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September 22, 2014

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Neon Reverb is back, and it’s bigger than ever

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Spencer Burton / Special to the Sun

Las Vegas band A Crowd Of Small Adventures plays at The Bunkhouse Saloon during Neon Reverb in March.

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One year after the inaugural Neon Reverb Music Festival in downtown Las Vegas, James Woodbridge isn’t getting much sleep this week.

The local music promoter, who co-founded the festival with fellow promoter Thirry Harlin, is preparing for the third installment of the bi-annual Neon Reverb, which kicks off tonight. And this time around the festival is bigger than ever.

“We went from 35 bands the first time to 95 bands in March,” recounts Woodbridge. “We were like, ‘Oh, we better dial it back. We better pull it back a little bit.’ So we dialed it back to 105 bands. It just wasn’t really going to dial back.”

Spread over 12 venues and three nights, Neon Reverb’s 105 bands include popular local acts like A Crowd of Small Adventures, The Clydesdale and Afghan Raiders, as well as out-of-towners hailing from as far away as Spain and Tasmania. Rather than having to hunt down artists to play the mini-sets that fill Neon Reverb’s shows, Woodbridge says that musicians and their representatives are starting to come to him.

“The mushrooming has largely happened just because people have gotten really excited about [Neon Reverb] and wanted to be a part of it,” Woodbridge explains. “More and more bands want to play, not just local bands but regional and national bands. We have agents contacting us now, saying, ‘Hey, it’s coming up on festival time, isn’t it?’ and talking about who they might have available.”

Bands from San Diego and L.A. are making the trip and word of Neon Reverb has hit the Phoenix and Salt Lake City music scenes. Locally, new promoters have gotten involved, adding punk bands to the lineup and offering new venues for Neon Reverb-affiliated shows, like Texas Station and Meet Lounge. With more venues than ever before and musical offerings that include alt-country acts, indie rock, a jam-band show, psychedelic rock and hip-hop, Neon Reverb may be musically broader than it’s ever been, too.

Still, the heart of the festival is firmly embedded in downtown Las Vegas and the local bands that play there. When Woodbridge and Harlin dreamt up Neon Reverb, it was in part to spotlight downtown as a destination and draw in people who don’t normally spend time there. On the first count Neon Reverb has been an obvious success, but the second is harder to accomplish and determine.

“At the very least, it rallies the people who know about downtown and go downtown and brings them all out together at once,” Woodbridge says. “I think it sort of captures a few people’s imaginations – maybe they don’t go downtown very often or they’re still a little afraid of it – and they see this going on and they think, ‘Oh, there seems to be something happening there. Maybe I’ll go down and check out some stuff this weekend.’”

Set against the backdrop of a devastating recession, convincing people unfamiliar with the local music scene to come downtown and pay money to see relatively unknown bands is even more difficult. When the last Neon Reverb in March wrapped its final show, Harlin and Woodbridge were about $5,000 in the hole.

“It’s never a question of making money; it’s a question of not losing money,” Woodbridge explains. Through a new Web site, NeonReverb.com, where people can purchase tickets and merchandise or donate to the festival, “we’re trying to make it easier for people basically to give us their money.”

Prices on festival passes are down from March, and every show except one costs less than $10. That show, held Friday night, includes local bands like The Skooners and The Tinglerz playing staggered sets in both the Aruba Showroom and Thunderbird Lounge.

“We have an expectation that people are going to be less able, or, at least, willing, to spend,” acknowledges Woodbridge. “If you look at the schedule, we really tried to involve a lot of free stuff. So if somebody wanted, they could basically come downtown or to some of the other venues and see free music all weekend.”

And the festival’s founders aren’t the only ones working to keep prices low to encourage higher attendance.

“A lot of the more popular local bands came to us beforehand and said, ‘We’re going to play for free,’” says Woodbridge.

The September 17 showcase at the Bunkhouse featuring A Crowd of Small Adventures, Hungry Cloud, The Novelty Act, Mother McKenzie and Dreaming of Lions! was completely donated, and the popular local duo Afghan Raiders are also playing their set for free to keep ticket prices low.

“We’ve always maintained that this is a community thing; this is about the music community coming together to make something happen,” Woodbridge says. “I definitely think, and rightly so, that the local bands are saying, ‘This is our festival. This is Las Vegas’ festival. We’re part of that music scene, and this is the festival of our music scene.’”

Five bands or shows at Neon Reverb that have James Woodbridge excited:

1) The Most Serene Republic and The Morning After Girls (Sept. 17, Beauty Bar): “Those are a couple of bands I’m super excited to have. The Most Serene Republic is from Ontario, Canada, and The Morning After Girls are from Tasmania. [They] are slightly more garage rock. Really fun stuff.”

2) Themselves (Sept. 19, Beauty Bar): “They came in March and the show was on Sunday night after three jamming days of music. Everybody was obviously just exhausted...pretty much burnt out. Yet, Themselves was still able to pull the people there into such a high level of energy, because the show was just so energetic. That made it even more phenomenal.”

3) Halloween Town (Sept. 19, Aruba Showroom): “Halloween Town is doing their 7” record release show. After they play with The Killers they’re coming up to the Aruba to do the midnight show. Ryan [Pardy] has got a nine-piece band with a horn section with members of Louis XIV and Transfer and The Shys. He’s just got this super group. It’s like, ‘Oh my God!’ What an amazing spectacle.”

4) National SouthWestern Electronic Recordings Showcase (Sept. 17, Bunkhouse): “[It’s] just so many of my favorite local bands in one show. In a lot of ways the Bunkhouse is the most intimate of the locations that we have – the way that it’s set up, the sound is always warm and great. This is sort of like the ultimate hometown show.”

5) The Warlocks (Sept. 18, Aruba Showroom): “They’re a great L.A. psychedelic rock band, and they’re coming off of a world tour. They’ve been all over Europe and England, and they’re touring around the U.S. now and coming in to play the festival. They have a decent fan base here, but this is the first time that they’ll play the festival.”

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