A musician. An instrument. An audience. And nothing — no amps, no wah-wah pedals, no electronic gadgetry — in between.
There’s nothing that’s more simple and nothing that’s potentially more powerful. Southern Nevadans can celebrate the aural alchemy of musician and acoustic instrument Saturday when the Vegas Unplugged Music Festival kicks off at the Historic Fifth Street School.
Headlining this year’s show will be international recording artist Martin Nievera. Also scheduled to perform are Opportunity Village’s Roaring Thunder percussion group, Las Vegas indie pop band Avalon Landing, the Bishr Hijazi Arab Ensemble and blues musician PJ Barth.
The all-ages show will begin at 6 p.m. at the Fifth Street School, 401 S. Fourth St. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door, and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com. Food and beverages will be available, and a Washburn guitar will be raffled off during the show.
The Vegas Unplugged Music Festival was founded in 2011 by musicians Mundo Juillerat and Stuart Carter-Smith as a way to celebrate acoustic music and give area acoustic musicians a chance to present their talents to a wider audience than they normally do.
Juillerat is a musician for “Le Reve” and says he makes his living “more as a rock ’n’ roll guitar player.” But his other love is gypsy jazz, and he’s founder of the local gypsy jazz band the Hot Club of Las Vegas.
“The model we both had in mind was to feature Las Vegas’ best indie acts, regardless of genre and instrument, and just ask (performers) to do an unplugged set,” he says.
Saturday’s performance will mark the third edition of the event, and its first at the Fifth Street School.
Vegas Unplugged already has given its audiences some compelling, and not often seen, performances. For instance, Juillerat says, Frankie Moreno, who headlines a show at the Stratosphere, also headlined the first Vegas Unplugged festival and was fantastic.
He laughs. “We couldn’t afford him, but he came down to help us anyway.”
Similarly, audience members this year will hear a rare acoustic set by Nievera, the multiplatinum record-winning singer and songwriter, who, like other scheduled performers, will hew to what Juillerat says can be considered at least the unofficial credo of “Vegas Unplugged.”
“Do your own thing,” Juillerat says. “Just do it acoustically.”
For performers as talented as Nievera, that’s usually no problem. For musicians more accustomed to playing against an electric aural backdrop, an acoustic performance can “take an artist out of their comfort zone,” Juillerat says.
That’s not a bad thing, though. The simplicity of an acoustic performance can be more powerful, more affecting, because of the intimacy it can create between artists and listener.
“It just brings it down to the common denominator, the human element,” Juillerat says. “It’s very organic.
“Also, you can’t hide, as a musician, with acoustic instruments. Most songs are written acoustically. You’re on the piano or acoustic guitar, and really it brings the songs out.”
From the start, the founders’ goal was to make Vegas Unplugged a community-oriented event. Although Juillerat says it’d be great to see the festival expand into a multiday event featuring out-of-town as well as local artists, it’s designed be a grass-roots showcase of local talent for local audiences.
“We know that there’s a place for the corporate festivals in Las Vegas,” he says, and “we’d love for it to be a destination festival. At the same time, we wanted it from the start to be a Las Vegas community festival featuring Las Vegas talent. We want to give back.”
Opportunity Village’s Roaring Thunder percussion troupe played the first Vegas Unplugged. This year, the group returns to open the festival and play another number during it.
Daryll Borges, music mentor at Opportunity Village, says Roaring Thunder does a couple of shows every year, including shows at Opportunity Village events such as the Magical Forest attraction at Christmas. “We’re trying to get more out into the community,” he says, and Vegas Unplugged “is one of the first (events) that has allowed us to be part of a community event. So we’re very grateful for that.”
Roaring Thunder musicians are learning a hard reality of the musician’s life: Before the show, there are rehearsals. Lots and lots of rehearsals.
“It’s funny, because we’re rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing,” Borges says. “I’m (like), ‘I know. I’m sorry, guys, but we’ve got to keep drilling this over and over.’ ”
Juillerat says proceeds from this year’s festival will be donated to Opportunity Village’s fine and performing arts program.
Besides Nievera, this year’s roster includes Avalon Landing, which also played the first Vegas Unplugged.
“In our opinion, they’re Las Vegas’ best indie pop rock group,” Juillerat says. “With all the momentum they have, they’re poised to be the next big thing.”
Also performing Saturday will be the Bishr Hijazi Arab Ensemble, which plays contemporary Arabic music. Juillerat considers Hijazi his favorite local classical guitarist, but acknowledges he didn’t know at first that Hijazi is a Las Vegas hand surgeon.
“I thought he’s like me: He plays guitar professionally, and he does,” Juillerat says. “But he’s a prominent doctor, and he’s going to bring his Arab ensemble.”
PJ Barth, who’s playing on Los Angeles singer-songwriter Beth Hart’s summer tour, will be playing Vegas Unplugged for the third time.
“PJ is a local blues guitarist. He plays with everybody in the blues world,” Juillerat says. “I think he’s fantastic.”
Also fantastic, Juillerat says, has been audience reaction to previous editions of the Vegas Unplugged Music Festival. The only problem, he says, is that “we need to get our work out there more. We always get that backlash: ‘Why didn’t I hear of this? I wish I could have seen Frankie Moreno.’ ”
“I hope that won’t happen this time, (that) ‘I had hoped I could see Martin Nievera.’ ”
But, for those who do get the word in time, “the audience loves it,” Juillerat says. “They love the concept. They embrace it.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at 702-383-0280 or firstname.lastname@example.org.