The first night of the 2018 iHeartRadio Festival at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas was, by and large, as upbeat and celebratory as intended, although there were a couple of implicitly dramatic moments having to do with how people deal with trauma and loss and move on.
One of those had country superstar Jason Aldean returning to the city for his first full performance since the mass shooting that interrupted his performance at an outdoor festival just a little less than a year ago. (He’d previously visited victims in the hospital and come back for the ACM Awards.) Aldean didn’t address the impending anniversary during his own set, but appeared on stage earlier in the evening with country radio personality Bobby Bones and about 40 local first responders for a “Vegas Strong” salute.
And, on an infinitely more trivial level, the opening set of the festival also had inherent in it some loss and resilience — Fleetwood Mac’s loss of Lindsey Buckingham, here replaced for the first time in an actual concert setting by Neil Finn and Mike Campbell. The new Mac lineup was making its official live debut with a five-song set after a two-number teaser earlier this month on the “Ellen” show.
There was less emotion through the rest of the four-hour-plus evening — although there was “Emotions,” an early peak in the climactic set by Mariah Carey, who was on familiar ground here, having recently wrapped up yet another Vegas residency.
Familiarity does not breed any kind of indifference, at least among fellow celebrities, as virtually every performer or presenter Varietysurveyed backstage named Carey as the artist they were most excited about seeing on the evening’s bill. When we posed that question to Panic! At the Disco frontman Brendan Urie, he was instantaneous with his answer: “Dude, Mariah! I want to kiss her feet and the ground she walks on. She’s goddess. I want to hear those whistle tones.” He then proceeded to break into a pretty good approximation of those “Emotions” high notes that pierced the hallways.
The typically pop-heavy bill had some rock and hip-hop cred going for it this first night, too. Childish Gambino performed hyperactively, shirtlessly and all too briefly, confident enough in his set list to not even save “This is America” for the climax. “Donald Glover’s a genius,” said actor Ken Jeong, backstage, before going on to introduce Glover/Gambino, “and he’s effortless in his genius too. Just to watch his process is beyond amazing.”
Seriously bringing the noise, meanwhile, was Jack White, whose set was turned up to such ear-splitting volumes that Paula Abdul was nearly drowned out in the press room as she tried to speak with a handful of reporters. (Abdul was on hand to introduce Carey.)
Bringing no noise whatsoever was Sam Smith, a somewhat mysterious no-show, particularly as he’d participated in rehearsal earlier in the day. Those who’d seen the schedule and knew he was supposed to go on before Gambino were puzzled when Glover appeared instead, before Ryan Seacrest made the eventual announcement that “due to unforeseen circumstances which transpired after his rehearsal, it became clear that Sam Smith would unfortunately not be able to perform tonight.” Smith later tweeted nearly the identical “unforeseen circumstances” language in an apology on his account. No further explanation was given, although sources indicated that the British balladeer (who currently has a three-week No. 1 hit in England with his Calvin Harris collaboration “Promises”) had experienced a loss of voice.
There were no vocal emergencies in Fleetwood Mac’s opening set, with Finn proving a suitable fill-in for the fired Buckingham, at least on any practical harmonic level, while Campbell took over the lead guitar duties (with some secondary help in that department from Finn). The five sampler songs — teasing a tour that begins Oct 3 in Tulsa — seemed chosen to evenly mathematically disperse the lead vocals between Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie and the new kid. Finn got a full-on solo lead spot with “Second Hand News” and shared duet vocals on “The Chain” and “Don’t Stop.” McVie had “Little Lies” as her unshared spotlight moment, while Nicks fronted an extended version of “Gold Dust Woman” that had her twirling on the catwalk while Campbell and Finn kicked out the dreamy jams back at stage right.
There wasn’t much stage banter during this renewed Mac attack, other than McVie asking, “How you doing over there, Neil?,” and Nicks rounding out the last bow with a reminder that “we’re gonna be out on the road and would love to see you — please come.” But the grins during that curtain call suggested that the old and new players believed this reconstituted version of the band had proven themselves ready for prime time.
Just how — or if — Aldean would commemorate the tragedy that ensued during his last show in Las Vegas was a question mark hanging over the lead up to iHeartRadio Fest. He turned out to be the one actual performer of the night to come backstage to the press room to answer questions, and a reporter asked what the anniversary meant to him.
He answered that honoring the tragedy “is something I feel like we do on a daily basis… (But) as far as the anniversary goes, we have three more shows next weekend and then we’re done touring for the year, so I’m gonna be at home (during the actual anniversary). But for me that’ll be something that (comes up) every year when Oct. 1strolls around; that’s gonna be something that’s stays with us from now on… Being back in Vegas this close to the anniversary of it, it sounds a little weird, but in another sense, it’s nice to be back. This is really our first performance we’ve had (locally) since then. So tonight I think is gonna be another step in sort of getting through all that stuff, and I think it’s gonna be a good time tonight.”
But the show ended up being more commemorative than that suggested, but just with the sober reflections taking place in a separate time-out led by Bones. “There was mass confusion on stage and in the audience,” said the DJ (and soon-to-be “Dancing With the Stars” participant), “but moments afterward, heroes emerged.” After the dozens of police and other rescuers emerged, Aldean added, “On behalf of myself and my family and my family in the country music community, I want to say than you to the city of Las Vegas for your courage and strength and kindness. Tonight, we are all proud to be Vegas strong.”
That sober lull notwithstanding, the evening could have just as easily carried a #VegasSilly hashtag, with Rae Sremmurd being about anything but sobriety, and Kygo closing out the bill with a guest-filled DJ set that had Miguel and others emerging for cameos as the crowd dwindled down to a post-Mariah chosen few.
Not for the first time in Las Vegas, some false promises were made. When we asked Urie at the start of the night what location-appropriate wrinkles Panic! might add for their appearance, he lied: “Maybe some partial nudity. You know, Vegas is very big on nudity, so I think that that’s gonna be my move.”
The festival continues for a second night Saturday with appearances by Justin Timberlake, Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Shawn Mendes, Imagine Dragons, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Logic and Kelly Clarkson. It’s Clarkson’s set that might be the most scrutinized, to see if she has any further commentary after earlier in the week blasting the event host for not actually playing her music on the radio anymore.