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Why Has Las Vegas Become a Home for Classic Rock?

Las Vegas
Ethan Miller, Getty Images

For generations of music fans, Las Vegas has always been seen as the place where showbiz, the antithesis of rock, reigned supreme. But the past few years have seen a shift in that way of thinking, with bands now flocking to Sin City in the form of high-profile residencies. With Journey set to become the latest group to take the plunge, it seems like a good time as any to look at the reasons for this change.

Mostly, it’s the simple passage of time that’s caused the shift. As the stars who ruled Vegas for decades aged, fresh names were required to get tourists into shows. Because the idea of the all-around entertainer no longer existed, and acts with no track record outside of Vegas were meeting with diminishing returns, it made sense for the casinos to look for other musicians with decades of success behind them as live draws.

“Much of the past stigma about Las Vegas being the place where acts go to die has faded,” says Tim Dressen, a Vegas enthusiast who, for 10 years, has hosted the popular Five Hundy by Midnight podcast. “If bands can play for fans who still love their music and make decent money doing it, the location probably doesn’t matter much. Vegas resorts are generally good at promoting live events, so tickets sell well, and the casinos booking these acts know that their fans are in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They’re likely to have some disposable income to spend not only on tickets, but on food, drinks, hotel rooms and gambling as well.”

But why travel to Vegas to see a band when it will eventually make its way to your town? Dressen — who has seen numerous concerts on his travels to Vegas over the years, including Sammy Hagar, the Scorpions and U2 — notes that it creates a different mindset when you’ve traveled cross-country for a concert rather than to have the concert come to you. And when coupled with Vegas’s singular vibrancy, it becomes a special event rather than just an ordinary night out.

“A lot of people are looking for an excuse to visit Las Vegas,” Dressen says. “And even if they’re going to Las Vegas mainly to see a band, the rest of the trip — the food, the gambling, the madness of the city — adds to the experience and makes it special.”

A good portion of the recent classic-rock activity has centered on the Joint, a 4,000-seat concert venue located inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Since February 2012, when Motley Crue sold out 12 shows in a two-and-a-half week stretch, the Joint has reached out to other hard rock bands. Def Leppard, Kiss and Guns N’ Roses all launched similar residencies to great success, with Motley Crue and GNR doing a second run of shows in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

While those bands can play to considerably more people on a nightly basis, Dressen notes that playing Vegas residencies offers musicians a chance to perform something besides the usual greatest-hits show.

“Def Leppard did a top-to-bottom performance of Hysteria every weekend for three weeks,” Dressen says. “Fans didn’t get to see that particular show elsewhere because they didn’t tour it. There are rumors that they plan to do the same with Pyromania in 2016, so it must have worked out.” (Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses have released DVDs of their Vegas shows, so fans who didn’t make it to one of them can now see them.)

Watch Def Leppard Perform ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ from ‘Viva Hysteria!’

But it’s not just the Joint that’s brought classic rock to Vegas. In 2004, Elton John began a long-term relationship with the Colosseum, an ornate theater at Caesars Palace with a capacity of just under 4,300. The partnership has so far resulted in two productions: The Red Piano, which ran for more than 240 performances between 2004-09, and two years later, The Million Dollar Piano, which John has performed more than 100 times to date. Rod Stewart also regularly plays the Colosseum, and in 2012, Carlos Santana began a residency at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay called An Intimate Evening With Santana: Greatest Hits Live, which has been extended through 2016.

In addition to the residencies, The Beatles LOVE, a Cirque du Soleil production that makes innovative use of the group’s catalog, has been playing at the Mirage since 2006. And on any given night, classic rock bands can be found in various theaters and showrooms in properties on the Strip, off-Strip or downtown as part of their regular tours.

Watch the ‘A Day in the Life’ Sequence From ‘The Beatles LOVE’

Some rockers are even using the city as a place to launch business ventures. Vince Neil, who moved to Vegas in the mid-‘90s, has become somewhat of an impresario in town, having started several tattoo parlors, restaurants and a strip club. Last year, he followed Kiss into the world of arena football, with the Las Vegas Outlaws; the team is scheduled to begin play on March 30. As for Kiss, they realized the commercial potential of Las Vegas when they opened the Kiss by Monster Mini-Golf Course in March 2012.

In May, the first American installment of the globally successful Rock in Rio franchise will take place in a custom-built concert ground on the North Strip called the “City of Rock.” But with Metallica as the only classic-rock band in the lineup (the other headliners for the “Rock Weekend” are No Doubt, with Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars topping the bills on the “Pop Weekend”), Dressen thinks the festival will undergo some growing pains.

“The initial lineup is spotty and unfocused,” he says. “As a result, I don’t think the first event will do as well as the organizers initially hoped. In fact, they have already publicly decreased their ticket projections a couple times. They have a long history of successful festivals in Brazil, where they have little if any competition from other festivals or even major concert tours. In the U.S., they’re competing with dozens of other festivals that have figured out what the American audience wants. The Rock in Rio name isn’t going to sell tickets here, so they better put together a strong lineup that appeals to a specific audience if they want to survive.”

As a city where the primary industry is tourism, Las Vegas needs to frequently reinvent itself in order to keep people coming back as well as attract new fans. After a period in which it promoted itself as a family-friendly destination — which many experts now agree was a mistake — turning Las Vegas into a home for classic rock is going a long way toward re-establishing it as an adult playground.

See Journey and Other Rockers on the Top 100 Albums of the ’80s

Motley Crue Albums, Ranked Worst to Best

Next: Top 10 Def Leppard Songs

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