Las Vegas music scene’s got a full house with Zarfest

In case you missed it, last week, The Wall Street Journal published a piece declaring Las Vegas to be the “New Music Mecca.”

“Las Vegas is fast becoming a major live-music destination,” the pull quote from the print piece proclaims, “from nightclubs to rock ’n’ roll arena shows, rapper residencies, international festivals and a thriving homegrown scene.”

I have no issue with the overall assessment. In fact, I applaud the attention. The nod is obviously well-deserved. Las Vegas lives up to its reputation as the entertainment capital of the world. It’s the fly-by mention of our “thriving homegrown scene” that I have a hard time with.

Yes, I know that’s not the point of the piece. Still, I’d just as soon the parachute passage, a paltry paragraph that mentions the scene, was left out. It feels pandering, the essay would’ve read just as fine without it. Have a look: “Las Vegas’ local scene is also growing. In the past decade Vegas acts the Killers, Panic! At the Disco, Five Finger Death Punch, Imagine Dragons, Jenny Lewis and Shamir have gone national.”

OK, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that acts such as Adelita’s Way, Escape the Fate, Otherwise, Franky Perez and Dizzy Wright were overlooked; it’s a stretch to point to the success of that first group of artists as being even remotely reflective of the scene, much less indicative of its current state.

There’s no question that they’re battle born, but let’s be honest, the Killers and Imagine Dragons play arena-sized shows here, what, once, maybe twice a year between them? Ditto Five Finger Death Punch. Oh, and Jenny Lewis: She hasn’t even lived here since she was a toddler (given the reach, Neon Trees would’ve probably been a more salient act to evoke). The last two performers, meanwhile, live elsewhere these days. Shamir’s in Philadelphia, and Panic! At the Disco frontman Brendon Urie’s in L.A.

Nothing against the writer, but it’s clear the author isn’t from here. I’ve only lived in Vegas a little more than a year now, but I can tell you there’s a lot more to the music scene here than the bold-name bands that everybody recognizes. To be fair, unless you live here, it’s hard to offer anything other than an aerial view. You have to be on the ground to get an accurate perspective.

But even then, it takes time to truly become part of the community. I feel more and more at home here every day. At the same time, though, I also feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of getting to know everybody. I’m still green enough, in fact, that every time I see a new act, I have to do some homework to figure out which are actually new and which have been around for years. But then, connecting all the dots is the fun part.

Likewise, it’s been rewarding getting to know the cast of characters who make up this creative community. I’m not an expert yet, but I’m a far sight more versed than I was this time last year. Back then, I was a novice who knew next to nothing about the scene. Let’s just say, I could’ve penned that paragraph. (Keep in mind, this is coming from somebody who referred to Las Vegas as “Sin City,” a term I’ve never heard anyone who lives here actually use.)

I’ve been having a blast becoming part of the scene, and this past weekend, I added a whole new batch of bands to my list, including Pure Joy, Rabid Young, Special K, Anti-Vision, Bitch ‘N’ Dudes, Still Suit and the Rifleman. I saw the first two at the Bunkhouse on Friday, and they played strong sets. The rest I caught this past Saturday at Zarfest, a full-on festival that took place at a house here in the valley, outside on a small patio and inside in an even smaller living room.

I’m a huge fan of house shows, especially ones like Zarfest. There’s just something about seeing people perform in this context, where there’s no pretension, no pageantry, no preconceptions and no purchase required. It’s just people playing for each other for fun. Zarfest treated me to some of the most memorable performances I’ve seen since I’ve been here.

“This is the one time of the year that all the bands in town, no matter what genre you are, converge into one show and just put on an amazing set,” Alan Madrigal from Anti-Vision told me in between bands. “It’s all the best bands from the pop punk scene, the hardcore scene, the ska scene, the folk scene. And it’s refreshing for us that play almost every weekend here in town, because you’re playing to a brand new audience, you know.

“People that go to the pop punk shows don’t necessarily go to the hardcore of punk shows, but this is the one time of the year that they all just come together,” he added. “Like Mercy Music, to be honest, they should be selling out tours with bigger bands, but they’ll still take the time to play this house show with all these up-and-coming bands. Which is great about it. We have such a fertile scene. There’s so many genres, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Madrigal’s band is one of the ones that blew my doors off. Frontman Brendan Sellers gave it his all and was an absolute madman in the house’s tiny living room. You’d never know the guy used to sing reading the lyrics off a piece of cardboard he taped to the floor. But then he started paying attention to bands such as Trash Talk, and that inspired him to perform with more abandon.

“I remember watching an interview with the lead singer, and he said, ‘If you’re not going crazy, your fans aren’t going to go crazy,’” Sellers explained, recalling the exact moment when he let loose. “I put on this Scooby Doo costume, and I just, like, went nuts. And ever since then, I just try to go as nuts as possible.”

Sellers is one of several charismatic singers I’ve seen recently. Ryan from Bitch ‘N’ Dudes was equally as electrifying, and her band blends ska and hardcore seamlessly, with prog passages here and there that reminded me a bit of bands that I love, such as 24-7 Spyz or Screaming Headless Torso.

Now that I think about it, there were standout performances all day, and the musicianship was pretty memorable, particularly on the part of Mercy Music. The guitar lines that frontman Brendan Scholz plays when he’s singing still leave me shaking my head, and the rhythm section of drummer Rye Martin and Jarred Cooper are just this side of flawless. Madrigal is right. These dudes should be selling out, not only tours, but arenas.

Whether that happens is a topic for another day. At Zarfest, the only thing on my mind and I suspect everybody else’s was hanging out and having fun. “Everybody’s kind to each other here,” observed Special K drummer Justin Ptak, whose band’s spunky indie rock songs not only helped me find the house when I first arrived but sucked me in right off the bat. “Everybody’s here for a common goal, which is to sit back, enjoy summer and listen to good music.”

Like any great scene, that’s what it’s all about, really, having fun making music and celebrating and supporting one another. So yeah, I’d say the Las Vegas scene is indeed thriving and growing, as The Wall Street Journal piece suggests. Thing is, from what I can tell, this vibrant, intelligent, inclusive community of creative artists and individuals neither craves, nor requires praise — from me or anybody else — to validate what they’re doing.

And that’s exactly as it should be.

Read more from Dave Herrera at reviewjournal.com/opinion/columns-blogs/viva-live-vegas. Reach out directly at dherrera@reviewjournal.com or follow @rjmusicdh on Twitter.

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