Tried and true: Las Vegas’ love affair with live music

Las Vegas has loved live music from the beginning.

The El Rancho, Vegas’ first resort-style casino (It opened in 1941.) was owned and operated by Thomas E. Hull.  Hull, a former member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, designed the El Rancho to include the “Opera House” — the resort’s showroom. The Opera House would feature top performers and initiate Vegas’ love affair with live entertainment.

Since then, we have fallen for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Liberace and Celine Dion — stars of the many eras of our marriage to music.

Vegas may have strayed from time to time, attracted by big buildings with flashy shows filled with acrobats and magicians, mind readers and comedians, but while extravagance might hold Vegas’ attention for a while, the city always returns to its first love – live music.

“Your heartbeat wants to hear music,” explains Frankie Moreno. His show at the Stratosphere is the perfect example of how Las Vegas is reaching into history to rediscover what made it the Live Entertainment Capital of the World.

Moreno’s heroes are Jerry Lee Lewis and Mozart. He’s a piano prodigy and a suit designer. He has a backing band full of brass and strings. He could have been a throwback singer — a reincarnation of a young crooner — but he believes that originality is a key element in creating a powerful show.

Most Las Vegas musicians’ contracts prohibit them from performing original songs. Moreno, a composer and lyricist, said that before he landed his gig at the Stratosphere, he got around the rule by announcing his own creations as other artists’ music.

“We’d say, ‘This is the current Dave Matthews single,’ ” he says. “And we’d play one of our songs.”

Moreno believes that live music is never perfect but that ‘perfect’ is not its goal — the goal is to touch someone with a song.

“When you hear it you think, ‘He’s singing about my life,’ ” he explains.

Moreno plays the classic showroom at the Stratosphere. Instead of glitz and pyro, he has guitar and piano. He plays original music the whole night long, banging away on his piano and bending over backward to belt out songs that came from his own experience.

He’s able to generate all the energy and excitement that other productions do with their big visual effects — maybe more — because at the center of his show is live music and a performer who’s passionate about playing it.

A few miles down the Las Vegas Strip is another show with a simple set and a note of nostalgia. “Million Dollar Quartet” makes use of a different genre to create excitement and connection — a genre that some think could be the future of Vegas.

Frank Leone, president of the Musicians Union of Las Vegas Local 369, attributes a bump in musicians’ employment over the past few years to increasing interest in live music and theatrical musicals. The pickup is partly due to the opening of The Smith Center in city’s downtown, but the trend began on the Strip.

Though touring companies have long brought musicals to the city, semi-permanent shows are relatively new. Show like “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!” made way for “Rock of Ages,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” and “Jersey Boys,” which is in its sixth year on the Strip and still going strong.

“We hope that more theatrical shows will be coming here for their intrinsic value but also their substance,” Leone said.

The size of the Harrah’s Theater allows the eight-member cast of “Million Dollar Quartet” to make the Broadway hit uniquely ‘Vegas.’

The city’s legendary acts were famous for their abilities to “work a room.” The importance of developing a relationship with an audience is one reason live music has survived while other methods of amping up an audience have become less popular.

Drummer Mark Ferratt describes “feeling the weight shift around in the room” throughout the show.

“It’s not a preconceived thing,” he says. “… Moods change a little bit. Things shift from night to night.”

Live musicians enable a show to build and maintain momentum between acts rather than let energy lag when stars leave the stage.

At “Million Dollar Quartet,” Ferratt and bassist Mikey Hachey play almost nonstop from the time the house lights go down until the final bows. Along with delivering their own lines, they accompany the musicians who play the “quartet” (and Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne) in every number and keep the show’s energy going through dialogue and scene changes.

Between scenes, Hachey and Ferratt play motifs from the last song or the next, linking the show together and underscoring the storyline that traces the events at Sun Records when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis came together and recorded some of their greatest hits — live.

When other characters step outside the “studio” and play a scene at the far left of the stage, Hachey and Ferratt continue playing, quietly.

“It kind of gives that illusion that [the audience] is outside too and hearing us through the wall or through the door,” Ferratt says. “The jam session is still happening and you’re still getting the atmosphere, but you’re a fly on the wall, catching all the drama that’s going on outside.”

He went on to explain how he and Hachey interact on stage with each other and the rest of the cast.

“It gives me the feeling that I’m there,” he says. “I’m watching these guys make history.”

Vegas’ renewed love for live music isn’t confined to small venues or more traditional formats. A third genre of entertainment, that combines the visual and the aural, has found a foothold on the Strip.

Las Vegas has built a special relationship with Cirque du Soleil, and as the city has grown, Cirque grew with it. Though its shows remain famous for their impressive visual and acrobatic displays, the company’s latest additions to Strip entertainment feature live music more prominently than ever.

Zarkana” band leader Steve Bach said that it would be almost impossible to put on a show like his at Aria — which includes circus acts like trapeze, tight-rope and guys jumping rope on a swinging metal wheel — without a live band.

“The music tracks the action on stage, which is different every night,” he explains.

Bach often shrinks and expands parts of the score on the fly to accommodate the non-musical performers. He describes what he might say to lead singer Paul Bisson when other performers need some extra time.

” ‘Keep going,’ “Bach said. That means, ‘You’re out of stuff to do. Just do something.’ “

“[Bisson is] very good at that,” Bach adds. “… He will often do an extra 20 seconds, and you wouldn’t know.”

Bisson’s role is unique among Cirque shows because his character, a brokenhearted circus master named Zark, sings on-stage throughout the show, like a narrator or a character in a musical.

The singer was hand-picked for his role by creator François Girard.

“[Girard] was very insistent on making the musicians a part of our show as well [as the other acts],” Bach says. He adds that he is “proud” of Cirque du Soleil for its commitment to producing shows with live musicians.

All but one of Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas productions use live music, and “Love,” which features re-mastered Beatles tracks, still reflects an emphasis on music.  To create the soundtrack of “Love” Cirque went to the original Abbey Road Studios recording tapes and sampled 130 songs to create 26 musical compositions. The company’s newest creation, “Michael Jackson — ONE,” which will open in May, promises to bind music even more closely with Cirque’s traditional acrobatic displays.

Over the past decade, one of Las Vegas’ premier concert venues has championed the union of visual and musical production with big-name artists like Celine Dion, Cher, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Shania Twain. The Colosseum at Caesars Palace turned 10 in March, and its anniversary is a reminder of the power of live music.

Artists who play The Colosseum are backed by a 45-by-120-foot LED screen and flanked by walls of projection video, which help make the productions as huge visually as they are musically. But part of the reason is that the stage is more than 22,000 square feet — enough to drown even a large ensemble in space.

Were her upbeat songs not animated on the screens and her ballads not illustrated with majestic projected scenery, Shania Twain — even with her 13-member backing ensemble — would be lost on the Colosseum stage. But with bright images to fill up the space, Twain can create remarkably intimate moments with her audience of thousands.

Her a capella trio version of The Hollies’ “Carrie Ann” proves that a number need not be flashy to bring even a big audience to cheers. The performance (Twain’s prelude to introducing her sister Carrie Ann) makes the arena seem smaller and the music seem more powerful, allowing Twain to lead into a segment of the concert that uses only voices, acoustic guitar and string bass.

Twain tells her audiences that vocal harmonies and simple musical arrangements are part of her pedigree. Though she has recorded four studio albums, she relishes the stripped-down sound of singing around a campfire.

A love of pure, un-produced music is a trend among the performers who play live on the Strip each week. And with about 200 musicians playing each night, it’s no wonder that sentiment has taken hold as the industry changes.

“[Music] can only live and breathe through the people who live and breathe with it,” Moreno says, explaining how people’s passions play out in the music they perform.

At “Million Dollar Quartet,” where even industry standards like in-ear monitors are left out in order to create a period-perfect experience on stage, Mark Ferratt points out that at Sun Record in 1956, during the sessions the play portrays, the music was unplanned and organic.

“They would just start and people would just join in,” he says.

At the Mirage, the members of Boyz II Men introduce their on-stage a capella jam session by telling guests that informal formats are still their favorite.

The spirit of spontaneity has even made its way into scripted Vegas shows.

As “Jersey Boys” comes to a close, Valli (Travis Cloer or Graham Fenton, in the Paris Las Vegas cast) says that the glory of commercial success can’t compare to the pure joy of making music.

“The first time we made that sound — our sound — when everything dropped away and all there was, was the music. That was the best,” he says.

Frank Leone thinks that as the Las Vegas entertainment evolves, the city will continue to support live talent.

“There’s always room for anyone who’s really outstanding,” he says. “That person will always find work.”

“Million Dollar Quartet”‘s Mikey Hachey says that at time when “so much more [is] digital, so much more [is] produced and there’s Auto-Tune on everything,” live music must be preserved because it brings people together.

“There’s beauty and magic in that that you can’t get with anything else, because there are real humans behind it,” Hachey says. “We need to hang on to that.”