Since 2008, Downtown Las Vegas’ beloved indie-rock festival has hosted many of the best up-and-coming touring bands. As the festival grew, Neon Reverb founders James Woodbridge and Thirry Harlin grew more ambitious, offering music in all genres—blues, metal, hip-hop, rockabilly. Shows took place in a sprawling assortment of Downtown venues.
The results were sometimes mixed. Sets didn’t always begin on time. (On one occasion, this writer waited with a Neon Reverb band for a PA system to arrive.) Getting wristbands for smaller-show venues was sometimes tricky, as Reverb’s organizers also comprised the festival staff. And the sheer number of spread-out venues made band-hopping difficult. Because of its ramshackle charm, Neon Reverb’s operational flaws were forgiven. After all, why examine a gift horse when the animal’s teeth include awesome Pitchfork-praised acts like Foxygen?
But with renewed attention on Downtown redevelopment and cultural expansion, Neon Reverb must live up to a new standard of scrutiny. Additionally, Neon Reverb faces specific challenges this season. Instead of three promoters working in tandem, the fest is down to a one-man operation: the Clydesdale bassist Jason Aragon, who joined the effort in 2009. Plus, there’s another, much bigger Downtown fest, Life Is Beautiful, looming on the horizon (it debuts in October). Rather than merely shrinking into a shadow of its former self, the festival is becoming a lean, mean music machine. That translates into a smaller event with fewer bands and venues.
Success could have been threatened by the organizers’ sabbaticals taken this spring. Woodbridge, who sunlights as a UNLV philosophy prof, stepped away to pen a book; Harlin is spending more time with family. Rather than feel abandoned, Aragon took an opportunity to restructure and weed out what he didn’t like.
“It was hard to keep the quality up,” he says. “Mainly because we didn’t have the staff for each venue. This time I just made something I could manage.”
Aragon is addressing past challenges through a multi-pronged attack. He says he’ll ensure bands play on schedule, and staffing will finally be under control. He’s securing multiple (and competent) sound guys instead of chintzing by shuttling one engineer between soundboards. Best of all, Aragon has directly fixed this writer’s pet peeve: Reverb’s history of inviting local novice acts who are so amateur that the smell of the family garage wafts from the stage along with their din.
“This year all the bands we have are solid,” Aragon says. “They’re not big headline names you hear on the radio, but the quality is there, and for local acts.”
Indeed, Aragon is making the most out of his solo swipe at Neon Reverb. He sees opportunities to refine each lineup and work closer with venues.
Consider, for example, that this Neon Reverb marks the first time that so many of Vegas’ best indie bands are taking the stage (Most Thieves and A Crowd of Small Adventures virtually guarantee an amazing event). And with CD releases by superb local acts Mercy Music, Coastwest Unrest and Aragon’s own alt-country crew, The Clydesdale, an emphasis on kickass homegrown music is evident.
Sure, a renewed focus means reducing the number of venues—down to two this spring compared to last fall’s five. Aragon will rely on mainstay spaces Bunkhouse Saloon and Beauty Bar. The latter boasts a new system for the outside patio and inside stage.
Despite these promised improvements, Neon Reverb must certainly feel on its neck the hot breath of an encroaching rival. Is downsizing when a new Downtown music fest, Life Is Beautiful, comes online the best tactic? Shouldn’t Reverb make every effort to expand or risk getting swamped by an event with financial support from the Downtown Project, led by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh?
Well, Aragon says he has met with Life Is Beautiful organizers about working together and doesn’t see the fest as a threat. It makes sense, since Zappos has also committed real money to Neon Reverb this time, financing everything from securing touring band guarantees to paying for those sound engineers.
“The more going on in Downtown Vegas, the better,” Aragon says.
But he also doesn’t mince: Neon Reverb, he says, created the Downtown music scene. With Zappos’ continued help, he believes his fest will prosper, its legacy sealed.
“We were hustling before anyone else,” he says. “We’ve done the best we can, and we were here when no one was doing much of anything.”