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Greetings from Suburbia

Back and forth we walk, through fairway-cut grass, soft and padded on practice fields, the kind that feels really good beneath bare feet. As the Las Vegas music festival with the unfortunate name of Vegoose is beginning, everything is neat and tidy near Sam Boyd Stadium. A gentle forest-fire haze wraps the sunlight with a layer of gauze. In the daytime, it all seems so simple out here near Nickle Ridge Way and Majestic Palm Drive. People wander, lounge on blankets, mingle, as if we’re in a 21st-century treeless Seurat painting. A maintenance guy sweeps up little bits of trash into a dustpan like he’s a theater usher. Vegoose (a.k.a. Bonnaroo Jr.): two days — October 27 and 28 — and 27 performances.

The setup’s simple: Three stages lined in a row, each with its own sad, unclever name — Double Down, Snake Eyes and Jokers Wild — a few football-field lengths away from each other. Triangulated at the top is a row of food vendors, who deliver falafels, veggie wraps, corn dogs, funnel cakes and corn on the cob. This food then gets drenched with booze from the bars, and the fun begins. It’s like a county fair for hipsters. The people-watching is excellent. There’s a Ferris wheel, picnic tables, cuddle puddles and much mingling. Bands playing the rock & roll music sometimes feel like an afterthought. Throughout the acreage, there’s enough dope to kill Cypress Hill. It is smoked and smoked hard, and the notably porous and unconcerned gate security lend an air of relaxation to the proceedings. A few cops on horseback aren’t very stealthy, to say the least. (You could have hauled in an LSD lab, basically.)

Or, another, equally accurate take, as uttered by a passerby to his friend: “I can smell the roofies in the air.”

Vegoose, like all 21st-century music festivals, is for the short-attention-spanned, a good way to consume many live experiences briefly. It’s not really conducive to contemplation. Like the two previous installments, Vegoose this year dealt a lot of music real fast on a big chunk of bland acreage. I saw a lot of bands, among them Muse, UNKLE, Gogol Bordello, the Battles, Daft Punk, the Stooges, Mastodon and M.I.A. Too many to analyze in a nontedious fashion. Herewith, a pile of short-attention snapshots from the Vegoose Festival.

Shins fans don’t dance. I know this because it was at the beginning of this show that I first discovered that my wristband was in fact a MAGIC wristband that offered me backstage access. So I walked confidently past security and within 30 seconds I was standing Hacky-Sack distance from the Shins, cute as buttons and dressed as chess pieces, as they performed one of their gentle little ditties. Looking at Vegoose from the band’s perspective, here’s what I noticed: I would think it would be a little depressing to be the Shins and watch their crowd not dance. Not move a muscle. Out in front of the band, a sea of stationary heads. A few bobble to the beat, sure. But the asses, they don’t wiggle.

The best onstage dancers, better than M.I.A.’s, were the S-1Ws, who, for the past two decades, have been Public Enemy’s security team/onstage dance troupe. Dressed in fatigues with thousand-yard stares and deep, resigned frowns, the two stood on opposite sides of the stage and did the Minimal Mambo, which is what David Foster Wallace calls his variation of it in Infinite Jest. Basically, stand like a statue and do not move but for the vaguest little pinky flick to the rhythm. The S-1Ws do a variation involving basically one arm movement maybe every 30 seconds. It’s a deliberate, militaristic maneuver, and it packs a punch. The S-1Ws also really dig the fist pump. Theirs presumably symbolizes Black Power.

The past few years, in fact, has seen a big rise in the use of the fist pump as a concert affirmation. It’s always been there, the single-armed fist salute, often augmented with Satan horns at metal shows. The problem is, the stuff lately looks vaguely fascistic. At Mastodon, at the Queens of the Stone Age, at Rage Against the Machine (which nearly spun out of control), the pumping was over the top. At Daft Punk people were flat-out dancing — and jumping and freaking and rolling and fucking and Losing Their Proverbial Shit — but the fists were all in the air, hitting lockstep with the kick drum. At a performance by the reigning worst band in the world, Infected Mushroom, lead singer Erez Eisen pumped his fist the whole time. (Imagine the worst trance track ever, now toss in a Slash lookalike guitar soloing through the whole thing while a pumping bald guy screams, “I’m deeply disturbed. I’m deeply unhappy.”)

When you’re standing side stage (!) as the Stooges kick out “Dirt” and all these dudes are amped up and pumping their fists, it really starts to look like a Youth March of some sort. I guess it’s just a show of unity, but it’s kind of scary, especially these ambivalent days. When you see the youth and they’re saluting so forcefully, you worry about who’s taking them where. Hopefully it’s Daft Punk and not Infected Mushroom. Regardless of who’s in command, this is a lot of power to unleash in suburbia on an October weekend. Rage Against the Machine on Sunday night felt like a powder keg, and you hoped that the Shins fans were still around to mediate. All those fists flying every which way feels moblike. Luckily for us, at the end of the night the youth climbed into their shuttle buses to be delivered back to the Strip, exhausted but not defeated, ready to return to work the next day.


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