This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Gwen Stefani's Just A Girl, at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater, is a surprisingly affecting production. A retrospective of the 50-year-old star’s nearly three-decade career, both fronting No Doubt and on her own (a 15th anniversary edition of her solo debut Love.Angel.Music.Baby came out November 22, eek), it takes advantage of the stability a non-touring show offers, with an impressively huge set built around a sweeping staircase resembling the centerpiece of the Titanic. (An actual scale replica of the Titanic’s grand staircase, with pieces of the real thing, is in fact on exhibit at the nearby Luxor Hotel & Casino, for comparison’s sake.) It gives a wink to standards of Vegas showmanship, too. For the opening number, “Hollaback Girl,” Stefani struts in a glittering white cape that must be a tribute to the King.
These are A++ production values, but the truly arresting part of Just A Girl is the intimacy. Interstitial home movies and early performance footage play during costume-change breaks, as well as newly shot interviews with Stefani talking candidly about the span of her career and the emotional core of her songs. The audience—which comprises a lot of women like me, of an age to have discovered No Doubt in high school, with tweenage daughters in tow—can barely stay in its seats. And she leans into the intimacy of it, keeping up a run of what feels like unrehearsed chatter, bringing fan after fan up onstage for selfies and quick, goofy conversations. (“You smell like alcohol,” she told a man who appeared to be sharing the whole story of his recent breakup during his 10 seconds in the spotlight.) When I took in the spectacle at a show in October, the closing tune—the ‘90s hit that gave the residency its title—was sung with a gang of those middle-school-aged daughters brought up from the crowd.
This thoroughly modern display seems light years away from the origin story of the Vegas residency, which came to us via the flamboyantly sui generis Liberace, who played his first multi-week run in the Vegas of the ‘40s, when the hotel that hosted him, the Last Frontier, was still working with a wagon-wheels-everywhere cowboy theme. But it also came through the lesser known Louis Prima, the wild-eyed and swinging Sicilian-American jazz singer. The Jazz Museum in New Orleans—where he was from and where I live—currently has a suite of gallery rooms dedicated to Prima, the town’s second-most-famous person named Louis. “Louis Prima should be up there with Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville and Lil Wayne,” the museum’s music curator, David Kunian, told the New Orleans Advocate newspaper in July. “But I think he gets left out of the picture because most of his success came elsewhere.”
Indeed, part of what the museum does lately, Kunian told me, is correct misunderstandings about Prima’s provenance. Prima came up as a performer in the French Quarter, not too far from where the Jazz Museum is today, and bounced around the country following gigs and possibilities, but in 1954, he made the move that would come to define his career: He took a residency in the lounge at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. It was five years before the iconic atomic-age Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign was erected on the Strip, but in that small room, he honed the act, the style, and the persona that would stick—and Vegas stuck to him.
“He happened to be there when Vegas was starting to become what it is now,” Kunian said. “Before Sinatra, before Elvis Presley, he became a symbol of what Vegas was all about.”
The specifics of what Vegas is all about, when it comes to entertainment, have shifted over the years, but not the generalities, really: It’s a grown-up leisure playground, with glitter clinging to it. There are lounge singers and magicians and comics and singing comic magicians, like the last bastion of vaudeville. There’s the pizzazz of sui generis phenomena like Cirque du Soleil, whole eras of Elvis and Sinatra, desert raves that spawned a huge EDM club and festival marketplace and, now, today’s pop headliners. More recently, hip-hop has made inroads on the Strip too, if mostly at nightclubs like Drai’s, which had Trey Songz, Meek Mill, and Wiz Khalifa on its late-2019 calendar; talking to Vulture last year about Drake’s upcoming residency at the Wynn, Vegas entertainment executive Chris Baldizan hinted that marquee hip-hop and R&B may soon be moving into theater venues as well.
Of course, Vegas is also endlessly protean and mutable: A time-lapse of the Strip from Prima’s day through the present might look something like the intro sequence to Game of Thrones, structures rising and falling and being replaced over and over again. The first place I ever stayed in Vegas, during a college jaunt in 1999, was at Circus Circus on the boulevard’s far north end. It was lurid and creepy then in a way that only an accumulation of massive neon clowns can be when they’re glaring at you, two stories high, to a soundtrack of chiming slot machines and carnival calliope. Still, across the street from the venerable Peppermill Fireside Lounge, another late ‘60s/ early ‘70s-era elder statesman of the Strip, it felt like a doorway to an electric, mildly psychedelic, sparkly wonderland of adult weirdness.
On my visit this fall, by contrast, the Circus Circus was unmoored from the rest of the action by a long stretch of empty land in development—a longer-than-it-looks stretch of dirt, only interrupted by a tall, lonely Trump International Hotel. The lack of structures meant little shade from the desert sun; the single tiny patch of it cast by a bus shelter on a late-October weekend was clearly staked out as the territory of a model-hot couple wearing lanyards and approaching tourists with a scam-adjacent deal that somehow involved timeshares. The smell of unfresh popcorn and cigarette smoke and Fabuloso billowed out of Slots-A-Fun, the mini-casino attached to the hotel. (MGM signed a deal to sell Circus Circus in October, and the hole in the skyline will eventually be filled by the multi-billion-dollar Resorts World complex and “megaresort,” which will reportedly have its own 5,000-seat theater, too. In early January, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported that the strip mall closest to Circus Circus, across from the future Resorts World—home to a Ross Dress for Less, a Denny’s and a really nice Walgreen’s—had sold for close to $60 million, in “a long- hoped-for turnaround” for the Strip’s “sluggish north end.” So the hospitality/real-estate pendulum keeps swinging.)
Further south, where the buildings jostle shoulder-to-shoulder and link up by walkways and bridges so that it never quite feels as if you have exited one venue and entered another, things felt wealthier, busier and more dynamic. The enormous themed hotels built at the turn of the millennium, which I remember as hugely impressive at the time, now feel cavernous and mall-ish—with that vague sense of impending obsolescence that anything mall implies in 2019. There’s so much weirdness and excess and eccentricity that it’s still hard not to lean into the overmined, but still extremely rich writer’s vein of just making lists that use the city as synecdoche for the extreme American surreal. (Checking my notes later, I found scribbles about “double-stuffed potato spring rolls??” and “WORLD’S LARGEST SEX BIKE!”)
But there’s also visible momentum toward a postmillennial sensibility of, if not quite coziness, boutiqueness on a Vegas-sized scale; a sense of design and being that is comfier and homier, that fits admittedly already slightly tired buzzwords like artisanal and authentic. Amid all the marquee celebrity-chef restaurants with branches in Vegas, for example, the Cosmopolitan chose to open an outpost of L.A.’s reasonably modest Eggslut. The Park MGM, which opened in 2018 and hosts Lady Gaga’s current residency, has a vinyl record-themed nightclub and a curated gin cocktail bar, as if we’ve somehow wound up in a contemporary-Brooklyn-themed part of the neighboring New York New York hotel. The branch of Eataly at its Strip-side entrance is drenched in natural light, anathema to the clockless world of the casino, and is, well, an Eataly—I wandered through wishing I could retreat to my hotel room, in the glow of the scary clowns, and put a nice Bolognese sauce on to simmer. The lobby sundries shop a stroll away carries Moleskine notebooks in several sizes.
Among this energy, a certain kind of show—the pop-star residency—has gone from a surprisingly successful anomaly to a notable trend to the newest cornerstone of the live music business, up there with the destination multi-day camping festival and the good old-fashioned “HELLO CLEVELAND!” arena tour.
As the model repeatedly proves its appeal to both fans who will travel and artists who will stay put, some themes have emerged: Vegas is far from the career last stop that it (maybe unfairly) once had a rep for, but it’s still a place for artists to take a break as opposed to break out. Most of its resident headliners are somewhere loosely near mid-career, with at least a decade of work they can draw from for shows that are emotional-rollercoaster omnibuses of hits for those who adore them. After that long in the business, the call of the open highway is not always something you feel like answering all the time. It seems that part of what drives the residency phenomenon isn't the razzle dazzle, but a kind of unexpected warmth to be found beaming off the neon strip.
Chris Baldizan, the senior vice-president of entertainment for MGM Resorts International, has watched a lot of fresh trends roll through Las Vegas. He started working for MGM soon after graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1993, right when the flagship hotel opened. (The newer Park MGM is a sister property.) In school, he worked at the campus arena, the Thomas and Mack Center, which hosted big-time acts from Guns N Roses to the Grateful Dead; he applied to the venue as a parking attendant, and they offered him an event-booking internship instead. On the phone, despite his very high-powered job, he sounds like the cool older brother or uncle who took you to your first concert—he likes dive bar shows as much as five-star theaters, he said, and counts AC/DC at the Grand Garden in 2016 as one of his all-time number-ones; he wanted to try and get them for a residency or a repeat appearance, but Brian Johnson, the singer who’d replaced Bon Scott in 1980, had had to leave the band during the tour due to hearing problems. He still sounds a little disappointed about it.
As a fan and as an insider, Vegas, to Baldizan, was always a music town—though not necessarily a destination music town in its own right, he said. That’s something he’s seen change over the years, and worked on changing himself.
“When I first got here, we literally had Frank Sinatra performing in the Hollywood theater, which was called the David Copperfield Theater,” he recalled over the phone. “I didn't get to fully experience the real heyday of the Rat Pack type of Vegas… But I did get a glimpse of it and saw how the lounge worked and how the entertainment at the time was definitely an amenity. It was a tool that we used to drive gaming customers in to, you know, 'Hey, while you're here, go check out this great show.'"
The Grand Garden venue at the MGM Grand opened soon after Baldizan arrived, which, at around 14,000 capacity at the time, was a sort of a mini-arena. (It can now hold a couple of thousand more warm bodies.) “In ’94 we had the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour, which was a stadium tour. We shoved it into the Grand Garden.”
Which is to say the Grand Garden is big compared to venues like the 4,000-odd capacity Colosseum at Caesars Palace and the similarly-sized Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, recent hosts to Elton John and Journey, respectively, or the 5,000-ish Park Theater, which Lady Gaga and Janet Jackson have called home. There’s also the larger 7,000-seater Zappos Theater, which hosted Stefani, and has featured Britney and J. Lo, and smaller venues like the Encore Theatre at the Wynn, with room for around 1,700, or the Pearl Theater at the Palms Casino, which weighs in close to 2,200. All of these are small in the scheme of stadium tours, which are the natural habitat of the artists who move in and get comfortable. As Baldizan remembers, back in the day the casinos had to add incentives to get popular performers onto the Strip.
“They kind of held it over our head that this was on the Strip, this was not where artists normally play,” he said. (Particularly during that transitional time, he said, there was a preconception that “you were on the twilight side of your career. And doing great stuff—but it wasn't the place where new music was being showcased, or touring shows for that matter.”)
“And then they saw the quote-unquote casino money,” he said. “So to get the ball rolling, we overpaid relative to what they were making at other venues for that same sort of tour. We were aggressive.”
But who decided the desert was the pasture in the first place? It launched Louis Prima, and it helped relaunch Sinatra. Elvis, who died ignominiously less than 10 years after his first Vegas residency, arguably put the whiff of doom on it. But that’s not quite the whole picture—it was supposed to remake him, too. His 1969 residency at the International Hotel celebrated its 50th anniversary this past summer with an 11-disc box set. (That’s one less disc than was given to the most widely available version of the box commemorating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, which happened about two weeks after Elvis settled in. The King’s residency was not hailed as a generational touchstone, but in its favor, it had air-conditioning and bathrooms.)
And from the recordings, it sounds like a hell of a great place and time to see and hear Elvis. He must have been tense about where he stood in the pop pantheon in the late ‘60s, but he loved Vegas—he’d played it before, visited often, obviously made Viva Las Vegas, and not least, married Priscilla there. The room at the International, which is now the Westgate (about two blocks from the Strip and connected via monorail, though closer to the disconcertingly in-transition end near Circus Circus, which was only a year old when he began his run) wasn’t too big to connect. He was in a smallish room; he had time to settle in, and the town wasn’t boring. And the fans were friendly, no longer screaming teens whose adoration could be scary; they could afford a trip to the neon city in the desert and a nice night out. They were all adults there, and you can hear it in the way Elvis laughs, vamps and makes R-rated jokes, replacing “I get so lonely” with “I get so horny,” for instance, on “Heartbreak Hotel.” (You can hear similar after-hours party vibes on, say, Sinatra at the Sands, though it’s less of a surprise coming from the Rat Pack.) There’s a great deal of awkward laughter on the International recording. He almost sounds like he thinks he’ll get his hand smacked when he calls his domineering manager, Col. Tom Parker, “Colonel Sanders.” And you can probably hear his unavoidable decline coming in between the nervous giggles that come between the showstopping songs. But just for an hour onstage, Elvis sounded like he was almost happy.
In 2003, the Roman Empire staked its claim to Vegas. The Colosseum at Caesars Palace opened with Celine Dion’s A New Day—the show the new venue was built for, and which industry people seem to agree established the pop residency model as we know it today.
“We all kind of held our breath and watched,” said Baldizan. “That was the game changer for our city.”
Dion’s combined 16-year residency was more like Elvis’s or Louis Prima’s—each lingered in Vegas for years—than the briefer ones it's spawned, though “brief” is relative. J. Lo put in two years at the Zappos Theater, and Britney Spears’ Piece of Me ran for four, while Janet Jackson did only two months at the Park, and Aerosmith’s Deuces Are Wild residency is currently slotted for 35 dates. Lady Gaga’s double residency at the Park (one a big pop extravaganza, one a stripped-down piano jazz show) is currently set to last about two years, staggered over short runs. Then there's Drake's aforementioned spread-out short strings of dates at the Wynn's XS club. Cardi B put in a brief run at the Palms Casino’s KAOS club after headlining its opening party in April and returned for Halloween. (Shortly after that, the much-ballyhooed spot announced it would close.) Those quick repeat visits aren’t countable as actual residencies, part of the charm of which is that fans have a long window to plan a visit in, but they seem to count as more corroborating evidence that playing Vegas is a different game now.
Jason Gastwirth, the president of entertainment at Caesars, also ID’d Celine Dion as patient zero for the 21st-century shift. “To launch a residency with an artist at the height of her career, I think that definitely shifted or at least began the shift of the mindset of an artist doing a Vegas residency. You know, normally that was going to be at the tail end of their career, not at the height,” he said.
An article from Variety in February of this year agreed with Chris Baldizan’s take on what a stint in the desert used to mean—“A Vegas residency is now considered a sign that you’ve made it, not that you’ve lost it,” longtime journalist Chris Willman observed, a sentiment that most reports on the trend agree with—and how that’s done a 180 as the 2000s became the 2010s. According to Kurt Melien, who worked at Caesars Entertainment before becoming president of Live Nation Las Vegas, which partners with Caesars and Planet Hollywood, Celine set it up and Britney Spears brought it home.
“This is like 2008, 2009,” he said. “The economy's still pretty shaky and gambling had sort of declined a fair amount, and a lot of money was chasing this nightclub stuff. And all of a sudden you had a lot of 20 and 30-somethings that were spending a lot of money” on name brand DJs and casino hotel-based nightclubs. That demographic was primed for Britney’s first residency, at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater—then the AXIS Auditorium—at the tail end of 2013.
“The Britney Spears thing launched and I think some people kind of were like, ‘That's weird,'" he said.
“But if you're in the inside, if you're in Vegas, you already knew that those customers were there and you already knew that they were spending a lot of money on entertainment,” he said. “The Britney thing, I think, was that moment for sure. And then here we are five years later and there's been almost literally of parade of artists, primarily pop artists.”
So it was the mighty Celine Dion, whose latest album, Courage, dropped in mid-November to critical cheers (Slate’s Carl Wilson, who wrote a whole book grappling with the concepts of elite taste and mass appeal, pointed out in his review that mid- and post-Vegas, the pop vocalist has actually become cooler, perhaps even begun to craft a new kind of cool) who ushered in the new Vegas brand of entertainment. At the time, reporters seemed to struggle a little to get it. Entertainingly, Variety’s enthusiastic opening-night review said the spectacle “raised the bar,” but opined that “media suggestions that this extravaganza will change the types of shows on the Vegas Strip or even Broadway amount to grand overstatement.” Billboard’s reviewer was also delighted but confused, praising the extravaganza while also calling it “surreal” and “the biggest gamble on the Strip.” “Whether this show will be the ruin” of its backers, closed Billboard ominously, “is an open question.”
Sixteen years later, reporting on the close of Dion’s run, the same publication noted that it had in total made a record-breaking $681 million. More than that, perhaps, Celine had single-handedly forced perception of a Vegas stint to change. And then Britney, whose Piece of Me residency, according to Billboard, brought in nearly $138 million over its four-year run, solidified it.
It’s not all that hard to see how for a performer, being parked in one spot for a few weeks or months is a way to live a slightly less insane life in show business and keep money flowing in at the same time. (Family members can also join a spouse or parent doing a Vegas run the way they can’t when the star is sleeping on a tour bus—see Season 3 of GLOW, in which wrestler/production mogul Debbie Eagan, played by Betty Gilpin, could craft some semblance of normalcy by bringing her child to stay in Vegas during her show’s ever-extending residency.) Working in the same room every night also lets you set up production and leave it there, and polish your show without the constantly changing variables of new venues, no matter how tightly run the spaces that host big-time touring shows are. On a lot of levels, the artist can relax, although that doesn’t mean the rest of their schedule isn’t hectic, or that they want to reflect or draw attention to that fact. (Requests for interviews with current or recent headliners for this piece brought a round of no’s from, for instance, J. Lo, who was going from tour to film set, and Dion, who was hitting the road for her new album.)
“Doing a residency is far more lifestyle-friendly, especially with artists who do have families,” said Gastwirth. Kurt Melien said the same basic thing: “Having a stable routine or a normal routine for anyone in any job is important, no matter what they do for a living. Having a place, having a similar schedule and a similar location is a good thing… it's a little different than saying ‘I'm going to Europe for four months, and then I moved back for a month, and then I'm going to Asia for three months, and then I'm back in Canada,’” he said. “I think there's stability there, and I think those things mean a lot.”
And Las Vegas is warm to its stars. During Piece of Me, Caesars declared a “Britney Day” (it was November 5, for anyone who wants to celebrate next year). Even well into Gaga’s run as resident talent, late this fall, the essence of her seemed piped in everywhere like oxygen-rich recycled casino air: billboards, music in the cabs, the Haus of Gaga shop/exhibit at the Park MGM, that guy at the next table at Caesars’ Bacchanal Buffet who would not stop rhapsodizing about her 2017 documentary Five Foot Two. In turn, the stars seem to respond to the town’s embrace. It’s common for resident headliners to take on local charity projects, for example—Gwen Stefani donates a dollar of every ticket sold at her Just A Girl residency to the local Cure 4 The Kids Foundation, which aids children facing severe illnesses.
Lady Gaga’s residency alternates between the pop fantasia Enigma and the stripped-down Jazz and Piano, a move that requires the stage crew to fully break down the former’s expansive planetarium-esque set and replace it with the midcentury swank of the songbook standard-driven show. Gaga has a shorter memory lane to walk down—and she may not remember 2013’s Artpop—but Enigma also fans the flames of nostalgia, and her Little Monsters are there for it. The narrative conceit of Enigma has something to do with “a simulation of the future,” but the career-spanning setlist—plus much of Gaga’s dialogue—is about revisiting the ascendancy of the recent past, and warmly including the crowd in it with lots of thank-yous and remember-whens.
Elvis was 34 when he started his residency at the International, a year older than Gaga is now and two years older than Britney was when Piece of Me opened. That’s the younger end of the spectrum for this wave of resident artists, not counting the likes of Cher and Mariah, who exist outside the confines of time and space. The mostly-women artists who drive the trend are solidly midcareer, with strong creative back catalogs to dip into and fans who remember coming of age along with them. They’re at a point where the stability of being off the road could be desirable —even Diplo noted that his Vegas residency allowed him to spend more time consistently with his children—and certainly at the point where they can make the call to do that. It’s a humane move to make for yourself, almost a superstar-level #wellness tactic: the physical and psychological toll of an elite performance career is, after all, considerable. Although Britney's planned Domination residency has been indefinitely postponed, the New York Times observed in early 2019 that the star, who had entered the 2010s under a pile of personal struggles, had been enjoying a refreshing “period of stability and success,” which coincided with the establishment of her Vegas routine. Lady Gaga, who revealed a fibromyalgia diagnosis in 2017, still manages an athletic nightly show, and recently implied that she may be staying on.
It’s probably not impossible for Gaga to load both Jazz & Piano and Enigma into 20 trucks and hit the highway, rappelling from the rafters in a jumpsuit made of what looks like a smashed mirror in Chicago one night and caressing a Steinway in Cleveland the next, but all things considered, when you have both chronic pain and an Oscar, why bother?
Part of the pitch to artists, according to Baldizan, is, “‘Hey, we've got this blank slate for you to create a show that you can only see here in this type of venue. Our stage is massive, our production is unlimited.' You're not having to put it on a truck every night. You're not having to take 40 stagehands in every show, and put your people on the road, and pay for hotel rooms, and travel, and everything. It's here, it's really the artists coming in and out at their leisure.”
When huge entertainment companies like AEG and Live Nation have residency options among their (sorry) buffet of choices for big-name artists, Vegas looks pleasant compared to months on a bus. “[We’re] going to say, 'Hey, you have options,' explained Kurt Melien. “'You can go on the road here in the U.S., you can go on the road in Europe with us. You can absolutely sit down and have a residency in Vegas.' And it doesn’t hurt that when you sit down in Vegas, plenty of people come to you.
And fans of the Gwens and Gagas and Shanias and Xtinas, on average, are at a point where they’ll put up the cash to come and see it. According to Jason Gastwirth, the past few years have seen a “dramatic shift” in the average age of visitors, skewing younger, though “younger” isn’t all that young: The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors’ Authority’s 2018 Visitor Profile study found that more than half of visitors overall are over 40; the average age is 45.1. It’s not all that old, either, though—it’s arguably a sweet spot for having nostalgia and also having the means to go indulge it. When Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote about the opening of Piece of Me, back in 2014, she considered the idea that the Vegas stage lets an artist build “a museum in time that tourists can visit,” shaping their own histories into a show. Now, younger artists have enough history to bring out the museumgoers.
The attraction of building a Vegas trip around a big show has helped draw fans, too, especially West Coasters for whom the jaunt is a quick one. “Flights are cheap, hotels are relatively affordable and then you can kind of splurge how you want to,” Gastwirth said. (Indeed, a flight and hotel for a few nights in Vegas is less or at least comparable, on average, than a weekend in a tent at a festival like Bonnaroo, plus you don't have to camp in a field an hour away from Nashville.)
In contrast, when Baldizan started on the Strip, with Sinatra down the way, shows counted as an “amenity"—something on the side with a main course of gambling.
“Entertainment was an amenity. Hotel rooms were an amenity. Food and beverage was an amenity. All that was just to entice the gaming customers to come to town,” he said. “25 years ago it was probably 70% gaming revenue that drove the bottom line, and 30% of those other amenities.” Now, the numbers look different, by his casual estimation—non-gambling amenities draw closer to 70% of revenue, and reflect the presence of a customer who’s not trying their luck at all.
Victor Pizarro, a Britney fan from her home state of Louisiana, traveled to Las Vegas from New Orleans twice during her Piece of Me residency. (And he’s not even much of a fan of the city. “It’s like Bourbon Street but with more cars and capitalism,” he told me. He likes to see the show and then flee to hike in Zion National Park.)
“But those venues are just more intimate than any kind of arena or stadium,” he said. “For $200, I can be ten feet from Britney. It just makes more sense. Even the worst seats are comparable to the expensive seats on a [stadium] tour.” The Park MGM Theater has about 5000 seats; the last venue I saw Britney in had around 18,000, and was also made to play basketball and hockey in.
“We don't have perfect data on this, but we know that we sell a lot of tickets quickly for the hot shows,” Melien said. “And we know that those are people that are planning trips in advance, you know? So we think a good 50 to 75% of our ticket buyers are specifically coming to the market to see this show.”
And plenty of them, like Pizarro, do it more than once. The hip and cozy Park MGM, like a nesting doll, is home to an even hipper and cozier hotel within: an outpost of New York City’s NoMad, complete with a copy of its elegant library bar. Luxuriously bound books climb to the ceiling there. The light is like looking at an expensive candle through a glass of expensive bourbon. This is where longtime Gaga collaborator Brian Newman, a trumpeter who, among other things, serves as the Jazz & Piano bandleader, captains his own late-night combo in Vegas. You don’t even have to leave the building to get from the Park theater to his show (and the night after I did, in October, Gaga did too—Ashanti joined her on the tiny bandstand for an impromptu performance).
Newman’s After Dark show deliberately evokes Louis Prima-era midnight-cocktail sophistication. The set I saw even began with “That Old Black Magic,” a regular part of Prima and Keely Smith’s set 60 years ago, which won the couple a Grammy at the very first awards show in 1959, and which Gaga took on, too, when she dropped in the following night with Ashanti. I was seated up front with Lisa and Amanda, two Gaga superfans (Lisa carried a Haus of Gaga makeup bag as a clutch and sported a discreet tattoo of the artist’s name on the inside of her wrist) who were old hands at this particular music marathon: the big Gaga show first, then Newman’s after-hours. They knew each other from Instagram’s Gaga community, but hadn’t met in person—although from the warmth they volleyed back and forth across the white tablecloth of our ringside table, it seemed like they’d been close for years.
Instant affinity like that is one of the true joys of shared fandom. So is the discovery of a show like Newman’s swinging gem, in the course of digging through everything about a favorite artist and then everything associated with them. (Both Lisa and Amanda excitedly related the story of the time that the tiny daughter of Newman and his wife Angie Pontani, the New York burlesque star who occasionally guests in the show, took a turn onstage.) Fans have been following that kind of deep love for decades, getting closer to the artist they love by learning their hobbies, or who makes their clothes, or buying albums from the side projects of their band members. It’s an intimacy, of sorts. But in Vegas, where the room is smaller and the bus isn’t being packed up for a redeye drive and the artists at least appear to be a little more relaxed, the intimacy feels more real—between fans and fans, and fans and artists, and the era of Prima and the era of Gaga. And in the strangest way, it’s an oasis of humanity in the desert, and in showbiz, too.
Follow Alison Fensterstock on Twitter.