few record companies determined everything contemporary-music lovers heard on their phonographs:
In the early ’50s, a disc jockey, Alan Freed, began playing rhythm and blues by black artists on WJW in Cleveland and popularizing the phrase “rock and roll” that he’d coined to describe the music. Freed also promoted what’s considered the first-ever rock concert, which took place in Cleveland in 1952.
San Francisco broadened and popularized the bohemian lifestyle when it hosted the first “hippies.”
Two major factors contributed to the explosion of what we now know as a “live music.” In the ’60s, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy left a hole in the heart of the youth of America. Rock and politics were suddenly colliding. If not for politics, rock might not have made it out of the ’60s and if not for rock, there wouldn’t have been a “Sixties.” The seismic growth of this music was a direct result of a rebellious counterculture of Baby Boomers being introduced to an invasion of musicians who were part of an evolving system to present themselves, live, to the masses.
“There always were pockets of people in our society seeking alternative lifestyles,” legendary San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham said. “In the ’60s, the funnel opened wide. People may have rejected the status quo before, but the difference this time was in sheer numbers. The vehicle was music. And millions of young people got on the bandwagon.”
On July 5, 1968, Graham opened the 1,200-seat Fillmore West Auditorium, where he broke such acts as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company with Janis Joplin,
But the live-music train was building a head of steam that, initially at least, left Graham behind. In 1969, Woodstock was more than a pivotal event for the counterculture; it also demonstrated that fans would not only tolerate large-scale crowds, but the enormity of a concert could be part of the experience. Graham didn’t see it that way.
“A couple of geniuses put on something called the Woodstock Festival. It was a tragedy. Groups recognized that they could go into larger cattle markets, play less time, and make more dollars. What they’ve done is to destroy the rock industry.”
But after Woodstock, things changed quickly. In the business, managers and agents looked for ways to get their acts regular work via a national network of promoters who, in time, created a live-touring industry. And the free-spirited hippie movement, embodied by the Summer of Love, took a dark turn with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the shockingly brutal murders of Sharon Tate and four friends by Charles Manson and a small group of followers, and The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.
Meanwhile, a new wave of auditoriums and arenas were lining up with promoters. Using the newfound power of promotion from FM radio stations, acts were routed through over 100 cities per year. Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Forum hosted a sellout every month for acts like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, The Who, and many others.
And then there was Las Vegas, a live-music anomaly in the desert and hardly even an afterthought for superstar rock acts.
Probably no two contradictory quotes more aptly sum up the impact of Elvis and the transition from the margin to the mainstream that he and his music represented.
“Rock ’n’ roll is the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression, lewd, sly, in plain fact dirty—a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac and the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the Earth.”
“There have been many accolades uttered about Elvis’ talent and performances through the years, all of which I agree with wholeheartedly.”
The first quote is from Frank Sinatra in 1956. The second is from Sinatra in 1977.
Serving as an introduction for neophytes and a refresher course for experts, The History of Rock and Roll is a mammoth and, when considered on its own terms, frequently successful undertaking. The series, which was first presented in 1995, consumes some 578 minutes, with 10 episodes (there are no bonus features) spread out over five discs. Its pedigree (executive producers include Quincy Jones, while respected writers Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus are listed as consultants) is impressive, as is its scope, beginning in the pre-rock days of bluesman Muddy Waters and boogie woogie master Louis Jordan and continuing through the death of Kurt Cobain and the birth of the Lollapalooza festival in the mid-1990s. Along the way, dozens of big-name performers (with the notable exception of the Beatles) are on hand to lead us through the story.
On the minus side, the format–clips of musical performances cut short by a parade of talking heads–while typical of the genre, will frustrate those who come for the music alone. Nor is it likely that anyone who studies such things will find much here that hasn’t already been seen. To be sure, there are some terrific moments, like the profile of Bob Dylan (in part 5, “Plugging In”), some cool clips of relatively obscure legends like James Burton and T-Bone Walker (in part 7, “Guitar Heroes”), and rarely seen live bits with Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop (goofing on the Dinah Shore Show in ’77), and many others scattered throughout the set. Part 8, which chronicles the ’70s, is surprisingly compelling (one forgets how many major artists–Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder–came into their own in a decade remembered largely for disco and faceless arena rock), while part 9, “Punk,” is arguably the most entertaining of the lot.
In the end, it’s the lack of complete musical performances that is the set’s Achilles’ heel. Then again, with their appetites whetted here, perhaps viewers will move on to other, more detailed looks at their heroes–beginning with, say, The Beatles Anthology. –Sam Graham
As the stylus hit the grooves of “Dark Side of the Moon” and the first sounds hit my ears, I knew I would be a Pink Floyd fan for life. This was totally different than Deep Purple, Elton John or Led Zeppelin. I didn’t own a stereo like my friends Marantz receiver wired to two Yamaha NS 1000 speakers. Roger Waters bass mixed with the clear separation of sound transformed me from a casual listener to an audiophile junky.
The first two songs of Roger Waters show at T-Mobile Arena focused on the massive video screen behind the airy stage as Waters and his tight six-piece band unleashed Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and “One of These Days.” But what caught my eye, was the enormous production that started behind the stage with HD quality video that stretched the width of the arena and then jutted 150 feet over the floor perpendicular to the stage. I had to find out how this was done.
Jay Cline grew up in Seattle when Nirvana and Pearl Jam were breaking new ground in rock. In 1991, he worked as Technical Director with Legends in Concert and then toured with them for seven years. In 1998, he settled in Vegas and the Hard Rock where he continued to groom his craft in live music production. He continued climbing the venue management ladder at Mandalay Bay and then MGM Grand Garden before reaching the pinnacle at T-Mobile Arena as Executive Director of Event Production. His new selection of stereo systems can weigh 340,000 pounds and put out over 110 decibels of sound. I sat down with Cline to learn how a show like Roger Waters works.
Load-in started at 4AM with a layout of the floor. From 5-8AM riggers were busy preparing to hang 240,000 pounds of sound and lights. Riggers no longer climb from the ground. At T-Mobile, they do it from the ceiling where a sophisticated web of catwalks are built-in. At Grand Garden, Cline didn’t even have one credible load in dock. At T-Mobile, he has six. He needs them.
At 8AM, 150 stagehands began assembling lighting that was already rigged to trusses and massive speaker cabinets from one of the 26 trucks.
Everything is rolling into the arena. To rig the massive concerts today, everything needs to be on rollers. By 3:00 they were rolling the stage under the sound and lights. Sound check was at six o’clock, which included over a dozen students that were performing from local schools. By seven doors were swinging open.
There are four unique pieces of Waters production. Speaker clusters were rigged from the back top of the arena, behind the crowd. When the six-piece band launched into songs like “Money”, you felt like you were in a home theater as sound circled the arena.
Stunning projection screens lowered from the ceiling and ran the length of the arena floor. One of the songs imaged smoke stacks depicting England’s Battersea Power Station in the initial backdrop, as lead singer Jonathon Wilson sang lean vocals on “Dogs” while David Kilminster uncorked a throbbing guitar solo.
The standard Floyd goliath inflatable pig – stamped with “Piggy Bank of War” – took an aerial tour of the arena around the ten video screens
While the “Pig” is monstrous, it is no more than the blimp you see at sporting events. It is operated by remote control.
To create the pyramid, four towers were erected that housed the laser effects.
The Us+Them tour integrated the strongest political message of any rock show I have seen. The crowd mostly cheered as images depicting a grimacing Trump on a baby’s body and as a tiny toy for Vladimir Putin to command lit up the massive screens. Words including “charade” and “joker” flashed as that regular co-star at any Waters show,
US+THEM Playlist-June 16-T-Mobile Arena-Do yourself a favor and watch any one of the videos
Rock Vegas Nation will be a website and regular blog. In addition, I will stay active on twitter and FB. Collectively, I will continue the Vegas live music stories. I am sure there are more stories; yours! Follow along.
Seems bold, doesn’t it… Rock Vegas Nation? Well believe me, there is no master plan to challenge the .com icons. Rock Vegas Nation is a result of Rock Vegas which was the winner of a dozen names considered for the book.
My first choice for the title of the book was “Vegas Comes Alive”. I was told people wouldn’t get the correlation to Frampton Comes Alive. Guy Hobbs liked “Rockin’ Vegas” (that was close). Tony Bonnici named it Rocking Sin City and Linda Crane wanted Sin City Music Revolution. I like Rock Vegas!
But, Rock Vegas’ domain was not available. My daughter, digital media expert, Danielle suggested Rock Vegas Nation. That was available! Other daughter, Nicole (marketing expert), designed and built the web site. Together they created the Vegas Rock Nation platform. This is a fans site.
If you have not read Rock Vegas, here is a bit more about the book. If you have, you will appreciate the sequel “Rock Vegas Nation”.
As recently as the early ’90s, Las Vegas was considered a place where headlining Rock and Roll bands went to die. Despite its reputation as the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” the city was all but devoid of major touring acts, as the paradoxically conservative instincts of the casino bosses and city fathers made it difficult for cutting-edge bands, especially rock ’n’ rollers, to gain a foothold.
Then the floodgates opened.
In less than three decades, Las Vegas has evolved into the top live music destination in the world. How did it happen? How did Vegas make the transition from Frank and Dean, Wayne and Engelbert, and the Folies Bergère to a city with more than 500,000 seats for live-music events that draw more than three million fans annually, 75% of them from outside Nevada?
In Rock Vegas, the spotlight is on the live music industry and circumstances that made this revolution possible, emphasis on the behind-the-scenes innovation that started Vegas rockin’ and opened the door for the greatest live-music explosion in American-entertainment history. It was my goal to not just write a book about how the Las Vegas’ live music scene evolved, but to provide a vehicle to educate event management professionals on how all these apply to every market.
I spent three and a half years writing Rock Vegas, conducting over one hundred interviews, reading over hundred books and viewing fifty videos. My focus is telling the fan from Vegas or interested live music visitors, the stories behind how all this happened. In addition to over four dozen stories about the characters who built the Las Vegas live music business, the book covers live music history including ticketing, crowd management, production, music distribution and the business of live music.
Stay tuned for regular Rock Vegas stories!
Rock Vegas: Live Music Explodes in the Neon Desert is available for purchase at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.