Randolph Hood takes you inside Rock In Rio Usa

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With Bruno Mars closing out the 2015 Rock In Rio festival, he kept his same momentum of previous shows.
Mars’ show Saturday stuck closely to the well-oiled production he brought to Staples Center two years ago, down to the medley of ’90s R&B tunes he dropped into the middle of his song “Our First Time.” (The set opened with a version of the drum solo Mars played during last year’s Super Bowl halftime show.) Yet he and his expert band put so much charm and energy into the music that you hardly minded hearing it all again.
“Saturday night and we in the spot,” Mars sang in “Uptown Funk,” his recent No. 1 hit with Mark Ronson, and for the duration of his set, there was no better place in Vegas to be.

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Swift and the British troubadour, who had played the main stage just before her, narrowed a sea of more than 30,000 people to just two voices and an acoustic guitar on Sheeran’s “Tenerife Sea.”
“You look so beautiful in this light, silhouette over me … And all of the voices surrounding us here, they just fade out when you take a breath.”
Music festivals are all about big, but the real magic comes when they manage to be big and small at the same time.
Some people went to the Rock in Rio USA fest on Friday just for Taylor Swift, whose “1989” tour so far isn’t scheduled to come back to Las Vegas.

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The 25-year-old superstar rewarded them with what appeared to be her full arena show, complete with costumed dancers, light-up umbrellas and theatrical choreography that often felt stubbornly formal, retrofitted for an open field and an outdoor party vibe — w-a-a-y more marijuana smoke than you’re likely to smell at the wholesome pop star’s indoor shows.
But then it all focused down to two people: Swift and Ed Sheeran, at the end of a long stage extension ramping out into the crowd.
The take-away moment made sense of the rest of it. The waiting until 11:30 p.m. for Swift to come on, the $169 tickets, the $12 beer and the $10 quesadilla, the logistics of getting to a festival with no on-site parking,
But it wasn’t the whole reason. That ramp out from the main stage? Turns out it also also was capable of lift-off, craning up, up into the air. It elevated Swift above the masses and floated her in front of the giant video images of herself as it panned from side to side.
“Music is sometimes the only thing that makes us feel better,” Swift said from her lofty perch as a lead-in to “Clean.”
No one seemed in need of cheering up on this unseasonably cool, energizing Las Vegas night. But the patter was apparently prescripted, and we were getting it anyway: “You are not damaged goods.”
The ride on the magical bridge was capped by Swift playing a keyboard intro to “Love Story,” the rare early hit from a set packed with nine “1989” songs.
Swift’s new sound, dense with the synthesized rhythms of pop from her birth year, helped her headline set blend into some of the girl-power sounds leading up to it.
It wouldn’t be all wrong to say the “good girls” — Swift and Echosmith’s 18-year-old Sydney Sierota — were on the main stage while British “bad girls” Jessie J and new-wave firebrand Charli XCX tore up the smaller Evolution Stage. I personally enjoyed Echosmith and their stage performance was enthralling. The bass player had amazing style and grace.
Certainly there was sonic and visual crossover; Jessie (Jessica Ellen Cornish) danced like she’d been doing her research at the strip clubs across Industrial Road. But Swift also defied the evening chill with a bare midriff and black thigh boots.
When it came to a ’tude backed up by vocal soul power, Jessie J so belongs in Vegas that it makes you wonder why the casinos aren’t scouting some fresh blood instead of mooning over tired Mariah and Britney.
Because the finale on one stage automatically triggered the first song on the other, Jessie J’s triumphant “Bang Bang” closer was immediately followed by Sheeran strumming out “I’m A Mess” on his acoustic guitar.

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The 24-year-old held his own though, rapping about his overnight success in “Take It Back,” then fading into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” and getting his big singalong, fire-up-the-lighters-and-phones moment for “Thinking Out Loud.”
Even with the star power of Swift, the 40-acre grounds didn’t seem much more crowded than Rock in Rio’s first Friday last week, when an announced weekend attendance of 82,000 over two days left plenty of room on a site that can hold 170,000.
Perhaps Swift’s late start was a deal-killer for her younger fans. Or maybe they’re holding out hopes for a return, based on a suspicious gap in the tour schedule between San Diego on Aug. 29 and Salt Lake City on Sept. 4.
Overestimating the “24-hour town” hype may be one of the organizers’ few mistakes. Fans were flowing out of the grounds even as big, sinister beats built into “Bad Blood” as the hour creeped up on 1 a.m. (That song’s conceptual video, perhaps with live participation by Swift, also is set to kick off today’s Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand.)
Bruno Mars was on deck for the grand finale on Saturday, closing the four nights of music over two weekends. But even Sheeran is unlikely to argue that Friday was ladies’ night all the way.
“I feel like we’re gonna make a lot of new friends today,” proclaimed Saints of Valory singer Gavin Jasper to the earliest strangers on opening day of Rock in Rio USA.
He knew the melodic Austin rock band was the only game in town, as those trickling in the main gates found their way to his stage on a unseasonably blustery Friday.
Still, he was probably right. New friendships were forged and old ones rekindled all through this scattershot musical day.
“I like you guys. I feel a good energy right now,” proclaimed Smallpools singer Sean Scanlon.
If Friday was the festival’s “get acquainted” day with the new $25 million City of Rock fairgrounds, and you spent part of your $169 day distracted by the leprechaun dancing on the medicine ball, the music at least made a strong enough impression to inspire followup YouTube visits.
The lineup was in a sense the weakest of the four days (continuing May 15 and 16), or at least the only one lacking a universal draw. Ageless ’90s pop-rockers No Doubt and Mexican rockers Mana can each fill arenas, but their fan bases don’t much overlap, and Saturday headliner Metallica can still pack a stadium.
I know reflect on weekend one after taking in the whole festival of both the pop and rock weekends.
Friday was more the eclectic musical sampler, where the whole added up to more than the parts. But those who came for the music found success at both ends of the mile, from a still-endearing No Doubt to the amazing 18-piece “frevo” big band of Spok, aka saxophonist Inaldo Cavalcante de Albuquerque.
The sound and video systems are pristine, though the main stage is angled into the site in a way that leaves less room than you’d think for those trying to squeeze up close. Far easier to hang back and watch the two side screens while still listening at front-row volume.
A couple of acts much care if you looked at them anyway. Gary Clark, Jr. talked with his guitar, with big blues-rock hooks spelled by eloquent phrasing that sounded equally authoritative if you were crowded up front or wandering around checking out the beer choices. (And let me save you micro-brewery guys some steps: Looks like Corona and Modelo cut an exclusivity deal to monopolize the place.)
Foster the People was more about silhouettes and video patterns on the secondary Evolution Stage. All the luckier that the clarity of the sound system delivered the piano and ambient keyboard sounds on the likes of “Coming of Age.”
Smallpools offered the same kind of tuneful, textured pop on the main stage, only frontman Scanlon worked harder to make contact. At one point he even asked the crowd to pocket their phones for a minute to “experience real life together.”
Scanlon would have liked Theopholis London, the singer-rapper who stepped in as a last-minute sub for Bleachers on the second stage. If London’s playfully stoney hip-hop party had broken out later in the evening instead of when most people were first showing up, he would have had a lot more takers follow his dance-lesson lead from the stage.
Then again, this was billed as “Rock Weekend,” not “eclectic, Life Is Beautiful, college-radio, whatever passes for alternative rock these days weekend.” Metallica fans killing time with their two-day pass got a test preview of sound system’s peak volume levels and a dose of Guns N’ Roses-style ’80s bluster with The Pretty Reckless, and former “Gossip Girl” Taylor Momsen doing her “Legends in Concert” tribute to Axl Rose on “Heaven Knows.”
Mana followed on the main stage at what literally seemed like half that volume. Their Spanish-language set worked hard to be the most inclusive, delving into Santana territory with “Corizon Espinado” and immediately following it with some Prince-funk guitar boogie in “Dejame Entrar.”
No Doubt also reminded us they are quite the musical samplers, dipping into reggae waters on “Underneath It All” and the band’s Southern California ska origins on “Ex-Girlfriend.”
The band didn’t come onstage until midnight. Some were filing out while others were just hitting their dance-party peak for “Hella Good” and “Hey Baby.” Sonic details emerging from fun, simple songs seemed to be the overriding theme of the day
Gwen Stefani’s marching orders for the tired or flagging: “I’m not messing around tonight. You better do what I tell you to do or you’re gonna be in serious trouble.”
No trouble, ma’am. As Smallpools’ singer Scanlon had earlier determined, “It’s a good moment.”
I think since weekend one was my favorite I can break it down into each band.
Smallpools The rising LA quartet was a good reason to get to Rock in Rio a little early on Friday afternoon. They took the stage armed with synth-pop party anthems at 6 p.m., warming a crowd that was definitely unprepared for an overcast evening. Smallpools are gaining a lot of attention and radio play with debut album Lovetap and they performed it almost entirely.
Early in the festival, the main stage is still dealing with some technical difficulties. The overall volume of the main stage is incredibly high, much higher than the ancillary Mercedes Benz Evolution Stage. Also, the dynamic level change between the main stage volume and the first row of secondary speakers is noticeable, and the bass is overpowering, muddling Smallpools’ bright sound. The band lost power completely for a few minutes during “Mason Jar.”
But all of these issues would be corrected throughout the night. During this set, the audience really started to fill the festival grounds, but I think Smallpools would have been a better fit for the festival’s second, pop-oriented weekend. With their backing tracks, sugary lyrics and sunny melodies, they’re definitely not a rock band. That’s fine but I wonder if the people excited to see Metallica tomorrow are enjoying this Train cover.
Gary Clark, Jr. The Austin-based bluesman is a perfect festival act. He’s probably not someone I’d buy a ticket to see headline a solo show, but within a larger festival lineup, he’s a can’t miss act. Rock in Rio’s extended set lengths allow Clark to really explore, and more importantly, heat up. He’s not a busy player, not even slightly. Repetition is a well-worn tool of Clark’s but he’s tasteful and he can keep a three -ote solo interesting just with his emphasis. The drums and bass know to stay out of the way and the focus is kept on Clark and his rhythm guitarist, the neon pink poncho-wrapped Eric “King” Zapata. Clark’s trademark Gibson SG burns and bleeds with emotion. My favorite points come when either guitarist pulls out a slide and lets loose. Clark is a throwback blues artist who has shared stage and style with legends like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and many more since he was 12 years old. He’s not breaking new ground for the genre as much as celebrating it and keeping it relevant for younger generations.
The Pretty Reckless I don’t know who Taylor Momsen is, or maybe I do, but I specifically didn’t IMDB her in the weeks leading up to Rock in Rio because I didn’t want to let her fame color my opinion of the band. I will say she is probably the least compelling member of the band—well, second least. Sorry, all bassists. There’s a lot I can like about TPR, like their hyper-technical drummer or their imitation Jimmy Page guitarist (he looks just like him!). But overall, this is boring, single-riff driven, dated rock with empty lyrics carried by the stardom of what I’m assuming is an “it” girl and the fact that she doesn’t entirely suck.
Foster The People It’s been a while since Foster the People played five consecutive nights of two free shows at the Cosmopolitan’s tiny Book & Stage venue but I can’t help but think fondly of those intimate evenings before they were a near headliner on a giant music festival bill. Since then the band has released two albums, toured the world and even returned to Vegas a couple times. Each time I see them, I note how much their stage production has increased. They’ve added touring members, a second drum kit, effects and video. But this is still a defining time to see the band to witness the variations between the pop sensibility of their debut album versus the experimental jams of their sophomore record. It’s a common story for bands that break out quickly, and unfortunately for FTP, the first record wins every time. “Helena Beat,” “Call It What You Wanna Call It,” “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls),” “Houdini,” and of course, “Pumped Up Kicks” are the highlights of their performance. They are another Friday band that could fit in pop weekend, but they add a nice range to this initial rock weekend.
Maná The Guadalajaran pop-rock superstars will top 30 years as a band in 2016. Their career is a testament to Mexico’s musical contributions to the world, crossing borders of traditional and modern rock in such a fun way. They will definitely win the award for inspiring the most dancing during Rock in Rio USA’s first weekend, unless you categorize mosh as a type of dance. It’s ballad-based rock, which could easily get boring, but it’s kept interesting by the band’s musical engine, drummer Alex González. From his tattoos, long hair and open kick-snare patterns, González is clearly a product of ‘80s hair metal, but he gives his playing so much more flair than his counterparts, mostly by constantly adding ultra-busy cymbal work.
Maná sounds great. Singer Fher Overa’s voice is strong and soulful, laying on top of sweeping electric guitar and auxiliary instrumentation from bongos, extra percussion and even a few dashes of horn to round it all out. I don’t speak a word of Spanish, nada, but language is hardly a barrier to enjoyment. The crowd is massive, engaging and moving, and Maná is a fitting choice to lead into Rock in Rio’s first headliner, No Doubt. In an almost unheard of bit of festival protocol—but absolutely suitable for RIR’s full concert experience—Maná takes a three-song encore.

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No Doubt It’s midnight when Friday’s headliner takes the stage, capping a long day for those of us who have been here since Saints of Valory started playing at 3:30 p.m. It’s late, it’s cold (relatively) and the Anaheim natives must be aware of this because they waste no time making sure we don’t regret sticking around, launching into a hit parade of a setlist without a clunker to be found. The early part of the band’s set pulls heavily from its mid-to-late career. Radio hits like “Hella Good,” “Get in Line,” “Hey Baby,” “Ex-Girlfriend” immediately warm up the crowd, but we go a surprising nine songs before the band dives into anything off breakout third album Tragic Kingdom. Something about that record still hits harder than anything they’ve done since, with so much raw power in tracks like “Excuse Me Mister,” “Sunday Morning,” “Just a Girl” and “Spiderwebs.” I think the only thing that comes close is “Bathwater,” which fits in nicely when surrounded by No Doubt’s end of show run of classics.

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It’s 1:30 a.m. before I know it and the set concludes. Gwen Stefani is still as beautiful as my 12-year-old heart remembers, even if her style now is more posh than punk. More importantly, she is such an engaging frontwoman whose strength has always come from the duality of bravado and vulnerability, and her willingness to offer both. I think my love for the ska and reggae-influenced band was lost somewhere around Rock Steady, but my nostalgia for the band’s innovative early work is still strong and I enjoyed their show much more than I anticipated.
All in all Weekend one seemed to fit more into the Rock In Rio framework and the first Rock In Rio Usa brought with it the energy all of the hype promised.

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Randolph Hood writing for Focus One News www.focusonenews.com