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Arctic Monkeys go big, Oliver Tree gets weird as Life is Beautiful returns

Updated September 17, 2022 - 11:50 pm

OK, so maybe the thin man was laying it on a little thick midway through a 75-minute rock ‘n’ roll striptease that culminated with his chest as bare as his emotions.

“This morning, I woke up in a state,” Cage the Elephant frontman Matt Shultz confessed, an audience of tens of thousands subbing for a therapist’s couch on Friday night. “I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ Life sucks.

“And then I came to this festival,” he continued, “and Life is Beautiful.”

With that, the band launched into wounded ballad “Trouble,” a song about relying on love to get you through the hard times.

“Won’t you pull me through?” Shultz asked in song.

That may seem like a sentiment verging on the saccharine, but it was delivered with honesty and conviction and clearly resonated with the crowd, who sang Shultz’s words back to him.

This kind of feel-good boosterism lies at the heart of the three-day music, food and arts festival in question, which returned to downtown Las Vegas for its ninth year on Friday and exists, according to the mission statement on its website, “to build a more beautiful world.”

That and to, you know, throw a helluva party, right?

Lace your boogie shoes, everyone.

“This is the point in the show where you start shaking those hips,” instructed Josh Lloyd-Watson, singer/multi-instrumentalist for British neo-funk act Jungle, who turned the Downtown Stage into an asphalt discotheque with falsetto harmonies, elephantine bass lines and hang-in-there lyrics that managed to find the silver lining in the end of a relationship, even. (“Are you breaking my heart? / Thanks for making me stronger,” they sang on “Keep Moving.”)

The band was so evocative of the Bee Gees’ vocal stylings that they even segued into a portion of “Staying Alive” just in case you didn’t get the message by that point.

On the Huntridge Stage, pottymouthed pop tart Charli XCX also pined for the past on “1999,” flanked by a pair of dancers who fanned her with peacock plumage on a stage adorned with Greco-Roman pillars.

When she performed “I Love It,” her defiant, middle-fingers-in-the-air hit with Icona Pop, crowd members sang along with throat-taxing vehemence — pass the Sucrets, already, there are two more days left to go here.

This was Charli XCX’s second time playing Life is Beautiful, having also performed during its inaugural run in 2013.

The fest isn’t quite the same as it was then: In February, Rolling Stone magazine bought into the event.

There were some differences this time around: Most notably, it felt like the number of art and interactive attractions had been reduced, and Friday’s attendance didn’t seem as robust as in recent years, when the streets often became a human traffic jam of gridlocked bodies.

There was still a sizable crowd, though, and plenty to see and do.

At 6 p.m., the dance floor was already full in the Western Country Club, where staffers from Stoney’s Rockin’ Country taught festivalgoers how to do country line dances such as “The Wolf” amid neon cacti and bales of hay. If busting moves in cowboy boots wasn’t your thing, you could learn to salsa up the street at the Casa Bacardi Latin dance party at the Place on 7th.

If you were feeling a little blue, you could visit mental health art installation piece the Tree of Affirmations to get — and give — a written pick-me-up, or maybe boost spirits with a free Slurpee at the Silent Disco at the 7-Eleven Brainfreeze Garage or some laughs at the indoor The Kicker Comedy &More venue, where comedian Hannah Einbinder explained how she decided to go vegan for the less-than-noble reasons of sparing the lives of defenseless animals.

“I wanted to reduce my risk of getting cancer without have to give up huffing paint,” she quipped.

There were more laughs — a number of them of the quizzical variety — thanks to Oliver Tree.

The TikTok-abetted singer/rapper/pop-music’s-answer-to Andy Kaufman took to the Bacardi Stage in his signature red shades and tent-sized pants, giving voice to alternately earnest and winkingly facetious songs that ranged from rock to rap, from poignancy to parody.

“I fell down to Earth/From a hundred miles away,” he sang on “Alien Boy,” though actually, Tree was born in Vegas, a city where kitsch can be king if done right — and Tree vied hard for that crown, from his numerous costume changes to having a stagehand come out and brush his sweet blonde mullet.

A few hours later came arguably the day’s most anticipated performance — at least judging by the number of fan check-ins on the Life is Beautiful app — when Brit rockers the Arctic Monkeys headlined the Downtown Stage in their first U.S. performance in four years.

They opened with what could have been a closer, “Do I Wanna Know?” — the band’s first number one single in America — and never let the crowd catch its breath from there, their performance imbued with a sort of off-handed intensity.

Like the best rock ‘n’ roll songbooks, these were tunes that you could dance, fight or seduce to, from a white-knuckle reading of “Brianstorm” to a brick-heavy “Don’t Sit it Down Because I Moved Your Chair” to the cocksure strut of “Arabella,” during which the band sampled a little bit of Black Sabbath.

If Arctic Monkeys lived up to their billing as the biggest draw of the night, their countrymates in Wet Leg also measured up to considerable pre-festival hype.

The British indie rock duo, their lineup fleshed out with a trio of touring musicians on the Huntridge Stage, delivered a cheerfully whimsical, yet commanding performance, guitars needling, melodies floating.

On “Too Late Now” singer/guitarist Rhian Teasdale wrangled with the weight of expectation, the crush of uncertainty, before turning the tables on those who might tell her how she should carry herself, who she should be.

“I just need a bubble bath,” she sang, “to set me on a higher path.”

Or, as this night suggested, all she needed was a stage.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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