Pop & Hiss

Rock in Rio: Five highlights from Day 1

Taylor Swift, Jessie J, Charli XCX, Tove Lo among highlights of Rock in Rio

When gates opened at Rock in Rio USA’s tiny city on the Las Vegas Strip on Friday afternoon, it already had the benefit of a full weekend of operation under its belt.

Organizers had learned a great deal from last weekend’s denizens, many of whom returned for another round, about what worked and what didn't inside the City of Rock.

Last week’s launch attracted 82,000 attendees to its first two days of concerts, rides and street performers and, with more expected to swing through town for the pop-centric lineup topped by Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, those lessons came in handy.

While we’re still recovering from Swift’s late-night spectacle here are five highlights from Day 1.

Better organization. Rock in Rio got off to a frustrating opening last weekend, with first-day jitters apparent all over the grounds. Logistics were a challenge. The festival’s no-cash, no-credit card policy didn’t seem convenient when "Top-Up Stations" were out of service. Friday’s pop opening was much tighter. There was extra signage, and digital screens directing guests upon arrival. An accompanying app was updated to display food shop locations (and menus). We even noticed digital screens displaying artist set times.

Women who (obviously) rock. It’s hard to think of the last festival we went to that packed this much female power into a single day -- and we were absolutely here for it. No offense to guitar man James Bay, who kicked things off, but the party didn’t really start until Swedish indie-popper Tove Lo took the stage. Her set was smoldering, bristling with frank sex talk and sweaty dancing. It was also refreshing to see the guys being instructed to take off their shirts at a festival, for once.

Things continued with Brazilian sensation Ivete Sangalo. Globs of fans ran full speed to the main stage when she arrived. Why? That voice! Sangalo, in a sparkly catsuit with frills, brought the first taste of true divadom to the weekend with a fabulous showing that was as charismatic as it was magnetic.

As the day went on, Charli XCX led a rowdy party with fans throwing beach balls and moshing to the point of spilling alcohol (Charli also did a rock version of “Fancy” that was infinitely better than the original -- sorry, Iggy), Jessie J made a play for superstardom and Swift arrived to kick off her 1989 World Tour in typical Taylor Swift fashion (endless theatrics, hair flips, sing-alongs, cute male dancers and arena pizazz).

“Here we are at Rock in Rio, and 50,000 of you showed up,” Swift said, beaming during her headlining set.

Jessie J should be a superstar. Speaking of ladies who rock, why isn’t Jessie J a bigger star? The British R&B-pop singer has spent the better part of a decade playing for superstardom (even before her YouTube days). She’s come close since her 2011 debut “Who We Are,” particularly with massive hits “Domino” and recent ladies summer anthem “Bang Bang.” Her set Friday night was proof she deserves more recognition.

Arguably the best vocalist on the bill, her set was an electrifying assault of pop diva prowess. Endless swagger and charm, she delivered one brassy melisma-soaked performance after another. She’s a dynamic live performer -- chants for the encore rang out loudly, and she gladly delivered -- even if she’s in need of more cohesive bodies of work. But with a voice like that, anything can be remedied.

Everybody loves dance (crews). Of the entire roster of oddball, Vegas-esque offerings on the themed side streets, it’s the dance crew that knows how to pull them in. No matter who’s playing on the major stages, there’s always a crowd catching the crew of hip-hop dancers bending and flexing their bodies or moving in sync with one another. The soundtrack is heady, too. Day 1 saw routines to Biggie, Jay Z, Michael Jackson and DMX. We made it a habit of coming back for seconds and thirds.

Shots, shots, shots. Sin City is already the land of copious boozing, and bringing a music festival to the Strip means the liquor had better be overflowing. While most festivals restrict alcohol to beer gardens and gated lounges, the City of Rock is a free-for-all.

It’s sacrilege to walk across the field without a drink in your hand, as we found out from a guy literally carrying a Corona keg on his back. (Seriously, cute guys pouring drafts abound, thanks to the cashless wristband). While the majority of festivalgoers seemed to prefer the massive souvenir daiquiris that start at $30 -- one insensitive stand named a cocktail after Hurricane Katrina -- the bars serving craft cocktails were pretty empty, which made access to premium drinks easy.

For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy

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