The last time I was in Las Vegas, it was for the launch of U2's Popmart tour in 1997, and the only thing I remember is that the giant lemon they were supposed to emerge from during the show malfunctioned in a very Spinal Tap way. I also couldn't get the sound of plinking quarters out of my head for weeks afterward.
It's a whole other ball game now. The old, quaint Vegas of that time is gone, replaced by the rumbling life-sized pirate ships outside of the Treasure Island casino, the fake Manhattan skyline of New York, New York, the candy-colored dancing water display at the Bellagio and the absence of grimy buckets of coins in favor of plastic cards. Not a gambler or a drinker by nature — which kind of makes me stand out like a militant vegan at a Louisiana rib festival — I decided to try and have the most Vegas experience I could without resorting to penny slots and "Guitar Hero"-sized, Stratocaster-shaped drink specials.
Instead of blowing my per diem in a smoky casino, my Saturday (April 17) would consist of plugging quarters into vintage pinball games, gawking at Liberace's feathered get-ups, the Beatles' Cirque du Soleil show "Love" and a nightcap of rock with Them Crooked Vultures at the Hard Rock Casino.
Ostensibly in town to cover the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday night (April 18), I got in a day early and made a beeline for a part of town none of my cab drivers were familiar with. First stop: The Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame and Museum. For a silver ball junkie like me, this was like visiting the Louvre. In addition to tons of really boss vintage games like the amazing Elton John-themed "Captain Fantastic," there were some of my all-time arcade favorites, like "Xenon," "Twilight Zone," "Terminator 2," "Spy Hunter," "Shaq Attack," "Pin-Bot," "Tron" and "Dragon's Lair," the first "interactive" video game, which used then-cutting edge laser disc technology.
Literally across the street is the Liberace Museum, a memorial to perhaps the most Vegas of all Vegas performers, the spangly "Mr. Showmanship" himself. Lady Gaga has nothing on the Big L. From feather and crystal-dripping costumes that weighed more than 200 pounds (such as the awe-inspiring "King Neptune" get up) to mirror-bedecked Rolls Royces, a rhinestone encrusted Baldwin grand piano and a white and yellow gold piano-shaped ring with 260 diamonds. Liberace was so over-the-top he even made Cher blush.
That evening, after dodging the gauntlet of what seemed like hundreds of hawkers trying to hand me cards for escort services, pushing my way past freaks dressed as Na'vi, storm troopers, Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands and more than half a dozen Michael Jacksons, I hit up the Mirage to catch the Cirque du Soleil show "Love."
I'd read plenty of rave reviews of the Beatles revue, and I've seen a number of Cirque shows before, but none of that prepared me for this spectacle. Vegas is sometimes where artists in the twilight of their careers go to cash in one more time, and Beatles fans were worried that this show would be a nostalgia trip that would cheapen the band's carefully-manicured place atop music's Mount Olympus and make them seem dated and corny.
Not a chance. The show takes music that is more than 40 years old and makes it utterly contemporary, blending the songs into a kind of mash-up/mixtape of perfectly sequenced Beatles classics and outtakes accompanied by breakdancing, stepping, Krumping, in-line skating on a vert ramp and trampoline work. It sounds as chaotic as "Revolution No. 9" but comes off like a psychedelic mash note to the Fab Four.
The in-the-round theater is equipped with 6,000 speakers that blast the tunes at sometimes concert-worthy volume as acrobats and dancers move through the early lives of the Beatles, blasting apart a WWII-era Liverpool set during a bombastic "Get Back," racing across the stage in a vintage Beetle for "Drive My Car" and filling the air with giant soap bubbles pulled from the top of a grand piano for "Strawberry Fields Forever."
The story of the singer's rise is eventually dropped in favor of pieces that bring the group's songs to life. "Octopus's Garden" featured an aerialist in long, flowing jellyfish costumes trippily bouncing up and down, while hippie trampolinists flipped through the air to avoid riot cops during a turbulent "Revolution" and four in-line skaters wearing moptop-shaped helmets glided and spun through the air on two vert ramps during "Help."
The good vibes of that show were a nice contrast to the pummeling rock at the Joint, where supergroup Them Crooked Vultures assaulted the sold-out crowd with nearly 90 minutes of bare-knuckle rock. Queens of the Stone Age swinger Josh Homme is the frontman, but it's hard not to get distracted by Foo Fighters singer/guitarist Dave Grohl pounding away like a maniac behind the drum kit and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who is the band's not-so-secret weapon.
"Interlude With Ludes" had a island breeze/reggae vibe, with Jones strapping on a keytar and Homme singing in an almost comical falsetto and goofing that the original tune was by a host of Vegas icons, from Elvis to Robert Goulet. The amiable six foot frontman admitted what he does stays in Vegas only because he can't remember anything as an introduction to the battering "Caligulove," with Grohl smashing away like the Muppets' Animal as Jones played a wheezing keyboard solo.
When not steady thrumming on bass, Jones played fiddle, some jazzy keyboard and provided spot-on backing vocals. "Mind Eraser, No Chaser" was the centerpiece, a dose of punk thunder with Grohl on harmonies on a song that lumbered and lurched headlong like so many Vegas drunks clutching their $18 commemorative flutes of SoCo.
There was no encore, but as promised, Homme rung it out with "Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up," a 10 minute monster blues that sounded like a metallic Allman Brothers jam.
I couldn't get in to see Cher or Wayne Newton, but all in all, it was a classic Vegas day, and for once I felt like I came out the winner.