Rock in Rio starts slow, morphs into wild party

No Doubt, zip lining, street performers and a Brazilian wedding made Day 1 of #RockinRioUSA a wild party

By the end of the night Friday, the first day of Rock in Rio had finally hit its stride.

For months, organizers promised the inaugural, two-weekend U.S. edition of the Brazilian-born festival would bring equal parts concert, amusement park and street party to the Las Vegas Strip.

And as nightfall signaled the start of revelry across Vegas, the 40 acres where the festival was anchored indeed lived up to its billing as the “City of Rock.”

Foster the People tore through its indie pop set to a packed crowd. Festival-goers sliced across the sky on a zip line that zoomed over the crowd and the mainstage, where Mexican rock group Maná would soon deliver a thrashing set.

Brazilian capoeira drummers ignited a crowd on one of the three themed “Rock Streets,” while a circle of street drummers brought a taste of New York City to another strip. And it would be criminal to forget about those crazy Irish cloggers.

One couple even tied the knot in a neon-lit chapel (the service was done in Portuguese) before being serenaded by an Elvis impersonator and popping champagne in front of a crowd of strangers eager to take selfies with them -- and Elvis.

But earlier in the afternoon, the scene was a much different one, as first-day jitters were apparent all over the festival grounds, which made for a frustrating opening.

Logistics were a challenge. Cab drivers were unaware of where to drop off passengers, and shuttles didn’t appear when or where advertised. At festival closing, enterprising limo drivers persuaded tired attendees to shell out for rides, which, considering the walk back to the busier end of the Strip, might not have been a bad idea.

Security, however, was overly efficient, making lines to enter virtually non-existent and the longest lines inside were attendees getting their ID checked to be able to drink and the stands that sold liquor (this is Vegas, after all).

Walking the grounds was a breeze, with a simple layout that made for easy navigation. Most of the day's confusion came courtesy of festival-goers who forgot to download the app that contained set times, which weren’t posted anywhere on site.

And despite much advertising, many seemed to be unaware of the festival’s no-cash, no-credit card policy. Attendees were required to load funds on their wristband, either online or at one of the numerous "Top-Up Stations" on-site.

The problem? Early in the day, a number of the stations were out of service, with throngs of guests crowded at the one station they could find that was working. You couldn't spend your money if you wanted to.

Beers are expensive: $12 for a 24 oz. can of Corona. Lobster tacos: $17. Unlike Coachella, water stations are nowhere to be found. The Ferris wheel wasn't working (one resident told us she watched it being installed the night before from her high-rise).

Crowds were startlingly anemic in the afternoon too.

Organizers expected 30,000 attendees on Day 1 – the newly constructed, $25-million site can accommodate 85,000 people per day – and barely a quarter of that total arrived to take in the early afternoon offerings.

Rapper Theophilus London – he replaced Bleachers, after frontman Jack Antonoff pulled out a few days prior, due to a death in the family – played a solid set to maybe 100 people. More people were waiting in the line for the free zip line than watching him.

The biggest afternoon draw? Cirque du Soleil, which put on a frenzied 15-minute spectacle that opened the mainstage (and largely clashed with the sounds from the London, who appeared to go over).

Those hiccups understandably left organizers nervous throughout much of the day.

“The first hours are intense,” Roberta Medina, vice president of Rock in Rio, admitted. “You get anxious, you don’t know how people will react. But they [seem] happy.

“We’ve had some issues – sound, shuttles, Top-Up stations not working – but we worked it out,” she continued. “We’ve done six editions in Lisbon, and we still look for things to improve.”

Medina, the daughter of Brazilian media/advertising entrepreneur and festival founder Roberto Medina, spent Friday looking for places that needed fine-tuning.

She said they planned on deploying additional support staff in places that slogged before gates open on Saturday, which will be busier with an expected 50,000 in attendance.

But by nightfall, those early quirks were no longer felt.

Fireworks lit up the sky over the crowd, festival-goers carrying alcoholic beverages in souvenir instruments teetered across the field and danced alongside street performers and No Doubt closed the night with a fiery hits parade that stretched into early Saturday morning.

“Are you guys ready to do Rock in Rio in America?" frontwoman Gwen Stefani asked the crowd. "This is really happening.”

It was indeed.

Times staff writer Randall Roberts contributed to this report. 

Follow @PopHiss and @gerrickkennedy on Twitter for more music news. To read more Rock in Rio coverage, check out our liveblog throughout the weekend.

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