Two literally ‘immersive’ concert venues get it right, but prove hard to copy

Summer’s running out of sand in an entertainment year full of disappointments, so let’s take the buzzword “immersive” to heart and dip a toe in the water at two venues that got it right for a change.

Are you old enough to have been hypnotized by MTV while waiting to see how Han Solo gets out of that carbonite chunk? Maybe you waded up to Mandalay Bay’s beach stage Friday for The Go-Go’s. Or perhaps you’re waiting to Wang Chung with “Lost ’80s Live” on Sept. 10.

The wade-up beach stage offers a unique experience: Seeing The Go-Go’s there — beach music, on a beach — is not like seeing them anywhere else on their farewell tour. Isn’t that what everyone says Las Vegas needs? Especially when Labor Day weekend will mark the end of another show we apparently didn’t, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin at Planet Hollywood.

(Zerdin was said to be doing OK with the usual ticket discounting, but not well enough to match what he is giving up at home in the United Kingdom, where he was well-established before winning “America’s Got Talent.”)

Mandalay Bay Beach has featured summer concerts since the hotel opened in 1999, yet it remains a bit of a sleeper. Darren Davis, who oversees entertainment for Mandalay Bay, says locals still tell him it’s either their first visit, or they had forgotten how much fun it is.

Maybe you’d rather work that swimsuit to “Na Na.” Trey Songz is a rotating headliner at Drai’s Beachclub, part of Drai’s Las Vegas atop the Cromwell. He’s back there Sept. 3 for an indoor show at Drai’s Nightclub and an afternoon one the next day at Drai’s Beachclub.

Drai’s is a bit of a sleeper venue as well. Even after more than a year, it’s a chore to explain what it is they do there, and why it’s fairly unique.

It’s a nightclub, yes, and you have to wait until 1:30 or 2 a.m. if you want to see stars such as Travis Scott or Big Sean. But if you do, you see full sets in concert format, not just a couple of songs.

“We’re lucky enough to be positioned into that kind of small box where pop culture and millennials get together,” says Drai’s executive Michael Gruber, casually dropping the M-word that makes casino executives swoon like a Southern belle fanning her way to a fainting couch.

But it’s true. The head-scratcher in the casino industry is how to stem the nightclubs’ drain of young dollars from ticketed concerts and shows. Drai’s took a sideways approach by blending formal entertainment into its night/day club setting.

Other clubs still rely more on celebrity “appearances,” where a big name will, as Gruber says, “jump up on something and maybe lip-sync a song or two and fool the audience into thinking they’re going to get a performance from that artist tonight. That’s the old and some of the current (model) in the nightclub business. It’s a scam and the reality is that’s still in the market.”

Club “appearances,” or “track dates,” are so much the norm the Drai’s Live imprint still isn’t that well-defined. The club’s own advertising for the Sept. 4 “Tropical Sundaze” says it will be “hosted” by Songz even though he is doing a full set. (That’s because he will indeed take the mic to host throughout the day before his set, a club rep says.)

And since hip-hop is as much a producer’s medium as a performer’s, the Drai’s sets running 45 minutes to an hour can help the likes of Future or The Weeknd make the jump to full-fledged performer.

“Right now hip-hop is pop. That’s kind of pop culture,” Gruber says. But hip-hop comes with challenges in making it play to live audiences. The Weeknd “grew onstage,” Gilbert says. “He got better over the 10 times he performed (at Drai’s).”

Big Sean and T.I. bring a band and backup singers. Chris Brown is “probably the most amazing dancer since Michael Jackson,” so he brings backup dancers instead of a band. But they all offer more performance value than simply rapping over a track.

Las Vegas is a town where an innovation is always followed by imitation, so it seems odd that no one has taken a direct run at either Mandalay Bay Beach or Drai’s. One explanation? You have to plan ahead.

“We have the only environment in the (club) market that is set up for a performance,” Gruber says. Drai’s is laid out “much more like a rectangle, and the (sound system) isn’t all EDM but sound made for a band. … To duplicate what we do, somebody would have to build what we have, and that’s almost impossible.”

And back at Mandalay Bay, someone also knew what they were doing in the design phase of the beach stage. Poolside shows at the Hard Rock Hotel are clearly retrofits with sightline issues. The Cosmopolitan has limited space on its rooftop, requiring the pool to be covered for bigger shows.

“It’s been a venerable model,” Davis says of the Mandalay Bay stage that will host 21 shows by the time it gets cold this year. “We’ve managed to hold our own,” he adds, in a market where competition comes and goes depending on “how many competitors are over-buying talent.”

Bands such as Sublime or 311 — performing with fireworks on the July 4 weekend — have made the beach an annual tradition. If they want to come back, so do we.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford @reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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