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Bender Jamboree, The Plaza Casino in Las Vegas

First time festivals are always a crapshoot. Promoters can overpromise, venues might not know what they’re in for, police could be annoying, there are so many ways that this could go wrong. Those first year fears were a major reason why some were tentative to check out the Bender Jamboree, but this event had some ways of moving the odds of success in its favor. The first is simply that it’s in Las Vegas. When you’re in a town known for prioritizing fun (as long as you’re spending money) over strict adherence to the rules, one that is a newly minted legal state so the biggest excuse for crack downs is non-existent, it’s hard to imagine a police state style environment unless we did something to earn it. While that is a relief, the bigger reason I took the leap was the promoter.

The Blues Bender is on its 5th year of running. Also held at the Plaza Hotel, it receives rave reviews from the attendees to the point where many people went to the Jamboree solely because they have so much fun at the Blues event, that they’d gladly go to another. With loyalty like that, a lineup of most of my favorites, and an excuse to get out of the Seattle rain for a few days, it was just too tempting to resist.

With this recent trend of combining music and resorts, my favorite pairings have been the ones where the latter is more off the beaten path. Jam Cruise had a home for many years on MSC; the shipping company got to learn how Americans like to cruise – pro tip: hot dogs are not a desired topping on pizza – and Jam Cruise didn’t receive the same treatment that Carnival gave them. That is why I was excited that Bender was located in the Plaza hotel.

Despite being right by the Fremont Street Experience, The Plaza Hotel and Casino is no one’s idea of a Vegas destination. It doesn’t have a faux Italian village or a dancing waters routine and it most definitely is not luxurious [1]. However, it does have a charm that the bigger strip casinos don’t. Its main claim to fame are the three murals on the towers. “Behind Closed Doors” is my personal favorite. The English artist D*Face painted a 1950s horror comic book style scene of a terrified woman being stalked by a monster. This is visible from the pool – and therefore was the backdrop to the pool stage – and led to the endlessly amusing contrast of her being terrified by whatever the musicians were doing.

In addition to that, the Fremont Street vibe is much different than that of the Strip. Was it designed to separate you from your money? Yes. It is Las Vegas. But it did so in a much calmer way. There wasn’t the same pressure to pretend that you’re a high roller and throw down hundreds of dollars for meals. The lower scale made the surrounding environment more conducive for a festival; the main way that that could be seen was in the casino.

The problem with Vegas casinos is that they can trap you in a land where you can never escape. When Phish played the MGM, I regularly found myself wandering in an endless loop throughout the casino, somehow never getting closer to the Grand Garden. The Plaza Casino was human sized. It had a ton of slots, a row of tables, and a sports book. It was worrisome ahead of time seeing that the map showed you had to go through the casino to get from the Bender Showroom to the Casino Lounge, but it turned out to be a very quick walk, one that gave plenty of time to check out the lounge when they were switching up bands.

The smaller scale of the Plaza allowed us to take it over. Throughout the festival, they played nothing but Jamgrass. My friend Annette had Fruition’s “Mountain Annie” stuck in her head. When she heard it over the speakers, she sat down at a slot machine for the song’s duration and won big as a result. One of the most surreal moments of the weekend was walking through the casino floor while Shook Twins “Time to Swim” was playing over the PA. As the ethereal vocals of the end played, I felt like I was transported into a world where the top 40 was dictated by my tastes.

Bender Jamboree had four stages. In order of desirability, they were the Juke Joint, the Bender Showroom, the Casino Lounge, and the Pool Stage. The Joint wasn’t so much bad as one that suffers from contrast. It was the indoor stage for day events. While the Plaza didn’t completely conform to Vegas rules, this side room in the casino had no windows to the outside. When you’re escaping the grey of the Pacific Northwest (and there was a large contingent of Northwesterners there), the last place you want to be on a sunny day is inside a very dark room. Since it was the secondary stage, it didn’t really have a good light show to break up the dark. Still though the sound was impeccable there and there was a good mix of dance space and sitting room. It was definitely a case of least interesting instead of bad.

The Showroom is also an interior, windowless room but it was a more interesting one. It’s a mini theater, complete with chandeliers. The space was mixed between dancing areas and a few curved couches. While the venue could get packed, especially for Greensky Bluegrass and Del McCoury, somehow there always seemed to be a seat free when you needed it. The dance floors could get crowded, but there were a few secret areas – no. I’m not telling you. They’re a secret for a reason! – that always had room. The best thing about this venue (other than the fact that it had the most interesting music of the weekend) was it was the home of the most amazing security guard in all of Clark County: Precious Flowers. Just by sheer force of personality and love, she could get us to do anything. She danced with and hugged and (on one occasion) even kissed a fan, and as a result we all followed her every request. Treat us with genuine warmth and respect and we’ll do anything for you. I wish more people would learn that.

The Casino Lounge was the most surreal of the venues. It was located on the side of the casino floor, right by most of the tables. It was the one venue that non-festival attendees could hear; the difference between being inside and outside the venue was what side of a rope you were on. While it’s amazing to be dancing a few feet from people losing their life savings at Pai Gow Poker, its small space led to people having to find areas outside the official space to dance which led to a few minor conflicts with the staff who wanted to keep the aisles clear. Billy Strings’ lounge set was the one time where it felt like this stage might not be working. Fortunately, you could hear the music at any of the tables or slots around the performer, so there were workarounds.

The indoor venues had pros and cons, the centerpiece was the Pool Stage. While it is a truism that any festival that has stages by water will have those be the most popular, the 5th floor pool had more going for it than just the ability to lie by the pool and a cool mural to stare at. There were desert hills off in the distance, the rotating sign for the Golden Gate Casino across the hill, and as night fell, the neon from the surrounding hotels slowly turned on. There even is a view of the Fremont Street Experience. While it would have been nice if there were secondary speakers making it easier to hear the music from the hot tub, when you’re saying that the sound was slightly suboptimal when you’re sitting in a hot tub, no one is going to feel too sorry for you.

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