Does Las Vegas seem like a good place for a music festival? I wasn’t sure. The first thing I thought of was that music festivals are typically outdoors and, in August in Las Vegas, it is 100+ degrees every day. That doesn’t sound great. Besides the temperature, everything else seems perfect. Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the US. What’s not to like about that?
There were four stages at the festival, three of which were indoors and air conditioned. So much for the heat. The fourth stage was outside at an artificial beach, but the music didn’t start there until the sun had sunk behind the tops of the surrounding buildings and, even though the temperature was still in the 90s, if the sun isn’t bearing down on you, 93 is not bad in the desert. The Beach Stage was elevated above a large pool, so, if you wanted, you could get in the water, enjoy a beverage, and watch the show. You could also just sit or stand in the sand. There was a Lounge Stage, which was just what it sounds like, a stage in a small lounge next to a bar in the casino. There is a House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay Resort and there was a stage in the club there with mostly standing areas and a bar on three sides. Then there was the main stage in the Events Center, which is a small arena with 12,000 seats. Four very different places for music, each with its own feel and vibe. One thing the stages did all have in common was the very dim lighting. Spot lights were not used – the only lights were from the stage riggings. Some of the bands used more direct light than others, but most all of them seemed darker than usual. The lighting difference really stands out if you’ve been going to festivals all summer because you are used to seeing all the stages in the sunshine until the last two bands of the day. Not at Psycho Las Vegas. Even the Beach Stage, the only one that was outside, seemed darker than usual because the music didn’t start there until dusk. I am not complaining about the lighting, I’m just noting how noticeable it was.
In general, the atmosphere is very comfortable. You don’t get a sunburn and you are not sweating through your shorts. All the restrooms are in-doors with running water and no long lines to wait in. Food, refreshments, and casino gambling is all around. And if you want to take a break from the festival and hit The Strip, just walk out the door and there it is. Also, there is unlimited re-entry, something completely unheard of at other festivals. Come and go as you please. Go to your hotel room for a little while, go buy a Las Vegas souvenir, whatever you want, and then walk right back in. There are security checks at every stage entrance, but there was almost never a wait of more than a couple minutes to get through so coming and going was genuinely easy. The festival environment is unique at Psycho Las Vegas.
All this is great but the most important thing is the music. The lineup at Psycho Las Vegas is unrivaled for heavy music. The headliners were Electric Wizard, a band that rarely plays in the US, the Original Misfits, who perform three or four shows every five years or so, and Opeth, who made their only US appearance of 2019 at the festival. Browsing through the rest of the lineup, you see all sorts of bands that do not appear on run-of-the-mill festival lineups like Goatwhore, Graveyard, High On Fire, Carcass, Tomb Mold, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Kadavar, and on and on. If you are a heavy music fan, this is a festival you do not want to miss. One last crucial point: all the bands play long sets. Hardly any sets were less than 50 minutes and most were one hour or longer. The middle band in the lineup on the Events Center Stage played for 75 minutes. There are no 20 minute sets like you see at a lot of festivals, even for the opening acts.
Let’s take a quick run around the grounds on each day and see what it was like to be there.
[Aside: Psycho Swim was a separate event that was held on Thursday evening before the big festival got going. I missed it, but the reports I got were that Lucifer was great and Corrosion of Conformity nearly caused a tsunami. See what happens when you don’t show up early? I won’t make that mistake next year.]
Day 1. I was fairly disoriented to start with because the casino/resort/hotel/events center complex is gigantic. The map helped. I was there for two Day 1 bands in particular, Electric Wizard, which I had never seen before, and my favorite band of the last couple years, High On Fire. There was a lot of music to be heard, however, so I started with the Lounge Stage listening to Royal Thunder and LA Witch. Both were solid and I had my usual joy burst over the realization that there are so many good bands out there. Going to any of the large festivals you are not really taking much of a chance because all the bands are pros and they want to put on a great performance for their fans and for people who have never seen them before hoping they become fans. And you do have to make choices because some of the bands play at the same time. How do you choose? If you have a band you really like then you know where you’re going, right, but what about the toss-ups? The good news is there are no bad choices. More good news: if you are unhappy with your choice, just take a short walk over to another stage where a different band is playing.
I saw all the acts on the main stage. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was like a psychedelic cross between Primus and Dr. John. Graveyard powered through a set full of highlights from their recent albums. Godspeed You! Black Emperor was … a lot. They had a video display that was odd and occasionally disturbing, and the music formed a loud sound front. The songs were long, 20 minutes each or so. The whole thing put me in a trance. High On Fire, one of the main reasons I came to this festival, gave a tremendous performance but were plagued by technical sound issues for most of the set, ones that were only really cleared up toward the end. They closed with “Snakes for the Divine,” and it roared. Electric Wizard are doom legends that have eluded me until this weekend. They played 90 minutes of blissful rumbling thunder. The perfect close to the first day and an excellent portent for the rest of the weekend.
Remember the thing I said about choices? There were a couple to deal with. I missed Bad Religion because they were on at the same time as Electric Wizard. Likewise, I missed Yob because they overlapped by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and I needed some time to recover. I did see Goatwhore, a long-time favorite of mine, and they were fantastic. Playing in the House of Blues club to an enthusiastic crowd in a claustrophobic venue, the music coalesced into a powerful experience that was a festival highlight for me. Great band, fantastic performance.
Day 2. I have seen Tomb Mold before and I knew I wanted to see them again so their set is how Day 2 started. In Tomb Mold, the drummer Max Klebanoff is also the singer and the band put up an astonishing set for the early crowd at the House of Blues. They were a blistering highlight to the entire festival. Another band flying under the radar that gave a stand-out performance was Triumph of Death. Billed as a Hellhammer tribute band, it was much more than that. Tom Gabriel Warrior, a founding member of the legendary band that was only around from 1982-1984, lead Triumph of Death in playing songs from Hellhammer that, for the most part, have never been performed live before. It was incredible to see the band, and especially Warrior himself, in their only US performance this year. And who knows, this might have been their only US performance ever.
On the Events Stage, there were five bands in a row that made it hard to leave the arena. Old Man Gloom was a new one for me, and I like them so much I tried to buy a t-shirt, but they were sold out (lot of other people must have liked them, too). From their name alone you get a pretty good signal what their sound is like. Triumph of Death was next, then Carcass came on and made a point of announcing they were a Death Metal band not a Doom Metal band, apparently because of the heavy doom weighting to the lineup, but of course the fans didn’t need any apology. Their set was fast and hard and lead to the formation of a raucous pit. After Carcass was Clutch, a band that is completely different and a curiously good transition to the headliner. I usually see Clutch at least half a dozen times a year and they always give a great performance. Their Psycho Las Vegas show was a notch even higher, if that’s possible, and longer than they usually play at festivals so we all got to hear more songs.
Originally Megadeth was supposed to headline Saturday, but they had to withdraw when Dave Mustaine found out he needed medical treatment for throat cancer. How do you replace Megadeth? You can’t, really, but you do need a big band with a huge draw to keep fans happy. The Original Misfits were the perfect choice. Glenn Danzig, Jerry Only, and Doyle lit up the arena and no one was disappointed. Again, there were significant sound problems, bad enough to cause Doyle to leave the stage for four songs, but things got straightened out and this Saturday night set is the one that many fans will say was the most memorable part of the festival.
Day 3. Usually by Sunday of any given festival I am starting to drag a little, but not in Vegas. The comfort of the environment allowed me to wake up on Sunday like it was Saturday. The big bands on the final day for me were Opeth, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Power Trip, and Kadavar. And here I am going to lodge my only complaint about the scheduling: Power Trip played at the same time as Opeth. Now that one IS a tough choice. Opeth has to win that showdown, and that is fine, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little sore about missing Power Trip. Still, I will not recant my soap box oration that the choices are all right. It is not a perfect world, but it is a good one.
Weedeater opened Sunday in the Events Center as a last minute replacement for Rotting Christ (note the blank space on the set times image), the latter band reportedly having visa issues that kept them from performing at the festival. The three-piece stoner band was a new experience for me so I was surprised when frontman Dixie Collins lamented how terrible they were between every song. They were not terrible. Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats followed and were sharp and stunning. Performing in the darkest surroundings of chronically dark stages, the band leaned in and shook the rafters. A top five set for sure. Beach House, an ambient, mellowish trio, was on the Events Stage while 1349, a very heavy band, was out on the Beach Stage. It was a disorienting juxtaposition, at least in my head, but the music they played was what I expected.
Opeth, a band usually described these days as prog-metal but who started out as a straight forward death metal outfit, gave an authentic performance to a somewhat diminished Sunday evening crowd. Mikael Åkerfeldt, the lead singer, paused between songs for long reflections and ruminations about all sorts of things ranging from the evolution of the sound of the band, to wandering around the casino, to watching the Misfits the night before. They opened with “Sorceress,” a personal favorite of mine, so I was happy from the beginning, and the setlist ranged broadly across the band’s canon. For some people, Opeth seemed like a peculiar choice for the festival headliner, but to anyone who stayed around to see them play, they were the perfect fit.
In the end, looking back from late Sunday night, Psycho Las Vegas turned out to be more than I expected, and I had high expectations. I was suspicious of the setting – a casino/resort – and it turned out to be great, better in many (maybe most) ways than the usual festival. I arrived with great anticipation, wanting to see and hear incredible performances by some of my favorite bands, including several I had not seen live before, and they all came through. Before I sat down to write this article, I asked the people I went with to the festival what their complaints were so I could stick it to the organizers in print, but they didn’t have any complaints. Yeah, I know this sounds like a paid endorsement, but it isn’t. I am going to Psycho Las Vegas from now on, every year, even if I have to sell blood to buy a ticket. I unhesitatingly recommend it.
Words by Wayne Edwards © 2019. The images are from the Instagram feed of Psycho Las Vegas.