As the sun set on October 27, 2013, Ezra Koenig, the lead singer and guitarist for New York-based alternative band Vampire Weekend, looked out to an audience of about 30,000 fans at Sixth Street and Stewart Avenue in Downtown Las Vegas and made an observation. The stage he was standing on was built just a few days prior. The surrounding asphalt had sat derelict for years. Downtown Las Vegas, said Koenig, located just two miles north of the famously fabulous Las Vegas Strip, was an area that he didn’t know existed.
Koenig and his bandmates had toured Las Vegas several times before but had never been Downtown until that night, when they played the inaugural Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival.
Life is Beautiful started as a two-day endeavor held in late October. It was ambitious, to say the least, launching a festival spanning 15 blocks in the near-forgotten Fremont East entertainment district. Life Is Beautiful’s multisensory programming, which encompasses not just music but world-class art, a learning series and culinary experiences would influence emerging festivals such as San Diego’s KAABOO and mainstays like Indio Valley’s Coachella in the years to come.
In its first two years, Life is Beautiful began a transformation of Downtown Las Vegas. Festival organizers and art curators JustKids commissioned world-renowned street artists such as D*Face, Zio Ziegler and Bicicleta Sem Freio to refresh the walls of worn down buildings with custom murals that remained after the festival. Downtown Las Vegas, (a.k.a. DTLV) started garnering comparisons to the Wynwood arts district of Miami. Performances by artists such as Outkast, Kanye West, Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters and more during those first two Octobers drew thousands to the area, many of them for the first time. Unlike music festivals in other cities, attendees could even watch routines from Cirque du Soleil on the main stages, something that’s only possible in Las Vegas.
But 2015 marked the start of a new chapter for Life Is Beautiful. Attendance nearly doubled from 2014, as 131,000 people converged in Downtown Las Vegas from September 25–27. With the new dates came the winds of change—ushering in experiences that Las Vegas—and the broader music festival landscape—had never seen before.
Life Is Beautiful unveiled the Art Motel in 2015, a precursor to pop-up installations such as the Museum of Ice Cream (2016) and 29Rooms (2017). More than 100 local and international artists (including Metal Rebel, a mural-painting robot designed by UNLV’s robotics team) converted the site of the former Town Lodge Motel into a multisensory funhouse of interactive exhibits. Before the arts collective Meow Wolf opened its now famous multimedia “amusement park” in its home base of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2016, a dozen of its artists reimagined four of 15 “motel” rooms at Seventh Street and Stewart Avenue. Just down the block, “Mobile Garden,” an awe-inspiring work from street artist Banksy’s 2013 New York City residency Better in Than Out, made its Las Vegas debut.
Much like the art, the festival’s learning and culinary programs reached new heights in 2015. Actress Rosario Dawson, entrepreneur Kimbal Musk and television icon Bill Nye were among 30 speakers drawing lines and tilting ears toward innovation. Star chefs including Hubert Keller, Duff Goldman and Rick Moonen offered VIP guests the culinary experience of a lifetime— an opportunity to sample their exquisite dishes after the chefs hand-prepared them in live demonstrations. All throughout the footprint, culinary dreams were realized as dozens of the country’s best restaurants served a tantalizing array of items that could only be assembled in Las Vegas.
Ask a music lover their favorite moment of the year and it’s likely to be a toss-up. How could you choose between witnessing Stevie Wonder sing late into the night, losing yourself to the unstoppable force of rapper Kendrick Lamar or welling up with pride watching Las Vegas’ own Imagine Dragons—who, just years earlier, were playing dive bars a few blocks away—headline the Downtown Stage? (Thankfully, you didn’t actually have to choose, as they all played different nights.) Let us not forget that a scheduled performance by Brandon Flowers turned into a surprise Killers reunion set!
After a breakout year in 2015, it seemed the world was starting to take notice of the little festival that could. Headlines began to reflect what attendees had already seen for themselves. “Over three years, the festival has transformed the face of Las Vegas,” wrote Vice. “While most events claiming to be ‘music and art festivals’ are limited to a couple of sculptures for high kids to gawk at, Life Is Beautiful is the real deal … transform[ing] Downtown Las Vegas into an open-air gallery.”
In 2016, Life Is Beautiful was set to stun once again. “When we announced the lineup in May, we got more likes and shares that first day than we got the three previous years combined on Facebook or social media sites,” Craig Nyman, head of music and live performances, told Billboard.com. It wasn’t hard to see why people were so excited. That year boasted the first Las Vegas performance by Mumford & Sons since 2011, the only 2016 North American tour date by The Shins and the Las Vegas debut of The Lumineers, Leon Bridges and more. And that was just the music lineup.
Year 4 introduced completely new components to the Life Is Beautiful experience: live comedy and a curated gallery show, Crime on Canvas. Among those bringing the laughs were Todd Glass, Eddie Pepitone, Byron Bowers and Emily Heller, who have collectively appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Late Night With Seth Meyers and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Canvas was the first in-festival show of its kind, featuring works from 80 national and local artists including Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd, grunge royalty Frances Bean Cobain and activist/illustrator Shepard Fairey (who also painted his mural, “Be a Maker Not a Taker,” that year on Sixth Street).
That same year, the Big Rig Jig—a gravity-defying feat created for Burning Man 2007 by L.A.’s Mike Ross—arrived in the lot of Fergusons Motel, returning to the States after exhibition at Banksy’s U.K Dismaland “bemusement park” in 2015. Local soul singer Sabriel (who performed at Life Is Beautiful in 2013 and 2014) made a surprise appearance as a guest vocalist during Gryffin’s DJ set. The learning series sprawled out from its previous indoor venues to the main festival stages as activist and Emmy Award winner RuPaul Charles engaged hundreds of fans. Life Is Beautiful’s fourth year marked a true coming-of-age for the festival.
“Life is Beautiful is prospering in Year 4 and breathing new life into Downtown Las Vegas,” Billboard.com wrote in 2016. Attendance that year hit a new record of nearly 138,000 people, bringing an estimated $43.6 million to the local economy. Variety called it “among the fastest-growing festivals in America.” And in April 2017, Life Is Beautiful was awarded its biggest recognition yet: Pollstar’s 2016 Music Festival of the Year.
For the first time, a limited number of passes to Life Is Beautiful were sold— and sold out—before the 2017 lineup was even announced. Years 1 through 4 had imprinted incredible memories on the hearts and minds of attendees, who told their friends to tell a friend or two about the “ best comeback kid in Sin City—Downtown Las Vegas,” according to The Huffington Post (and, probably, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig).
On the heels of 2016’s wild success, Life Is Beautiful made history once again. In winter 2017, organizers and JustKids commissioned two 21-story murals on the side of the Plaza Hotel & Casino. D*Face’s “Behind Closed Doors” and Shepard Fairey’s “Cultivate Harmony” (a third mural, by Brooklyn-based duo Faile, was added in September) spurred a new wave of national attention.
Fittingly, the festival returned for its fifth year bigger than ever. Megastars Chance the Rapper, Muse and Gorrilaz took to the main stages, as well as every speaker on the learning lineup. Talks from inspirational singer-songwriter Rachel Platten, YouTube sensation Bethany Mota and festival veteran Bill Nye were simply too outstanding to be contained indoors.
The popular Art Motel grew to 23 rooms curated by the now viral Meow Wolf. The striking lightning-bolt mural created by Argentine-Spanish artist Felipe Pantone for the 2016 festival was outfitted to become “the first 100 percent sustainable, solar-powered mural.”
Much like the glow of Pantone’s electrify art, the sights and sounds of Life Is Beautiful linger long after the last confetti cannon pops. The couple who kissed for the first time after volunteering all day, the friends who reunited under the warmth of an LED “blanket” installation, the fans who cried a little and danced a lot watching Chance the Rapper—they’re what makes three days in Downtown Las Vegas more than just a “music and arts festival,” but a feeling that impacts you all year long. The impossible feels possible. The negative doesn’t feel so bad anymore. And the good feels so much better.
Ready to feel it, too? We’ll see you in September.