From Sin City To Song City
As befits a man born and raised in America's gambling mecca of Las Vegas, Dan Reynolds is on a winning streak. The singer/songwriter, along with his band Imagine Dragons, won the 2013 GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance for their hit single "Radioactive," which stands as the best-selling digital rock song in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
For Reynolds, Imagine Dragons' success is also a big win for his hometown, a city that until recently had exported surprisingly few contemporary pop acts. But lately, a bumper crop of Vegas-based artists have been crediting their city with helping them forge their creative identity, including GRAMMY winner Ne-Yo and GRAMMY nominees the Crystal Method, the Killers and Panic At The Disco.
"Five years ago, Imagine Dragons performed at casinos to make ends meet," says Reynolds. "We would do six-hour gigs — 50 percent covers, 50 percent originals. We really got to study the music of the greats. We also got in thousands of hours performing at casinos, and as a young band that was key to forming our sound and refining our live show.
"I don't think we could have done that in any other city. Las Vegas truly is a unique experience for a young band trying to get off the ground. It definitely is an eccentric city as well, which influences your sound … the hustle and bustle finds its way into the music."
For Ne-Yo, who was raised in Las Vegas, the city's big show mentality helped shape his own stagecraft.
"A Las Vegas show is all-around entertainment. Which means there's some singing, some dancing, some magic, some drama — everything is rolled into that one performance," Ne-Yo told Blues & Soul magazine. "So I just [try] to take the essence of that and incorporate it into what it is that I do. Which is why I'm so comfortable onstage."
Imagine Dragons and Ne-Yo's success is notable. Las Vegas earned postwar renown as the preferred West Coast hangout for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin — some of the most influential performers of their time. But the Rat Pack only played Vegas. Now the city not only exports a wealth of world-celebrated acts, but also stands as a West Coast dance music capitol. Some of the world's highest-paid DJs, including Steve Aoki, Calvin Harris, Tiësto, Zedd, and Skrillex, among others, have scored residencies at casino hotels and new nightclubs such as Light at Mandalay Bay and Hakkasan at MGM Grand.
A major contributor to Vegas' dance music dominance is the annual Electric Daisy Carnival. The three-day festival, which debuted in Las Vegas in 2011, has helped establish the city as a leading festival destination.
"It's been proven for the first time that an annual festival that continues to come back again and again can bring music culture [along with it]," says Pasquale Rotella, founder/CEO of Insomniac Events, the company that produces the Electric Daisy Carnival. "I believe dance culture helped transform Las Vegas."
As if homegrown artists and dance music repute weren't enough, Vegas is becoming a major music festival and events center. This year the city's second annual Life is Beautiful Festival, taking place Oct. 24–26 in downtown Las Vegas, will feature Foo Fighters, Kanye West and OutKast among its headliners. In addition, a new venue is currently being constructed on the Vegas Strip that will host the inaugural U.S. installment of the Rock in Rio festival in May 2015. Headliners announced so far include Metallica, No Doubt, Linkin Park, and Taylor Swift. Adding to its music cache, Vegas also hosts globally renowned music events such as the iHeartRadio Music Festival. And on Nov. 20 the 15th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards will take place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, marking the seventh time The Biggest Night in Latin Music will take place in Sin City.
For a town that virtually thrives on entertainment, it's a wonder that Vegas didn't produce many world-class artists during the rock and pop era's heyday from the '60s to the '90s.
"When I was a kid, the Strip was restaurants, buffets [and] some shows," says Vegas-born entertainment attorney Robert Reynolds, Dan Reynolds' brother. "It was mainly gambling. The club scene is more of a recent phenomenon."
Asked why his hometown has suddenly become a pop nerve center, Robert Reynolds is philosophical.
"I would only say that the town has always had a focus on entertainment," says the attorney, who manages the Killers and serves as legal counsel for Imagine Dragons. "Growing up in Vegas, you see a lot of great bands come through, and you see a lot of great entertainers. In a way, you get a great education on the entertainment business."
Some say that Vegas' musical transformation started in the early '90s when Vegas-formed hard rock quartet Slaughter charted nationally with hits such as "Up All Night" and "Fly To The Angels." More stirrings of musical life came in the form of the Crystal Method, whose 1997 debut album was proudly named Vegas.
But Vegas arguably got its biggest boost in the early 2000s with the emergence of local heroes the Killers. Subtly promoting themselves as Vegas-based artists, the band snapped publicity photos in the Nevada desert while using casinolike marquee lighting at concerts.
"The Killers made it a point of incorporating elements of Las Vegas and Nevada into their artwork," adds Robert Reynolds. "They have a lot of hometown pride, and that's part of the reason why the Killers is such an important musical figure for Las Vegas."
Now, the Killers loom as unofficial musical ambassadors for Vegas. They were recently enlisted by Travel Nevada, the state division on tourism, to record a cover version of the legendary Cole Porter Western tune "Don't Fence Me In" for a state promotional video.
In part due to the Killers' fame, Las Vegas began to build an infrastructure of clubs, radio stations and media that could better support a local music scene.
"The city … certainly had a vibrant scene and lots of up-and-coming bands," says Dan Reynolds. "We would perform at the Bunkhouse [Saloon], Beauty Bar and every casino you can think of. Our best gig that literally kept us alive in the beginning was at O'Shea's Casino. It had the cheapest beer on the Strip, and was open all night so you got a pretty eclectic crowd."
Another beneficiary of the door the Killers helped kick open are hard rock group Adelitas Way. The band's founder and lead vocalist Rick DeJesus initially viewed Vegas as a layover on the way to Los Angeles, but the Pennsylvania native related so much with the Vegas lifestyle that he decided to pursue his rock and roll dreams from Sin City.
"You get here and it opens up your creativity," says DeJesus. "That's why I love doing the majority of the creating of our albums in Las Vegas. I just sit, enjoy the view of the city and write songs."
Currently on the road promoting Adelitas Way's latest album Stuck, DeJesus says performing in Vegas watering holes such as Count's Vamp'd, Double Barrel Roadhouse and the House of Blues connects him with the city's storied musical past.
"I think the first thing people think of when you say 'Las Vegas' is Elvis and Sinatra," he says. "I've headlined shows on the Strip and sometimes I get emotional … because I have [a] love for Vegas as it was in the '50s, '60s and '70s. When I'm headlining on the Strip, I put my head down and thank God for all my blessings, just thinking that I'm headlining on the same strip where Elvis, Sinatra and so many great acts performed. Even though the Rat Pack is gone, I can feel them."
While DeJesus and others draw inspiration from the ghosts of Vegas' past, it remains to be seen if the ghosts of Sinatra and Presley can help Vegas maintain its newfound clout. But for his part, Rotella is giving Vegas a tremendous vote of confidence. Not only does he keep a home in Las Vegas, he said that his company plans to stage the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway "for a long time to come."
"It's pretty amazing," he says. "The city has become [a major EDM music town], and it wasn't not too long ago. It's in the air. You walk around now and the energy's totally different."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)