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Carrie Underwood, Usher, Raiders band top Vegas awards in 2021

Updated January 5, 2022 - 9:15 am

For the Vegas entertainment scene, the year 2021 was a little like a combo wrap of 2019 and 2020. For a brief burst in the summer, life blossomed back to normal. But as the year closes, it’s back to tracking COVID surge statistics, masking, vaxing, even avoiding crowds, feeling a lot like 2020.

We are at once entering the unknown and familiar as 2022 arrives. The Go-Go’s just canceled their New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day shows, moving to Feb. 11-12. “Magic Mike Live” at Sahara just ended a brief pause Sunday because of a COVID outbreak in its show. The Chippendales show at the Rio is due back Wednesday after abruptly going dark last week. This, too, was a COVID-enforced pause.

But 2021 does close with most of the city’s busy entertainment schedule returning, full force. We return, then, to the Kats! Awards, shelved in 2020, back now. Some of the highlights as we rest up, mask up and rev up for the new year:

Best New Aquatic Effect

To Carrie Underwood, who arrived at the Theatre at Resorts World with high expectations and elevated hype. She was the first headliner to open the venue after Celine Dion stepped away to deal with health concerns. The closing number, where Underwood winds up soaked as she sings, “There Must Be Something in the Water,” was an instant classic. So was the show.

Best Use of Las Vegas Talent by a Strip Headliner

We can’t give enough credit to Usher for his “Backstory Pass” pre-show at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. His team parked it in its creative partnership with Majestic Repertory Theater and Table 8 Immersive founder Troy Heard, who enlisted such Vegas favorites as Skye Dee Miles and Eric Jordan Young. We even have ex-Olympic track athlete and longtime Caesars Palace dealer Martha Watson as the Den Mother, counting up the money as she extols life lessons.

The result: An amazing piece of recruiting to match a vision built inside a unique venue themed for a superstar headliner’s life story. If that all makes sense. Usher’s concept sure does.

Best Use of Las Vegas Talent by a Professional Sports Franchise

The Raiders entertainment team dug in, hit the scene and installed David Perrico’s Pop Strings as its house band at Allegiant Stadium. The Raiders season has been star-crossed, to put it mildly, but the Perrico call has been on the money. We get chills seeing those fiery Vegas musician rocking The Death Star.

Instrument of the Year

Sting’s battle-scarred, 1957 Fender Precision Bass, in full flourish at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Best Show to Contemplate

I spent more thought time on “An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Concert” than any show in 2021. Aside from the obvious pronoun challenge (is the computer-generated figure a she, or an it? We go with “she”), the Houston hologram production is a curious crisscross of experiences. She can’t hear you cheer and clap, but nods back to the band and audience. Fans shout to her “Go, girl! as if really interacting with the late superstar.

The figure is pushed back on the stage, too far from the crowd to appreciate visually and too distant for any real emotional connection (this is concern is being addressed in the show’s down time, and the show is being re-choreographed). But the music is superb, the live band and dancers bring real-life energy. It’s just, where do we stop with these holograms? Will we see a hologram magician, hologram Cirque-style show, holograms of departed comedians? A hologram performance of “Legends in Concert?” Will someone be sued if they develop, say, a hologram Motown show starring the Temptations?

As I said, extensive contemplation about this show. But hey, the show is unique, no doubt, and fans love hologram Houston, including those dancing in the aisles of both shows I’ve seen.

Best Shots-N-Shades Show

To the ageless Sammy Hagar. He rocked in the 1970s. He’s rocking in his 70s. The “Sammy Hagar & Friends” show was such a party that even Grateful Dead legend Bob Weir needed to show up. Hagar’s show is an inspiration. Plug it in turn it loose at The Strat Theater in ‘22.

Best Place to Have Your Mind Blown

Area15. Pick yer portal, including The Portal and also OmegaMart, Wink World, Museum Fiasco. The new burlesque show, “Rated Red” was a Friday night force beginning in the fall before braking this month. It should be back in 2022. The vibe is instilled by such great creative forces as Winston Fisher, Michael Beneville, Kimberly Beneville and Chris Wink, all of whom get Vegas. Wonderful food from our friend, the star chef Todd English at The Beast, too, and we actually took in “Rated Red” the same night English and his entourage saw it for the first time. This means, of course, it’s a Cool Hang, too.

Sighting of the Year

Mayor Carolyn Goodman, ex-Mayor (and new ZZ Top fan) Oscar Goodman, and Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel at ZZ Top’s show at The Venetian Theater in October. The Goodmans met Gibbons at Oscar Goodman’s dinner talk at Oscar’s Steakhouse in June. Only where? In Vegas, is where.

The Din Award

For uncommonly loud response, to Trisha Yearwood, as she was introduced by Garth Brooks at Brooks’ concert at Allegiant Stadium.

Mind-Blowing Interview of the Year

Shin Lim’s card trick at the edge of the stage at Mirage Theater knocked me silly. He tore the corner from a card I’d picked (a 10 of spades) and made it vanish six inches in front of my face. Then he asked me to stand. There it was. I’d been sitting on it. This guy is scary.

Luminous New Nightclub Effect Award

To the Mothership floating light system at Zouk Nightclub at Resorts World Las Vegas. This thing is impossible not to watch. It holds a kind of human quality. I envision a person hiding inside that aerial effect, aiming lasers at groovers around the club. This has replaced CO2 party cannons as my favorite nightlife party effect.

Reopening Property & Venue Hype Award

To the Palms, and its Pearl Concert Theater. The hotel, and signature entertainment venue, have been dark for so long we’ve nearly forgotten their collective appeal. Nothing that a solid Styx show, or visit to Scotch 80s, couldn’t remedy. We have faith in column fave and incoming GM Cynthia Kiser Murphey to instill a new buzz, even if it means a head-shaving event (an inside reference there).

Most Magical New Tome

David Copperfield’s “History of Magic” unveils the legendary illusionist’s most inspirational magic figures (hint, Mandrake ain’t in it). The 272-page hardbound book also reveals his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts. My favorite fun fact about the 40,000-square-foot former warehouse is it was once home to the Nevada Nuts and Bolts factory, which actually housed the nuts and bolts used for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. Copperfield purchased the parcel in 1991. Eight years earlier, he made the statue vanish on national TV.

Indestructible Icon Award

Michael Jackson remains a hit, in spite of every opportunity for the public to reject his legacy. Cirque’s “Michael Jackson One” returned to Mandalay Bay in August, “MJ Live” is moving from The Strat to Tropicana Theater, and is still a strong draw. And, “M.J. The Evolution” has just this week surpassed 130 shows at Mosaic On the Strip.

All-Time Anthem Honors

Guitar legend and Journey co-founder Neal Schon’s virtuosity brought the chills during his national-anthem rendition at Allegiant Stadium before the Bears-Raiders game Oct. 10. And Nazim Chambi, who plays Jimi Hendrix in the great “27” show at 24 Oxford at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, summoned Hendrix’s Woodstock performance at the Aviators’ season-ending home game against the Oklahoma City Dodgers on Sept. 27.

Guitar Pick Flick of the Year

Vegas rocker Frankie Sidoris, who sent his pick about 50 yards as he was introduced by Wolfgang Van Halen during the Mammoth WVH set in July at Allegiant Stadium. The band opened for Guns N’ Roses, and was thus the first rock band to ever play the stadium.

Most Deserved New Building Wrap

To Penn & Teller, who will look fresh once more on the side of the Rio in about a month. The dingy image of the guys is being peeled off. The duo has been depicted on the Masquerade Tower since 2008. You get that honor when you carry a resort. And related, P&T’s residency at the hotel turns 21 on Jan. 5.

Entertainment Phenomenon of the Year

Drag. It’s all over the map, and also the bingo card, from the Flamingo hit “Ru Paul’s Drag Race Live!” to Edie Entertainer’s “Faaabulous” revue at Notoriety Live (the only all-live singing drag show in Vegas), to Drag Queen Charity Bingo Night on Wednesdays at Tommy Rocker’s Mojave Beach club.

The Magic Dragone Award

To Franco Dragone, partnering with Criss Angel in Dragone’s re-entry to the Vegas entertainment scene. Their “Amystika” immersive, interactive production at Angel’s “Mindfreak” theater at Planet Hollywood has been pushed to March 11 from its original Dec. 27 opening date.“Amystika” promises adventurous, unique special effects (an in-house tornado and an actual firestorm) and aggressive stunts. The project is set up as a prequel to Angel’s “Mindfreak” production, though it is staged at 10 p.m. after Angel’s 7 p.m. show (these are separate tickets, with “Amystika” starting at $69 and “Mindfreak” at $79). We expect Dragone has other tricks up his sleeve, too, having conceived “O,” “Mystere” and Dion’s original “A New Day …” With that collective lineage, “Amystika” will will not be a benign experience.

Twin Tappers Hall of Fame

Charter members, Sean and John Scott of “Absinthe.” Wow, just wow, for all time.

Golden Guitar Award

To Carlos Santana, who plays a gold-flaked PRS guitar at House of Blues.

Chance Meeting Award

To EDM superstar Steve Aoki and magician superstar Teller, who sat next to each other on a five-hour flight from Newark to Vegas this month — realizing this only as they departed. The two had never met.

Early ‘Shroom Award

Katy Perry’s “Play” at the Theatre at Resorts World Las Vegas looks like a total trip. We have a talking commode, soldiers brandishing oversize combs while wearing knapsacks filled with giant crayons, and walkie-talkies dancing with an alarm clock. The show opens, as will your mind, on Wednesday night.

Headlining Power Couple Award

Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani are not done with VegasVille. She did close her “Just a Girl” residency at Zappos Theater in November. But Shelton has announced plans for his Ole Red Las Vegas country-music haven to take over Grand Bazaar Shops on the Strip in 2023. This leads to opportunity for one or both to perform in some capacity at a Caesars Entertainment venue (Colosseum and Zappos Theater), and for Shelton to occasionally play Ole Red. We would endorse all of it.

What Works In Vegas Award

How about stand-up comedy? We have Aces of Comedy at the Mirage, flourishing after a decade with such stars as Ray Romano, David Spade, Wayne Brady, Iliza Shlesinger and George Lopez. The bolstered headliner series at Encore Theater is led in January by Sebastian Maniscalco, who fills arenas (though he’s pushed back his arena touring schedule for COVID), and in 2022 is set to feature Whitney Cummings, Tom Papa, Jim Gaffigan, Trevor Noah and Demetri Martin.

On the club scene, Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club has a groovy new location at MGM Grand, across from Emeril’s Fish House. Laugh Factory at the Trop chugs along, headed up by Harry Basil, brings topflight comedy led by legendary impressionist Rich Little, recurring headliner Jon Lovitz and indefatigable magician Murray Sawchuck. Plaza has found a niche for its showroom with The Comedy Works, with Pauly Palooza starring Pauly Shore on Thursday, and Doug Stanhope again filling the the place on NYE. Noam Dworman’s Comedy Cellar has weathered myriad challenges to remain hopping at the Rio. Wiseguys has been humming along in the Arts District, with scant fanfare. Don Barnhart’s Delirious Comedy Club at Downtown Grand and L.A. Comedy Club at The Strat were at the head of the original pandemic reopening, dating to 2020.

All we need to really fill out the lineup is the return of Jimmy Kimmel’s Comedy Club at Linq Promenade, where the answer for nearly two years has been, “We plan to reopen.”

The No Dress Code Award

To “Naked Boys Singing” and “Puppetry of the Penis,” which alternates show times at Jewel Box Theatre at the Erotic Heritage Museum. They are both fully nude, comedy revues (“Naked Boys” from the New York musical of the same name). And congrats to Robert Ryan, who co-stars in BOTH shows. He says he can handle it.

Illumination Award

“iLuminate” at The Strat Theater, which went dark (figuratively and in fact) to rewrite the show. This week and weekend, due to strong ticket sales, the show is adding a 2 p.m. Wednesday performance. This is in addition to the regular 10 p.m. shows Wednesday and Thursday; and 8 p.m. shows Saturday, Sunday and Monday. A nod to Miral Kotb for the flexibility, and for keeping her Las Vegas show alight.

Stage Rush of the Year

Comic Jo Koy scrambled to the spotlight during “The After Party” starring Joey Fatone, Wanya Morris, Nick Carter and AJ McLean. Koy was taking selfies at the front of the stage at The Venetian’s Summit Showroom when he burst into the show. Morris later said the entire thing was unscripted. It looked like any of the guys — especially Fatone — was going to commit a roughing-the-comedian penalty. All in good fun, of course.

Mighty Off-Strip Production Awards

Some shows you might not know much about, but should: “Soul of Motown” R&B revue has built a solid following at Westgate Cabaret. “Late Night Magic” and “BurlesQ” have run consistently through COVID at Alexis Park. Ace mentalist Vinny Grosso is performing six days a week at Notoriety Live. All are worth a look-see.

Righteous Homage to Vegas Iconography

Brian Newman’s “After Dark” show at NoMad Library has bridged the divide between his home in Brooklyn (which, I understand, already has a bridge) and the Strip. Newman, a vastly talented trumpet player and singer, brings a Louis Prima energy along with showgirls and a rotation of guest entertainers (Sawchuck and the men of “Magic Mike Live” most recently). Newman’s his wife, former Miss Exotic World champion Angie Pontani, performs burlesque numbers, to great response. Newman’s backing band routinely destroys the place. Look for more late-night dates from him, and his assorted performers, in 2022.

Model Efforts of 2021

Mick Jagger posed in front of the Neon Museum, along Fremont Street Experience and at Red Rock Canyon the day before the Rolling Stones played Allegiant Stadium in November. Incoming Theatre at Resorts World headliner Michael Bublé picked the Neon Boneyard as the backdrop for the cover shot of his upcoming album (he teased Monday to a Jan. 15 release).

Kats! Bureau of the Year

Tough contest, but Circa Sports Book wins it for the visit in November. I hung with co-owner Derek Stevens; his wife, Nicole; daughter, Whitney (on her birthday); Vegas Golden Knights broadcaster Shane Hnidy; and ex-NHL player Craig Muni, who played from 1982-1998 and won three Stanley Cubs with Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. Great time, and I broke even.

Groovers Awards

The tandems of Derek Hough and Hayley Erbert in “No Limit” at Summit Showroom. And Sarah LeClare and Alejandro Domingo, most recently in “This Is Christmas,” at Palazzo Theater. It’s an impressive, lithe-and-glide experience with this group.

Keytar Couple of the Year

Otto Ehling and Chandra Meibalane both play Roland-branded keytars. Ehling breaks his out with Perrico and the Raiders House Band (he opted for a keytar in black, rather than original red). Meibalane plays hers while backing Shania Twain at Zappos Theater, where her primary instrument is fiddle. These two are engaged, proving once more the keytar is the tie that binds.

Mystique Award

Delilah at Wynn Las Vegas. Slammed, consistently and for good reason, with fabulous food and live entertainment headed up by music director/bassist Ryan Cross. This hang is like ambling into a movie set in 1927. Just terrific. Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Doja Cat, The Kid Laroi and 50 Cent are among the unbilled stars to play the place. Savannah Lynx, Noybel Gorgoy, Christina Amato and Rockie Brown are among the Vegas vocalists to grace the club.

Comeback of the Year (Venue)

The Smith Center. After sitting latent for more than a year and a half, Reynolds Hall, Myron’s and even Troesh Studio Theater have been doing pre-COVID levels after Frankie Moreno lit it up the place in September.

Comeback of the Year (Entertainer)

Kelly Clinton-Holmes spent nine months fighting off COVID and its after-effects. In July, she took on “The Sit In,” a Thursday night variety-show residency at The Nevada Room at Commercial Center. The show has sold out 13 consecutive performances, or every show, since her return. Other than that, no big thing.

Vegas Newcomer Award

Shore. He moved here sometime recently. Either 18 months or 18 days ago. But the comic actor has been everywhere, including Delirious, Notoriety Live, Laugh Factory and Wiseguys. He is comedy royalty, an attention magnet and sometimes fashion statement. A confident front man, too, for his Crustys rock-cover band. Catch that act at the new Sand Dollar Downtown at Plaza in 2022. At least, we are sending that to the universe.

Cool Hang Alerts

We ran it hard through 2021: The list is as boundless as Zowie Bowie’s energy at Fremont Street Experience, one of the many Cool Hang Alerts of the past year. We press on, honoring Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns on Mondays at the Copa Room at Bootlegger Bistro; Clint Holmes; Bill Fayne; Earl Turner; Bootlegger’s dining-room lineup, every night; Skye Dee Miles on Fridays and Saturdays at the Shag Room at Virgin Hotel Las Vegas; Mondays Dark starring Mark Shunock at The Space; the Showroom and lounge lineup at Italian American Club; The Nevada Room/Vegas Room; up-and-coming hang Star Piano Lounge, with pianist/MD Chris Lash at the helm; Piazza Lounge at Tuscany Suites’ nightly no-cover entertainment, anchored by Kenny Davidsen on Fridays; Don’t Tell Mama, nightly at Neonopolis; the blossoming lineup at Stirling Club at Turnberry Place; Motown Extreme at Notoriety Live; NPerson at Westgate’s International Bar; Cork & Thorn’s lineup of Alli Starr’s ’80s show on Tuesdays, reggae on Wednesdays, spoken-word on Fridays, Starr again on Saturdays, and Sunday 90’s hip-hop brunches; Franky Perez, Bucky Heard with John Wedemeyer, Original Chaos, Michael Grimm, the Lon Bronson Band, Michelle Johnson, Lisa Marie Smith, Anne Martinez, Elisa Fiorillo, The Moonshiners, Kelly Vohnn, Lannie Counts, Jassen Allen, Eric Sean, Christine Shebeck, Chris Jason with Joelle Righetti-Jenson, Sarah Hester Ross, Nieve Malandra, Jennifer Lier, Angelina Alexon, Tyriq Johnson’s Serpentine Fire, Ashley Fuller, Laura Wright, Ruby Lewis, Phoenix, Hannah Brady, Sandy Knights, Krystal Goddard, Michelle Rohl-Justice, Jonathan Karrant, Chadwick Johnson, Lou Gazzara, Mark OToole, John Anthony as Rod Stewart, Christina Shaw, Cassie Stone Justin Shandor, Toscha Comeaux Chase Brown, the Windjammers, Brody Dolyniuk’s Symphonic Rock Show with Nina DiGregorio’s Femmes of Rock, Craig Canter, Joey Melotti, … As someone once said, every one’s a winner, baby, (that’s all right). In all instances, click to the Google Lounge for definitive details.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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