April 25, 2018

Driverless van in downtown Las Vegas

My excitement rose as I saw a free driverless shuttle in downtown Las Vegas. In truth, this is a PR stunt to get people used to seeing and perhaps riding in a van that can drive itself. Walking the few blocks would have been faster albeit much less novel.

For now, the modern-looking van seats 8 with seat belts and another 3 for staff. The day I tried the shuttle, downtown construction necessitated having a human along for unforeseen obstacles. The standing driver intervened a couple of times with controls that looked like a gameboy device. The shuttle itself did successfully avoid hitting a car that got too close to us. A company companion car follows the van as it makes its way through the downtown area for an added layer of safety.

The project is sponsored by AAA and the city of Las Vegas with the vehicular service being provided by a French company named Keolis S. A. Our Keolis representative said that there are currently over a hundred cities across the world with driverless pilot programs. The driverless shuttle service is slated to be widespread in 2020. Two years from now, people!

The staff sheepishly told us about the Navya-built shuttle’s first day of service in Las Vegas. A delivery truck hit it causing a minor fender bender. Local police placed blame on the human driver of the truck however. If his vehicle had similar sensors to that of the shuttle’s, the accident may have been avoided entirely.

For now, driverless vans are a rare sight, but we are on the brink of a brave new world where we have to trust machines to do a better job than the human behind the wheel. Ready or not, automated transportation is speeding towards us.

Las Vegas Downtown restaurants: Eureka, Le Thai, PublicUs

A month-old restaurant called Eureka (part of a western chain) in downtown Las Vegas got my business twice this past week. Winning appetizers included Lollipop Corn Dogs and Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Peanuts. Sesame Teriyaki Salmon with black rice was very satisfying with Grilled Chicken Tacos and Fried Chicken Sliders pleasing other palates in my party.

A second visit rang my bell with a Protein Chopped Salad of quinoa, sunflower seeds, roasted beets, beans and feta drizzled with an oregano mustard vinaigrette. If I lived in Vegas, this would be a weekly menu item for me. Crispy sweet potato fries were slightly marred by a too-sweet cinnamon sugar glaze. House-made Ginger-Lime Sodas were a refreshing accompaniment to the meal. I will be brave next time and order either Charcoal Lemonade or Turmeric Nectar. The Osso Bucco Bites looked tempting, too.

http://eurekarestaurantgroup.com/blog/locations/las-vegas/

You wouldn’t expect excellent Thai food in Las Vegas and especially not in the touristic downtown area, but Le Thai is serving authentic and tasty food in its Fremont Street location. Green, red and panang curry dishes were all top notch accompanied with a cooling Thai-style chicken salad. Future visits will have to include the signature waterfall sauce and chef Dan Coughlin’s signature 3-color curry.

http://lethaivegas.com/

Located in the Fremont East district of downtown Las Vegas is PublicUs, a bustling coffee bar with delicious and healthy eating options. I had a savory salad with quinoa, goat cheese, hummus and vegetables. (Yes, quinoa seems to be my current menu choice these days.)

The menu is heavy on meat and fish as well as vegetarian options. The baked goods and desserts look delectable. A gigantic chocolate chip cookie tempted my sister at check-out which she ate with great relish. Prices were a bit high, but the ingredient quality and inventive recipes seem to make the expense worth it. There are outdoor and indoor seating options in this hipster outpost. Waits can be a bit long for food orders.

http://www.publicuslv.com/

These restaurants come highly recommended and go on the list to try on my next visit to Vegas: Cornish Pasty Company and Esther’s Kitchen in the downtown area along with Bavette’s Steakhouse & Bar at the Monte Carlo Casino on the Strip.

Elton John show in Las Vegas

There are any number of great shows on the Las Vegas Strip, but Elton John: The Million Dollar Piano is my vote for “not-to-be-missed” musical extravaganza. You have to like rock and roll, but familiarity with John’s song catalogue is not a prerequisite for enjoying this spectacle. He has a kick-ass back-up band with two of the members having played with him starting in 1969. There is definitely some age on this stage, but you wouldn’t know it from their energy and cool-factor demeanor.

Elton wows the audience with his brilliant playing and his powerful vocals (albeit amplified with lots of reverb), but he also talks with the audience about his friendship with John Lennon and his love of performing. When he speaks, you forget you are in a Colosseum with 4,297 other listeners.

A word about the stupendous electric grand piano Elton plays throughout the show, specially made by Yamaha, the instrument features over 68 LED video screens. The 120-foot-wide and 40-foot tall LED screen across the back of the stage adds to the visuals. Videos include shifting design images, a collage of Elton wearing unique clothing throughout his career and a touching white gardenia film tribute to John Lennon.

The audience is singing along during the show, jumping to their feet after numbers, and clapping along with the three percussionists in John’s band. A select few in the front rows are invited to the stage towards the end of the show for the opportunity of shaking the star’s hand.

If my ears did not deceive me, I believe Elton John said his two children, Zachary (age 6) and Elijah (age 3) were seeing their father perform in Million Dollar Piano for the first time that evening in Las Vegas. I bet they were mightily impressed. I certainly was!

Seven Magic Mountains outside of Las Vegas

Seven Magic Mountains

If you need a break from the casino culture on the Las Vegas Strip, consider a short trip outside of the city to view a special art exhibit, the Seven Magic Mountains by Swiss sculptor, Ugo Rondinone. The seven 30-foot brightly-colored totems are made up of large stacked boulders that give one the feeling of a psychedelic Stonehenge.
Ten miles south of Las Vegas, the art installation is near Jean Dry Lake and Interstate 15. The Mojave Desert becomes a free art museum with a short drive outside of Las Vegas well worth the trouble.
The installation opened on May 11, 2016 and will be viewable until May 11, 2018.

My niece, Maye and me

You can order Seven Magic Mountain prints by Gianfranco Gorgoni or “mini mountain” stone sculptures by Ugo Rondinone at:
http://sevenmagicmountains.com

Imagine Dragons, an alt rock band from Las Vegas

imagine_dragons_2012I always said that I would not be one of those people who became oblivious to current pop music after a certain age. Alas, I realized I was now predominantly listening to jazz, opera, musical theater and artists of yore.

Friend, composer Jim Koudelka who teaches a lot of teenagers has been my initial guide on rectifying ignorance of contemporary popular music.

Formed in 2008, Imagine Dragons, an alt pop rock band from Las Vegas, Nevada made their album debut with Night Visions in 2012. It’s Time was their first break-out song hit, but it is Radioactive that Rolling Stone magazine deemed “the biggest rock hit of the year.” Their second album, Smoke + Mirrors (2014) made it to number one in the US, the UK and Canada.

Accolades include Billboard Music Awards, the Grammys, American Music Awards and a World Music Award.  They have provided music for movies, started a charity called The Tyler Robinson Foundation for kids suffering from cancer and even made an appearance on The Muppets in 2015 which will make you chuckle after you see their Radioactive video.

Little wonder that this year, they decided to take a sabbatical. May they be rested enough to make more of their alternative rock pop gems in 2017.

Current members are Dan Reynolds, Wayne Sermon, Ben McKee, Daniel Platzman. imaginedragons-radioactive-alexandradaddario-02

If you are unfamiliar with Imagine Dragons, check out this youtube video of their hit, Radioactive:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktvTqknDobU

Or On Top of the World, a very amusing video homage to the Beatles, Nixon and the late sixties:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5tWYmIOWGk

Louis and Keely, Live At the Sahara (really at the Royal George)

I am giving a qualified recommendation to Louis and Keely, Live At the Sahara currently on the Royal George main stage due to the fantastic work of Anthony Crivello as Louis Prima and Vanessa Claire Stewart who marvelously plays Keely Smith and also co-wrote the book. Paul Perroni as Frank Sinatra and various other characters exudes charm as does Erin Matthews artfully playing any number of broads and dames.

The crack on-stage music ensemble, playing Louis Prima’s back-up band, The Witnesses has some of the cream of Chicago’s musical crop: Jeremy Kahn on piano, Bill Overton on Baritone Sax, Guitar and Clarinet, Dan Johnson on Trombone, Michael Solomon on Percussion and Jon Paul on Bass. Colin Kupka impressively plays jazz tenor sax great Sam Butera who was a featured artist in Prima’s band. The musicians even sing or shout melody lines as back-up to Prima’s and Keely’s numbers. Whenever the singing actors sing and the band plays, the show crackles.

The set, by producer/singer/actor/writer Hershey Felder really evokes the glamour of Vegas in the 1950s. The choreography is charming. The stage production values couldn’t be better in a house of this size. Famed film director Taylor Hackford is at the helm of this musical show and for the most part does an admirable job. There is a split scene, however, with Keely singing and Louis going through newspaper gossip column clippings his mother has sent him. Surely there could be a clearer and less cluttered way of showing that Keely’s mother-in-law was not a fan of hers.

Prima on a gurney at the top of the show is a daring and possibly dangerous way to start the show. I would have liked to have heard the fantastic music going on in his head from the moment the audience sees him followed by the scene with doctor and nurse.

As for the final bookend visit to the hospital, could we have something hopeful at the end of the show? Did Keely Smith go on without him? Could there be an acknowledgement that the years they spent together off and on the stage were a magical time? He flippantly says that he should have gone back home with her, but that is not satisfying as an ending.

Louis and Keely’s storyline is very similar to “A Star Is Born” in both the 1937 and 1954 film versions. Both movies buoy the audience back up with inspirational scenes played by their respective heroines. Some similar device might have left this musical on a higher emotional peak. At the risk of re-writing the show, could we see Prima finally realize that the best time of his life was with Keely and that is what he replays while unconscious? Perhaps that is what the writers intended but this needs to be strengthened.

I left the Royal George Theater humming and snapping my fingers but with a vague melancholy at the downbeat ending. By all means go see this show if you were a fan of Louis Prima and Keely Smith and want to hear fantastic renditions of their hits, but know you won’t be joyously dancing into the lobby after you’ve seen the sad denouement of their personal and musical collaboration.