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Bawdy rappers and silent discos: Life is Beautiful is back

Tongue out like a Great Dane on a hot day, the guy teetering on the lip of a diving board encapsulated the mood.

“Don’t wanna talk, baby, I just wanna dance,” sang Dave Bayley, frontman for British indie popsters Glass Animals, performing on a stage designed to look like a hotel pool area. “No more living in the past, baby.”

The 10,000 or so revellers pistoning up and down on the asphalt before him echoed the sentiment.

It was Friday night, and Life is Beautiful was back.

Perhaps the bumble bee put it best.

“It is so exciting to be back out again,” enthused Las Vegan Nikki Claphanson, dressed as said insect, complete with antennae cap. “It’s been a long time coming.”

More on Life is Beautiful.

Claphanson has been to every Life is Beautiful, the three-day music, arts and food festival spread out over 18 city blocks downtown, now in its eighth year.

She was eager for its return.

“With the pandemic, everybody’s just been shut in and isolated,” she said amid the human traffic jam, the gridlock of flesh that was Fremont Street after sundown. “So, it’s nice to go and dress up again.”

And dress up this crowd did.

They came as rhinestone cowgirls and blue-haired unicorns, one happy couple sporting matching, bottomless leather chaps, their derrieres and love for each other exposed in unison.

With the scent of Mexican street corn roasting over hot coals in the air, the capacity crowd boogied down soundlessly in glowing headphones at a silent disco in the bottom of the El Cortez parking garage, clambered atop low-slung brick walls to snap selfies next to paintings of grumpy-looking, anthropomorphic hot dogs and salsa danced at a DayGo House of Yes, whose jellyfish-festooned, blacklight-lit decor had the feel of a stoner mermaid’s dorm room.

It wasn’t all monkey-business-as-usual, though.

With the pandemic persisting, attendees were required to provide either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, much of the crowd downloading a mobile heath app, Clear, that provided a QR code that could be scanned upon entry.

A sizable chuck of the audience wore masks — though they weren’t mandated, since the fest was largely outdoors — including Megan James, frontwoman for Canadian dream pop duo Purity Ring, who delivered ethereal vocals over brooding, minor-key chords through a face covering at the Huntridge Stage.

Las Vegas native Jonathan Morales, who was attending his fifth Life is Beautiful, was doing so without his friends for the first time, as they chose to skip this year’s fest due to lingering coronavirus concerns.

“It’s a little bit different, but I’m still trying to enjoy myself,” he said, sporting a black ball cap, a matching tank top and Golden Knights socks. “It’s nice to see everybody out here, trying to get back to somewhat of the normalcy we used to have. Just good vibes, you know?”

Morales was waiting to see rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who headlined the Bacardi Stage.

A middle finger in a dress, Stallion quickly lived up to that billing: It took all but one song before she was, in fact, flipping the bird to everyone/no one in particular, her songs bawdy testaments to woman-in-charge feminine assertiveness.

In recent years, big music festivals ranging from Chicago’s Lollapalooza to Dover, Delaware’s Firefly have been publicly criticized by female performers like Halsey and Ellie Goulding for not featuring enough women in their lineups.

This certainly wasn’t the case on Friday at Life is Beautiful — and continuing on throughout the weekend — where, in addition to Stallion, there was a deep, diverse roster of female-centered acts.

In the span of one hour on Friday evening, for instance, there was Ashnikko and her Smurf-colored hair doing a sharp-tongued re-interpretations of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi,” Willow Smith channeling her own Lavigne fandom on their pop punk duet “Grow” and the country-tinged Noah Cyrus giving strong voice to aching tunes about lost love and getting high enough to see Jesus.

Speaking of country, there was also the debut on Friday of the Western Country Club, a new honky-tonk in the old Western Hotel building.

It finally answered a few questions that have haunted Life is Beautiful for years now: Where, oh where does one to learn to line dance and play cornhole beneath paintings of Dolly Parton dressed as Harley Quinn?

“Welcome to Life is Beautiful, the greatest country music festival in the world,” quipped Larry Reha, the refrigerator-sized frontman for Vegas honky-tonkers The Rhyolite Sound, during one of their excellent sets on the venue.

The far-out moments continued when Australian psych-pop changelings Tame Impala headlined the Downtown Stage.

Now, in the context of contemporary mainstream music, progressive rock might be seen just a tad antiquated, right up there up with dial-up internet connections and laser disc libraries.

But with a light show clearly designed by a solar flare on mushrooms that bordered on the hallucinatory and a penchant for jamming out their songs to the moon and back, this bunch certainly embraced prog values and showmanship, though they also gave a nod to Black Sabbath (“Elephant”) and spectral ’60s garage rock (“Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”) during a performance that transfixed eyeballs like a hypnotist’s swinging pocket watch.

“I’m ready for the moment and the sound,” frontman Kevin Parker sang on “Let It Happen.”

He wasn’t alone on this night.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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