Hello again from Russia ! This month I’m gonna serve you a tasty American dish served with a Russian flavour. It’s about a veteran Russian rocker who has paid more than one visit to the one and only Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekender, on the other side of the pond. For those of you who have been to Las Vegas, you will be able to relate to this tale. For those that haven’t, sit back and be educated !
The Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender has been going for nearly 30 years now. It represents sort of a pilgrimage for rockabilly aficionados from around the World to meet up and savour the best that rockabilly has to offer. Interestingly, this iconic festival in Nevada USA was created and founded by a Brit. His name was Tom Ingram, a DJ and promoter. He had previously organised festivals in the UK. When he moved to southern California he started looking around for the right place to establish a stateside rockabilly shindig. The first one took place in 1997.
As he explained in 2015, “I looked at a lot of cities and decided Vegas was by far the best location. The freedom of restrictions in Vegas makes the difference, such as 24-hour bars.” The festival got its name from the 1964 film starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret.
The festival originally began with about 1,200 attenders, but is now over 20,000. What used to be a few dozen bands in two showrooms is now over 100 performers. This does not include “overflow” gigs all over the city. The first car show in 1997 filled part of one deck of a small parking garage. Now it extends over several acres. And now, in addition to the centre piece of the festival i.e. the music, Viva Las Vegas also has pool parties, dance contests, burlesque shows, bowling tournaments, guitar clinics, vendor ballrooms and more.
About the car show, a man who lives in Las Vegas by the name of Lucky La Rue, a DJ who frequently played the festival, advised that “It started out at the Gold Coast Hotel with maybe 100 cars. Now it’s at the Orleans casino and there are tens of thousands of people from seven continents. The car show is one of the biggest in the country. For a sub-culture, the numbers they get every year are pretty impressive.”
Over the years, the festival has hosted many rock n’ roll legends, the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Wanda Jackson. Performance spaces are located throughout the Orleans casino: Lounges, bars, ballrooms, pool decks and parking lots all have stages for a variety of acts. Music isn’t limited to pure rockabilly, with country swing, rhythm’n’blues and jump blues all featuring. Performances are varied, ranging from solo guitar-slingers to stage-filling combos with multiple musicians, singers and dancers.
And now let me hand over the story to Konstantin Napasnikov. I myself worked in the USA in the early 1990s in Alabama, but never got to make it to Vegas. But Konstantin sure did. Back in 2019, he contributed an article for this column, on “The Life and Times of a Russian Rocker.” This time he will narrate his experiences at Viva Las Vegas. Over to you, Konstantin:
I visited Viva three times in a row. In short, I was delighted with the festival. Everything was organised at the highest level. The performances were divided into several venues, by themes and by days. For example, on one of the evenings the main stage was dedicated to groups playing the most appropriate music for dancing. I mean groups like Big Six, Cherry Casino and the Gamblers and Ray Collins’ Hot Club. These evenings had a super festive atmosphere. My first ever car was a Russian Pobeda (a classic automobile), so the cars on show were very close to me in spirit. The Car shows’ endless parking lot was packed with cars from the fifties and early sixties. They were amazingly beautiful. You could wander between them for hours, while listening to one of the Headliners – like the Stray Cats, Jerry Lee Lewis or the Delta bombers – playing in the background.
One day I was at the venue from 3 p.m. until 3 a.m. because the Wild Records’ bands performed all day. Coincidentally, it was my birthday. It was the perfect gift !
The festival has an interesting feature – during the festival the hotel where it takes place hosts only those who are interested in the festival. Thus, for a few days, you are completely immersed in the atmosphere of our favourite culture. Everyone is dressed stylishly; the music is thematic, even in the elevator.
What prompted me initially to go to VLV ? I must say the music is a very big part of my life. Thus, initially I was attracted by the set of bands that are announced annually for festival. At some point, I registered on their site. Later, quite unexpectedly for myself, I received a paper flyer in a mailbox in Moscow, about VLV. That was a huge impetus for me to organise a trip to Viva. If you visit this festival once, you no longer want to miss it.
I remember many moments. I wrote about the Wild Records day above. I would especially like to mention The Desperados. Lou Ferns is always full of energy on stage and the band performs as a single mechanism. If you have a chance to attend one of their performances you should not miss it. Despite his age Don Woody is full of energy and his songs sound just like on the records of the fifties. Also the dance competition on Sunday is a huge event with a fantastic atmosphere.
It was important for me to see many of my favourite artists live, those whom I had only listened to on recordings before; Gene Summers, Don Woody, Johnny Powers, Sonny Burgess, Gezzelle, the Rhythm Shakers and Big Six.
I did not experience any different attitude towards myself as a Russian at all. Viva attracts people from all over the world. No one cares where you are from, although everyone asks for decency. I had only one particular Russian case when I met a Russian guy who lived in Las Vegas and who specifically went looking for Russians.
Viva has an interesting feature. The Hotel where everything happens opens bookings a year before the festival. The rooms are usually sold out in 3 hours. Once I managed to book a room there. Coincidentally, the bookings for the following year opened on the night I arrived in Vegas. It happened like this: After a long flight, we took a car to Los Angeles. We drove to Vegas in it and before I checked in to a hotel I booked a room right from the car. In the morning there were no rooms left for the following year !
As far as I remember, several tens of thousands of people come to Viva. For me as a non-event manager it is difficult to imagine why they have grown so much. I think there are several factors: The organisation is close to flawless, performers are from all over the world and the car show also attracts a certain segment of visitors. Finally, this is the only place where you can see so many performers from the fifties at once.
I know the festival used to be at the Gold Coast Casino / Hotel, but then it moved to the Orleans. That is a bigger hotel. For myself, having been to both venues, I did not notice much difference between these festivals. Of course, over the years the number of performers from the 1950s inevitably becomes fewer.
Russian bands have performed there. We had a cool High Tones band who participated at Viva, however this was a little earlier than when I arrived for the first time. Later the festival enjoyed the performance by Messer Chups and I got to see them.
The most popular bands to perform there from my observations, were the Stray Cats and Jerry Lee Lewis; they attracted almost all the Viva visitors. But I didn’t go; I went to the Wild Records groups to see them perform.
As for the dance competitions, I can say that people dance in completely different ways. Moreover, to be honest, the criteria by which couples go to the next stage and win the competitions still remains unclear to me.
I had no disappointments at the Festival.
I am optimistic about the future of Viva Las Vegas. I am sure as long as there are those who love our music, they will visit this festival.
You will know that Las Vegas is a city of casinos and shows. It also hosts trade shows. I am not a fan of gambling and the kind of thematic exhibitions that interest me were not held at that time. Once we visited Cirque du Soleil. However, America is very diverse in terms of natural attractions. Therefore, before or after Viva, we got into the car and drove through national parks and cities of the neighbouring states.
As I saw, most of Viva’s visitors are from Los Angeles and America in general. Plus there are also many Europeans and I saw Japanese and Russian guys.
The friendliness of Americans made a huge impression on me. They are very approachable and helpful. When I first visited America, it was a kind of culture shock for me [Richard’s note: From my own experience of working in America in the 1990s, I can confirm Konstantin’s analysis; very impressed with the friendliness of Americans in their own country. Forget the politics and politicians – most individual Americans are very friendly !]
America is generally an automobile country, so we did not even try to move around except by car. From the first day we rented one and moved around with it. If you live at the Orleans Hotel, this is a comfortable accommodation and there are several options for where to eat, including an unlimited buffet for $15-20. Therefore, it’s possible to stay at the Orleans all the time. If you live in another place, then you choose accommodation according to the budget. It can be a community, a hotel or a motel. There are many cafes, restaurants and casinos where you can eat.
I played a little on the fruit machines; didn’t win anything !
I went with my wife every time to Vegas. And in 2019, Tonya, a dancing friend from Moscow, joined us: She really liked it. My wife is not a music fan like me, nevertheless she likes Viva too ! There are not many Russians at Viva. I met about 5 people there from Russia. I would like more of our guys to experience it.
Thankyou, Konstantin; a great narration. I’m guessing there are probably some of you readers out there who have also tasted the Viva experience. If you have, why not write to the magazine and tell us about it ? In the meantime stay tuned for more Rock’n’Roll with a Russian flavour in this column, next month !