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Vegas's "Life is Beautiful" music festival is a makeover for derelict city core

Life is Beautiful festival
Logo for the innaugural Life is Beautiful Festival being held in Las Vegas this weekend.Courtesy Life Is Beautiful Festival

A cadre of volunteers and entrepreneurs are putting the finishing touches on what they hope will be downtown Las Vegas' debutante ball: a sprawling music and food festival that takes over the city's core this weekend.

The inaugural Life is Beautiful event boasts many stock festival components: dozens of indie acts, including big names like Beck and Vampire Weekend, whimsical flourishes like a pop-up park, and an array of art imported from the Burning Man desert carnival.

And it has something else: Financial backing and logistical support from Tony Hsieh, the Internet billionaire who founded Zappos, the online clothing store, and is trying to remake Las Vegas into a world class city. Without that support, the festival would have gone to another, more established town, according to founder Rehan Choudhry.

Hsieh has committed to transforming the derelict heart of Las Vegas, pledging $350 million to redevelopment, recruiting young people from the coasts to work for his Downtown Project, and buying up about 20 square blocks of land.

During a recent tour of the 15 blocks that will host the inaugural festival, Hsieh and Choudhry worked through last minute issues.

Hearing that Choudhry was running low on rooms for staff, Hsieh offered up a few in a motel across the street, one of several that the Downtown Project is gutting and renovating. Not enough Star Wars storm trooper costumes for festival-goers to wear in headphone-powered silent disco? How about just handing out white outfits instead.

Many of the elements installed downtown for Life is Beautiful will stay after the festival is gone, including huge murals commissioned from international street artists, renovated neon motel signs and repaved lots with electrical hookups for future events. Part of the empty Western Hotel has also been torn down to make room for the event, which is expected to attract 50,000 attendees, making it a fifth the size of South by Southwest, the monster music, film and ideas festival held each spring in Austin, Texas.

Choudhry, a former casino entertainment manager who sports leather bracelets and perfectly quaffed hair, said he expects the festival to grow symbiotically with the gentrifying city.

"It's the way Austin grew so quickly, with South by Southwest coming back year after year. All the stuff they were creating started becoming more and more permanent," he said, clutching a Red Bull.

For Hsieh, the festival will be a way to reintroduce Las Vegas to itself. Choudhry says 40 percent of tickets have gone to Las Vegas residents, most of whom have never spent time downtown, a neighborhood still best known for the Fremont Street Experience, a walking mall next to the town's oldest casinos that sprawls out beneath a long metal canopy rigged with hourly light show.

During the past few years, the adjacent area, dubbed Fremont East, has become the closest thing Las Vegas has to a traditional neighborhood, with cutesy restaurants, high-concept bars and a cozy cafe all clustered within walking distance.

The festival may be the most high profile of the 200 or so Hsieh's organization is sponsoring.

In addition to 70 bands and DJs, Life Is Beautiful will feature wine tastings, dozens of food vendors, two Ferris wheels, and the spectacle of pop icons swapping instruments for aprons and cooking alongside celebrity chefs. Side stages will feature performances grabbed from the Strip, including Cirque du Solei acrobatics.

There are reasons the festival might not make the splash organizers hope. Prices are relatively high — $100 for a day — with fewer big names than a typical summer music festival. There's also the possibility of competition from the Strip, which doesn't need a festival because it itself is a festival.

It's unclear that people in Las Vegas have an appetite for the more obscure acts further down the ticket, and not everyone is drawn to Life is Beautiful's warm and fuzzy aesthetic, with its red and purple heart logo.

A group of local punks are staging a counter-festival this weekend, with a title that borrows the "Life is" construction, but ends on a bleaker, more obscene, note. But even the organizer of that festival, Jack Johnson, gives credit to the downtown effort.

"We're just capitalizing on the attention," he said. "The party spirit is contagious"