“Do you feel like lighting something on fire?” the dude in the powder blue fedora asked of no one in particular. “This fella is gonna drink something that you normally put in a tiki torch and then spit it at you.”
Then, a pierced chap in baggy pants did just that, standing in a circular, fenced-in area between a big green truck made to look like a giant praying mantis, which also shot flames, and a bored looking psychic.
It was Friday afternoon at the Royal House and a carnivallike atmosphere hung about the opening of the Pastel Project, one of the two music fests that took over downtown Vegas this past weekend, the other being Neon Reverb, now in its fourth year.
Despite having plenty of overlap in terms of the types of music both offered, with an emphasis on indie rock and underground dance pop, the fests couldn’t have been more different in terms of presentation.
The Pastel Project was heavy on the bells and whistles, the stilt walkers and the leather-clad hula hoop girls, coming across as a mini-Vegoose, complete with a Ferris wheel, dudes dressed like Satan, an art installation piece formed from a bevy of TV sets, a tiki bar and more, creating an immersive, vaudeville vibe in a single location.
Neon Reverb, on the other hand, focused primarily on the music, spread across several venues, though there was a film fest included in the event as well.
Differences aside, both festivals proved to be well curated affairs.
On Friday at the Pastel Project, the outdoor main stage was brought to life, appropriately enough, by L.A.’s the Living Things, who bashed out primal, raw throated rock ‘n’ roll positioned somewhere between the hook-heavy charge of the Ramones and the no-frills thump of AC/DC.
Similarly concussive, albeit in a different way, were fellow Angelenos Mini Mansions, who followed. A guitar-less power trio whose frontman pounded a floor tom and slapped at a snare drum as he sang, the band favored a forest-dense bottom end leavened with buzzing, melodic synth lines, draining the blood of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” at one point, turning it into a funereal death march.
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, San Diego’s the Album Leaf crafted equally meditative and jarring songs that registered as a series of slow building waves, like the coming of the tide. Layering violin, trumpet and keys over skittering beats, the band crafted an atmospheric yet kinetic sound that continually morphed into new shapes, like malleable mood music.
And then there was Denver’s Tennis, whose coed power pop was so kitten-cute, you just wanted to pinch its cheeks and pat its soft little head.
Too bad not many people showed up to take it all in.
“I want to hear all 15 people in this place yell,” the aforementioned fedora guy said late in the evening, trying to drum up some interest in the fire breathers, as the array of vendors and fest workers seemed to outnumber the crowd.
Across town at the Bunkhouse, almost as many people took in one of the best Neon Reverb bills, posited on rock ‘n’ roll at its most ill-mannered and unrefined.
“Is my guitar loud?” Dude City frontman Jack Johnson asked before the band began their set at the venue’s outdoor stage. “I want ’em to hear it at the El Cortez,” he said, before one- upping himself. “I want ’em to hear it at the Suncoast.”
Dude City was celebrating the release of their new album, “Leavin’,” and they did so with attitude, aplomb and volume, with Johnson howlin’ like a drunk at last call while pinballing across the stage. Their sound was deliberately rough around the edges, a bluesy bar rock bombast that lit up the night like the fireworks they ended their performance with.
They were prefaced, indoors, by Denver’s equally overdriven The Knew, a quartet of shaggy riff rock aficionados who looked like they arrived to the show in Jeff Spicoli’s van.
They performed backed by an overactive fog machine, with their frontman sitting on the bass drum at one point, barely visible in a cloud of vapor, furiously scratching at his guitar, as the band filled the room with pointedly overwrought rock ‘n’ roll.
On Saturday, rock bluster gave way to more dance floor-friendly sounds at both fests.
At the Junkyard downtown, Neon Reverb was highlighted by an impressive lineup of electronic-oriented pop.
San Diego’s Jamuel Saxon came with spastic, teenage electro funk complete with a dude in a panda mask dancing about the stage, while the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based VHS or Beta infused their space age disco with “Thriller”-worthy synth, ricocheting guitar lines and syncopated beats.
“We’ll light this night on fire,” singer/guitarist Craig Pfunder boasted in song toward set’s end, swaying to and fro like the palm trees behind him, caught in the stiff night breeze.
Speaking of setting things ablaze, that’s what L.A.’s Autolux did on the Pastel Project main stage, which attracted a much larger audience.
The band’s dusky, seductive film noir rock sculpted feedback and dissonance into climactic, forceful jams.
Later on the same stage, Brazil’s CSS came with a sound as bright as Autolux’s repertoire was shadow strewn.
Singer Lovefoxxx was a coiled spring in human form, bouncing up and down onstage like a kid on a trampoline.
She was a fitting visual encapsulation of the band’s hyperactive, buoyant sound, which veered from hip swishing funk to chirpy hip-hop.
It was a jubilant din, a moment that captured the festive feel of this overstuffed festival weekend.
“This song is about being free and happy,” Lovefoxxx cooed at one point, leading by example.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476.