Rock in Rio USA is a ball of confusion

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Rock in Rio USA's first weekend in Las Vegas was confused, unfocused and occasionally downright weird

— Who in their right minds would get married during the debut of a Las Vegas music festival? A few couples took the leap at Rock in Rio USA.

The extravaganza closed the first of two weekends Saturday night on a plot of undeveloped real estate next to Circus Circus at the far end of the Vegas strip. On one piece of asphalt, a heart-shaped stage served as chapel. To absolutely no one's surprise, an Elvis impersonator provided accompaniment.

That's quite the gamble. What if this Brazilian-produced festival, an offshoot of the massive 10-day Rio de Janeiro event, doesn't gain traction? Are the vows still enforceable?

If so, in future decades, how will Grandma recall the many oddities of that weekend? Those nuptials featured a hip-hop dance troupe acting out the lyrics to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," after all, and a Beatles cover act that did a big-band version of "Blackbird." Explain that. What's at all romantic about James Hetfield of Metallica serenading newlyweds with "Master of Puppets"? The part about "just call my name, 'cause I'll hear you scream"?

Rock in Rio USA's first weekend also featured long-running Mexican pop rock band Mana, Los Angeles rap-rockers Linkin Park and Hollywood Undead, the menacing Brazilian metal band Sepultura and actor-turned-screamer Taylor Momsen and her searing band the Pretty Reckless, among others. Mostly, it was rock turned to 11, any glitz eclipsed by distorted darkness.

Amid such aggressive rebellion, Trinidadian American rapper Theophilus London sounded like he'd beamed in from another planet. And despite its relentlessly catchy hits, the hit-making ska-pop band No Doubt felt like relative weaklings compared to the gruff grunts of Deftones.

The event, which will continue Friday and Saturday with a better roster of pop acts including Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, was rich with cognitive dissonance. It was also confused, unfocused and occasionally downright weird.

The setting? Unlike the lush Tennessee surroundings of Bonnaroo, the glowing desert sunset landscapes of Coachella or the Louisiana setting of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Rock in Rio USA was on what seemed to be a flat, verdant lawn.

This being Vegas, though, the grass was fake, and nearly as brittle as crab grass. The kid-sized guitars and saxophones many fans carried were actually hollow and filled with red booze. A zip-line cut across the main stage. As Metallica roared through "Disposable Heroes," daring souls in harnesses soared across the space. That was pretty cool, even if fans seemed more excited about that than the remarkable Brazilian musicians tearing through regional jazz tones and capoeira rhythms a few hundred yards away.

To underscore the aesthetic confusion, smaller stages held an odd, uniquely Vegas-esque mix of musical outliers. Amid vendors housed in theatrical building shells, stages held acts such as the banjo, fiddle, accordion and rhythm band Terra Celta, which propelled line-dancing young women to do Irish jigs. A brass band called Stone the Beetles offered head-scratching adaptations of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs. A dance troupe interpreted an EDM remix of Metallica's "One." A spider-esque DJ stage supported live mixers.

Basically, Vegas-brand cheese, which, although ridiculous, is way more entertaining than hipster irony or too-cool-to-celebrate detachment of indie rock festivals. Devoid of hipster pretense, Rock in Rio USA on Friday night was real, it was raw and it featured lots of drunken revelry. It was a welcome relief from the suntanned wealth of Coachella.

But by Saturday evening, the party had gotten boring, even if Metallica and Sepultura certainly weren't. In an unfortunate bit of scheduling, on the small stages the same acts performed both nights. The fantastic Bahian guitarist Pepeu Gomes offered a magnetic style of instrumental rock. SpokFrevo Orquestra showcased a lesser-known northern Brazil jazz fusion genre called frevo. Obviously, Friday fans showed little interest in seeing the same acts again Saturday, so the area was pretty dead. The lack of action sapped life out of the festival long before Metallica hit the stage near midnight.

By then, I was starving for more Vegas. More glittery ridiculousness. More uniquely American action to complement the proceedings. Yes, there was an Elvis impersonator, but why not have a whole revue at Rock in Rio? A stilt walker and juggler are fine, but what about all those other outrageous things that make Vegas Vegas?

A better organized, more adventurous bill that relied on contemporary rock and not legacy acts would be a start. But also, more zip-lines. More action away from the stage. Comedy. Aerialists. Fire dancers. Magic. Get comedian George Wallace to emcee. Commission Celine Dion to do "The Star Spangled Banner," or hire an impersonator.

Let's not forget where we are here. Go all in or stay home.

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