Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vegas Headliners of the Future!

For a long time, Las Vegas has been the place where the careers of music and comedy superstars have come to die. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack used to play the original casinos in the 60's, selling out classic showrooms with their boozy antics and allowing them to ignore the fact that culture had pretty much passed them by with the ascension of rock acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. 
Elvis Presley was rock's original breakthrough artist, but he played out the last days of his storied career performing in The Las Vegas Hilton (recently rechristened as The LVH), completing his transformation from an icon whose raw sexuality frightened parents into "Fat Elvis," a caricature of his former self with a penchant for Peanut Butter, Bacon, and Banana Sandwiches.

These days, Celine Dion, Elton John, and Garth Brooks headline three of the most successful residency shows in Las Vegas. While none of these icons are as popular as they were at the peaks of their careers, Las Vegas has provided them with cushy homes from which they can sell out decent sized arenas at ridiculously high ticket prices so they can continue to feel as relevant as they did when they were selling millions of records. 

It makes a lot of sense for the artists to sign up for these Vegas residencies... the gigs take them off the grueling road after long careers of touring, and it gives them the opportunity to do something a little more elaborate with the stage-craft since they don't have to haul their sets with them from city to city. The residency shows also seem to sell better than when the stars take their acts on the road because audiences are more inclined to see them when they're on vacation in Las Vegas... it's a phenomenon that seems to come from the same place as the continued success of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.

But who will replace these superstars when they get sick of playing the parts of modern-day Fat Elvises? Behold the list below to see my bold predictions for the future Las Vegas residency stars of the past!

Pearl Jam: It's just about time for a popular 90's act to start a Las Vegas headlining gig. R.E.M. just broke up (and probably had too much integrity to agree to it), Billy Corgan has thoroughly nuked the legacy of The Smashing Pumpkins, and Pavement would only agree to the gig ironically. That leaves Pearl Jam, who haven't embarrassed themselves too much as they've aged and still boast a loyal fanbase willing to buy tickets to their live shows even though they haven't released an album of new material anyone has cared about since before the end of the Clinton administration. If the casino that books them can sell their tickets through a vendor other than Ticketmaster, I'd imagine Eddie Vedder and company would sign up for the gig immediately.

Other 90's nostalgia acts who could pull in the bro-crowd with a Vegas residency: Foo Fighers, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Prince: The Purple-One has actually already starred in a short-lived Las Vegas residency, selling out a series of intimate shows at The Rio for a month back in 2007 before disappearing back into his magical fantasy-land. But a more filled out Prince spectacle like his epic 2007 Super Bowl halftime show performance might be just what Las Vegas needs. The iconic pop genius could roll up on a purple motorcycle for Purple Reign and release a flock of doves (just so you really knew what the sounds is like when they cried).

Alternate 80's pop icons who could end up onstage in Vegas: U2 (because then they could build space-ship like stages to their hearts content and would no longer have to worry about Coldplay nipping at their heels), Morrissey (whose super-gay, British, and old-school stage presence would make him a a natural fit to take over Elton's thrown... if only he was a little more mainstream).

Bob Dylan: It seems like a crazy idea to have one of the most famous protest songwriters of all time take the stage in the capital of late-capitalism, but Bob Dylan has proven time and again that that he likes to completely and total eff with your expectations and that he truly doesn't give an eff about what you think. The super-genius songwriter has already starred in ad for Victoria's Secret where he sat in a throne surrounded by lingerie clad models, so is it really that far a leap to imagine the gravely voiced genius performing The Times They Are A-Changin' with a chorus of sexy burlesque dancers backing him up on stage at The Venetian?

Other 60's rockers who might sell out their legacies for Vegas money: Paul McCartney. He's written some of the best songs of all time but he's not above cashing in in every way possible.

Van Halen: Motley Crue starred in a semi-successful residency earlier this year, proving hard rock acts could hack it in Vegas residencies. If Van Halen could settle down and make David Lee Roth behave, they could bring some serious spectacle (as well as serious money from yuppies looking to relive their headbanger days) to The Strip.

Other hard rock dinosaurs that could get lucky in Vegas: K.I.S.S., Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, any number of hair metal bands.

Jay Z and Friends : The idea of Jay-Z becoming the first hip hop act to star in a Vegas residency makes so much sense I want it to happen ASAP. Hova could become the new Godfather of The Strip, bringing spectacle, a great back catalog of hits, and famous friends to drop in and do guest spots. He's already declared himself the "new Sinatra" in Empire State of Mind; why not create the Hip Hop Rat Pack (please don't make Rap-Pack jokes... I've already considered and rejected that awful pun) and bring Kanye and Beyonce along for the ride?

Other Hip Hop Icons who could rock The Strip: Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac's Hologram (yes you knew that joke would appear in this article eventually).

Monday, May 21, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 18: Downtown Cocktail Room

I've mentioned The Downtown Cocktail Room a few times in recent posts, and realized it was high time the place got an entire article devoted to it's unique brand awesome-ness.

I'll start this endorsement by admitting to being incredulous about the place before my first visit, mostly because I'm bored and annoyed by the whole faux speakeasy trend that seems like it will never come to an end (especially with the success of Boardwalk Empire on HBO). It's become a huge cliche to open justify the prices of your expensive cocktails at bars by attempting to sell an old-school prohibition era speakeasy feel, complete with costumed staff, vintage projections on the walls, 1920s era music playing on the speakers, and secret passwords uttered to gain entry. It was a fun gimmick when it first started, but I've been to far too many bars where customers are dressed up in striped suits, fedora hats, and ugly fake flapper girl dresses purchased at Forever 21 for it to be cute anymore. Manhattan's Please Don't Tell (or PDT, for those who are too cool to say full words) has a secret entrance through a telephone booth in the back of a hot dog shop where you have to say a password into the phone to get in. All of this is fun and nice, but the vibe of mot of these places place is thick with unearned pretension and smugness, like a Jason Reitman film given solid form. What's the point of going to a place just to boast that you've been there? The whole trend to me is the depressingly uncreative side of the cocktail culture trend; creating a speakeasy theme in your cocktail-centric bar is as lazy as wine bar owners who make their guests sit on wine barrel stools and use "clever" grape puns in their names.

The Downtown Cocktail Room does, in fact, employ the "speakeasy" label; yes, it does feature an entrance that's hard to find even when you're looking for it, and yes, the bartenders wear silly hats as they pour you complicated cocktails. But that's where the speakeasy BS ends, as the bar is much more relaxed than other places that use the "S" word. The Downtown Cocktail Room never seems to be populated by annoying people dressed up in "look at me" outfits (but perhaps that particularly annoying observation is something I notice more simply because most of the speakeasy bars I've been to are in Los Angeles, of all cities). The Downtown Cocktail Room's vibe can only be described as "totally effing chill," with DJs spinning relaxed tunes (as opposed to aggressive club bangers) and intimate corner booths where you can enjoy private conversations with your friends where you can actually hear each other speak (or enjoy some low-lit, sexy-times makeout sessions with a date).

Even though their fedora hates do carry the whiff of douchery, the bartenders know their stuff cold. I'm normally a beer guy, but when you go to the Downtown Cocktail Room, you have to indulge in their spectacular libations. Their Old Fashioned is one of the very best I've had in Las Vegas, and the lead bartender is always switching up ingredients behind the counter depending on the season. While fruity drinks are rarely my thing, I've had a few cocktails at the place made with muddled fresh fruits that made me rethink my stance (and my entire life philosophy, they were so damned good).

It helps that DCR owner Michael Cornthwaite (who also runs The Beat Coffeehouse and Emergency Arts) is evangelical about the possibilities of the emerging neighborhood, a pioneer who was on the first to believe that a cool local business could survive in the area. According to local origin myths, Cornthwaite famously sold Zappos CEO and Downtown Vegas savior Tony Hsieh on moving his company to the area (over stiff drinks at the bar, of course). Hsieh was more than sold... he decided to move his company into the former City Hall and invest much of his personal wealth into revitalizing the area. Nowadays, Hsieh can often be found sipping on seasonal libations in what has become his favorite bar in Las Vegas.

With an owner who is truly passionate about turning the derelict neighborhood that surrounds the place into a community, a quirky sensibility (the bar's website lists house rules such as "talk of religion and politics is strongly discouraged unless you are a priest, rabbi, or politician. In that case, it is probably past your bedtime)," and some of the most mind blowing adult drinks that Sin City has to offer, The Downtown Cocktail Room has become the unofficial ground zero of the neighborhood's slow but steady rebirth.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Downtown Watch: Thinking Inside the (Hot Metal) Box

I've made no secret of closely following Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's extremely ambitious plans to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas from a post-apocalyptic no-man's land into a vital, hip, artistic, and non-zombified neighborhood. Hsieh is a visionary who is probably the only person who can pull of the seemingly impossible task of turning an area that makes LA's famously derelict (though improving) downtown look more like Times Square in comparison into a livable and cool spot to work, socialize, and live.

Already, Hsieh has transformed Downtown by opening an indie coffee shop that's almost always filled with the coolest people in town, started plans to move his corporate headquarters to the area's abandoned City Hall, helped fund a beautiful new arts center that's brought an infusion of actual culture to the city, purchased the rights to and breathed fresh life into the monthly First Fridays art and music festival, moved himself and and many of his employees into a once failing condo complex that's transformed into a hub for the city's creative class. Hsieh doesn't just talk the Downtown talk, he walks the walk, as he's become a visible participant in the neighborhood's social life, as he is often spotted enjoying ballet at The Smith Center and throwing back drinks at The Downtown Cocktail Room.

But the latest part of Hsieh's masterplan has left me scratching my head a bit. The energetic and innovative CEO and his merry band of Downtown Project followers are moving forward on opening a group of businesses in old shipping containers.

That right's, Hsieh and his crew are super-cereal about opening a whole mess of bars, restaurants, boutiques, cafes, galleries, and other small businesses in those big, heavy ugly metal boxes (often referred to as "cans" by those in the know, or by those who have watched the second season of The Wire on Netflix) that are used to ship just about everything (including mail order brides) from port to port.

It's not a totally new concept. The idea has been given the buzzy-term "flexible urbanism," and has (to nobody's shock) already been adopted in places like Montreal, San Francisco, Portland and Brooklyn. Brookyln's Dekalb Market, with it's collection of boutique vintage shops, restaurants, and outdoor movie screenings, and San Francisco's Proxy Project, featuring a chill outdoor Beer garden, seem to be the models Hsieh is aiming to replicate... and surpass, as the Downtown Project website declares their goal of turning Las Vegas into "the shipping container capital of the world," a selling point that will probably not replace the city's famous "what happens here, stays here" slogan anytime soon.

The idea makes a certain crazy kind of sense, in a way. Hsieh is eager to get cool small businesses to move into spaces in Downtown ASAP, and one way to so in a quick and environmentally friendly fashion without waiting for entire new buildings to be built from scratch is to create shipping container structures in the many abandoned lots that are the most common feature in the area. It also means that a small business owner with a cool idea can score a space for very cheap and start interacting with the community without much overhead. Once building does begin in one of the lots, shipping container structures are also very easy to move as well if needed. The price and flexibility, Hsieh and company hope, will draw creative and innovative entrepreneurs looking to get their businesses started immediately, and then keep them in the area for good as more permanent structures are built.

Hsieh and his team envision the project opening as soon as possible, as plans have already been submitted to build a park of containers stacked on elevated platforms over two empty lots, one on Fremont Street owned by a company with ties to The El Cortez and one on 7th Street owned by a company with ties to The Downtown Project.

While the plan does sound nice and intriguing, with irresistible elements of Hsieh's utopian-enthusiasm, the fact remains that we're still talking about giant metal boxes here. Giant metal boxes that will be sitting out in the Las Vegas heat, in the middle of a dessert where temperatures in the summer often spike into the 120s. I'm sure these converted containers will be ventalated and feature some kind of air conditioning system, but that does not change the fact that they are, in the end, giant metal boxes. And while some of the converted container projects I've seen have been creatively designed, they're not exactly going to be Frank Gehry level works of architectural genius that will inspire people into believing that Downtown has been completely turned around into a progressive haven. The boxes can be pieced together like Tetris blocks, cut open on sides, retrofitted with windows and doors, and repainted, but there will still be drawbacks to the fact that they're narrow metal boxes that afford customers little in the way of leg room. Then there's also the fact that, as one commenter on The Las Vegas Review Journal's recent piece on the proposal pointed out that the designers should "put graffiti on" the renderings of the project so the public has a "real idea" of what the proposed project will look like (and then there's the commenter who somehow used the proposal as proof that we can't compete with China, then somehow tied it all in to blaming Obama, even though I'm pretty sure the President has nothing to do with the Downtown revival plans. Ah, internet comment threads.). Critics of the plan also warn that visitors may be intimidated by the area's prominent population of panhandlers, as well as the less than optimal parking options nearby.

While these are all valid fears, Hsieh has proven time and again to be an innovative thinker who has been right more often than not even when his positive thinking initially borders on crazy talk. Hsieh has pulled off the impossible before and seems eager to invest his own personal wealth into improving the area, so you might just find yourself enjoying artisinal Ice Creams and craft Brews served out of locked together shipping containers in Downtown Vegas sooner than later. And as long as Hsieh and company figure out a way to keep those damned metal boxes cool in the summer, I'll be hanging out there as well, snickering at references to The Wire with my friends.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Cocktail Culture Comes to Las Vegas

Cocktail culture has become a wildly popular trend in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cool cities, possibly as a symptom of Mad Men hysteria. These days, you can't throw a rock in one of those towns without hitting a vest-clad mixologist working in a faux speakeasy who can chat with you about the best Bourbon to use in an Old Fashioned and has invented a cleverly named original drink made with seasonal muddled fruits that takes the running time of a typical network sitcom to prepare.

And I'm conflicted about the whole thing.

On one hand, any trend that emphasizes quality is a good thing. I've had some incredibly inventive drinks that tasted like liquid heaven, and I love that you can get Old Fashioneds at almost any bar these days. I like to drink my Old Fashioneds pensively and pretend I'm Don Draper listening to The Beatles for the first time (the real original studio recordings, exorbitant licensing fees be damned!).

While I dig on the retro speakeasy style and delicious drinks, there is something a bit d-baggy about the whole thing. The bartenders at all of these places wear vests... seriously, can't we get a little more creative with the costuming? But more problematically is that cocktail culture in its mutant inception becomes just another thing for yuppie assholes to be pretentious about as they try to impress people with facts about imported Vodkas, the best bitters, and seasonal fruit infusions. Plus a lot of these idiots show up dressed in striped vests just like the bartenders behind the bar, which is just so immensely stupid I don't know where to start.

However conflicted I am about it, the trend continues to grow, and has certainly found its way to Las Vegas. Below is a list of some of the best spots to get haute-cocktails in Sin City.

The Downtown Cocktail Room: Yes, another Downtown bar. And you better believe I'll eventually write a whole post on this awesome place near Fremont Street. I love Downtown Las Vegas, it's just who I am... if you have a problem with that, you can stop reading. Anyway, now that the unnecessarily defensive part is out of the way, The Downtown Cocktail Room is an intimate, low lit place with a cool vibe and resident DJs who spin chilled out tunes as one of the most respected bartenders in town mixes a collection of unbelievable signature drinks. Their Old Fashioned is top-notch, but don't be scared by their menu of original, seasonal concoctions such as The Orthodox Caveman (made with Zucca, Cachaca, Scotch, Apertif, and Bitters), the irreverently named Don't Fig With Me (a concoction of Apple Jack, Fig, Orange, and Molasses), or The Downtown Cider (Spiced Rum, Ginger, Lime, and Clove). This is the kind of place where you can point to a few of your favorite bottles from behind the bar and watch as the alcohol-magician mixes something off the top of his head based on your choices. So yeah, don't just order a Jack and Coke at this awesome spot that provides an escape from the usual Strip scene.

The Vesper Bar: Located near The Cosmopolitan's check in desk, this sexy lounge, named after James Bond's first girlfriend (played by the inhumanly sexy Eva Green in 2006's awesome 007 reboot Casino Royale) features a menu of signature drinks that changes seasonally and includes classic drinks that have gone out of fashion over the years. The expert mixologists (I know it's a terrible term and the first place I heard it was at TGI Friday's, but it's what they seem to prefer to be called so whatever) will make you whatever you want or create a new drink on the fly based on what you like. It's one of those places where you'll order something and they'll recommend a drink that you might like better... and I'd advise you to listen to them, because these people know what they're talking about. The Vesper's ostentatious Chandelier covered  ceiling fits in perfectly at The Cosmopolitan, one of the most self consciously cool resorts in Las Vegas, but with perfectly mixed drinks like the delicious Aviation (a classic from 1916 originally created to celebrate the Wright Brothers made with Gin, Maraschino Liquer, Creme de Violette, and Lemon Juice), it's worth putting up with a little bit of trying too hard.

Herbs and Rye: If you're really into old school cocktail culture, this off-Strip freestanding bar and restaurant on Sahara Avenue is a great bet. Decked out in velvet wallpaper, black leather booths, and chandeliers, the bartenders mix one of the best Old Fashioneds I've ever had in my life as well as the Broken Spur (a resurrected classic made with White Port, Dry Gin, Vermouth, Anisette, Brisard, and a fresh Egg yolk). The food isn't bad either, as my friends and I split a few small plates, and the roaring 20's style vibe is complimented by live Jazz band performances on Monday nights.

Fusion Mixology Bar: Located in the middle of the casino floor in The Palazzo, this Latin themed bar serves fresh fruit infused cocktails from Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Trinidad with an emphasis on liquors like Tequila, Rum, Cachaca, and Pisco. Drinks like the Flora Fresca (made with Lemon-Ginger Simple Syrup, Vanilla Vodka, Jasmine Liqueur, Hibiscus Liqueur, Lavender Spice Bitters, and Fresh Ginger) or The Gondolier Blanco (made with White Chocolate Liqueur, White Creme de Menthe, White Creme de Cocoa, White Chocolate Syrup, and Cream) are complimented by high energy Salsa, Samba, and Rumba music. It's also refreshing to visit a place that emphasizes mixology where the bartenders are not wearing striped vests and the vibe is isn't that same old fake-Speakeasy thing which was cool a few years ago when it first started coming back but has quickly become an uncreative cliche.

Nora's Italian Cuisine: The family-run, old school eatery, which has been open since 1991, serves classic Italian cuisine in a warm and inviting off-Strip space. While it's not a place that anyone would describe as hip (or even on the same planet as hip), Nora's has been on the vanguard of high quality cocktails for years before it became trendy. Signature cocktails made with fresh seasonal ingredients (with the name of the bartender who invented the concoction listed next to the drink on the menu, a nice personal touch) include The Meadow's Mist (made with Bombay Sapphire, MB Peach, fresh Strawberries, Honey, Rosemary, and Lemon), The Cable Car (with Absolut Mandarin Vodka, Cruzan Mango, Mango Coulis, Alize Red, and Sour), and The Pilgrim's Passion (made with Hendrick's Gin, Elderflower Liquour, Passion Fruit Couilis, Mint, and Sour). The homestyle Pastas and Pizzas aren't bad either.

Bar Moderno: Located inside the futuristic Aria at CityCenter, Bar Moderno employs great mix masters who create spectacular handcrafted Cocktails made with fresh seasonal ingredients (I have used that term too many times in this post, and for that I apologize, but it's also one of the buzzy terms that almost all fancy Cocktail spots emphasize, and while it sounds silly it really does make a difference in the quality of the libations). Drinks like like The Sticky 'n Sweet (made with Rum, Peanut Butter, Honey, Coconut Milk, Ice, and fresh toasted Coconut Garnish) are served in a funky yet fancy bar decked out in bright purple with gold tree trunk sculptures, as live bands and DJs perform, some of whom suprisingly don't suck.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Last Play at O'Sheas

Downscale, Irish themed Casino O'Shea's is the latest old-school-ish (the place has only been around since 1989 but seems to come from a much older era) Las Vegas den of iniquity to bite the dust in the name of progress, as the drunken girl has closed to make room for The Linq, a bazillion dollar, outdoor multi-media entertainment district that will feature one of the largest Ferris Wheels in the world, among other things. The Linq is a smart play for Caesars Entertainment, the company that owned and operated O'Shea's, but it wasn't until after the place closed that I realized how much I'd miss it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all, and I guess the closing of the cheesily themed Casino has inspired in me a bout of Irish-style melancholy.

So let this post serve as a drunken wake to the Casino, a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and bros with popped collars) if there ever was one in Sin City. If I was more clever/ less lazy I'd try to write this post in some sort James Joycey-ish voice, but come on, let's be real here: the theming in the casino was not that deeply thought out, and I haven't ever actually read Ulysses. But here are the reasons that O'Shea's will be sorely missed now that's it's gone:

-CHEAP BUCKETS O' BEER: My southern friend was in Vegas, just a few weeks before O'Sheas shuttered its doors for good, and he drunk text-blasted a bunch of us with news that he was enjoying a "bucket of beer." I've been to Vegas with the man many times and knew precisely what he was referring to: O'Shea's was notorious for selling huge plastic cups of bad beer for $5, a great deal (even for horrible, watered down brews), and he often insisted on making the place our first stop on nights out on The Strip. I didn't have the heart to break the news that O'Shea's was a mere week or so from closing while he merrily enjoyed his giant cup of crappy beer (which inevitably gets pretty warm about halfway through drinking it), so I waited to tell him until he returned home to the "real world of Los Angeles." We lamented the loss of the place (and cheap buckets o' beer) together over over-priced pints of (much better) craft brews at the local dive in Los Feliz.

-BEER PONG: Okay, this one will not excite some of you, dear readers. This will make some of you groan "ugh, gross, frat bro douche Entourage, Adrian Grenier, Ashton Kutcher, energy drinks!" Basically, this is not the type of content many of you hope to read on this blog. And I can't defend the idea of playing public Beer Pong on tables covered in spilled suds in the middle of a crappy bar/ food court area in the back of a low stakes Casino without hotel rooms which also notable featured a Vince Neil Tattoo Shop and a Burger King. I can't defend it other than to say that while the Beer Pong Tables (approved of by the shadowy The World Series of Beer Pong, who I think are associated with the same organization that tried to push Sam Jackson around in The Avengers) are the opposite of the type of place where you can find an "escape from douchebaggery," they also provide you with the opportunity to smoke groups of arrogant frat boys and shut up their moths and trash talking instantly as you display your excellent spin shots, leading to a wild night of making out with beautiful blond sorority sisters from Arizona State. And now there is one less place where that kind of night can happen in Las Vegas, and that's a little sad. Pop your collars in respect, gentlemen.

-LOW STAKES GAMING: The tables at O'Shea's had some of the lowest minimum bets in Las Vegas, so you could kill some time on their casino floor playing Roulette, Craps,  and Blackjack without losing your shirt too quickly. And the longer you play, the more likely you are to hit some lucky number. A quick look at the casino's Wikipedia page reveals that with the low minimum bets came a price... after Caesars bought them out, the place had some of the worst odds in Las Vegas, particularly in Blackjack. But the odds of you beating the house were pretty slim anyway, so why not just enjoy the low prices that let you gamble for longer? Plus, I've always found the low stakes gamblers are the more interesting people to hang out with. I'd much rather hear stories about following The Dead in the 60's from a burnout who looks like Santa Claus than have to listen to some Eurotrash high roller talk about anything any day of the week.

-THAT OLD FEELIN': It wasn't actually as old as The Sahara or the pointlessly imploded Stardust, but O'Shea's had a rougher around the edges, scummier vibe than some of the slick new corporate resorts lining The Strip. I mean, the chips always seemed a bit dirty at the place, which is probably pretty gross, but somehow also felt more authentic. I'm not saying this scuzzy vibe is necessary in all of Las Vegas: but I am saying it is necesarry to exist somewhere in Las Vegas; sadly, it's becoming increasingly rare in Sin City.

O'Shea's was a trashy, alcohol-soaked crap-hole with a half-assed Irish theme filled with frat dudes with flipped collars, grizzled old timers, cigarette smoke, dirty chips, smelly carpets, and cheap buckets of beer. And now that it's gone, it turns out that I'll miss it terribly.