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In this issue: Drink Positive: The future of cocktails is not all hard seltzer | Kristen Radtke's journey into American loneliness | See Hear Do: Live music is back — everything's gonna be okay! *plangent joy-weeping*

FOR OVER a decade, the Nightclub & Bar Show has occupied a space on my calendar physically somewhere in March but mentally somewhere between Halloween and Disneyland. An annual gathering of the bar, nightclub, and restaurant industries and the industries that serve them, it filled the Las Vegas Convention Center June 28-30 with DJ setups, point-of-sale systems and shots, shots, shots. 

One year, Monster Energy built a full-size BMX/skate ramp with nonstop wheelie tricks and girls in bikini tops handing out endless cans of sugar-caffeine water. Another time, a Japanese whisky company built a mini-boardroom in the middle of the conference floor for tastings that one would leave feeling less like John D. Rockefeller than Hunter S. Thompson. There would be a forest of light-up trees, confetti cannons popping, and we’d stagger out of the convention center, lugging Santa-heavy swag bags as loaded as Dean Martin.

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But, of course, a lot has changed in the past 15 months for bars, nightclubs, and conventions. Last year’s edition was canceled and this year, the show was moved to a portion of the Convention Center South Halls, with most of the vendors sticking to table displays and banners in front of miles of black curtain, although Ole Smoky moonshine built bars and a backdrop out of repurposed wood, and there was a ping pong table that lit up like the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever.

A dozen or so mid-level celebrities were on hand to push their personal booze brands. Sammy Hagar gave a “fireside chat” about his 25 years in the booze business, with a whole corner of the floor devoted to his assorted alcoholic iterations, including his new line of canned cocktails, a collaboration with Guy Fieri, Santo Mezquila. Mezquila is a blend of Mezcal and Tequila that  tastes like ... well, imagine if you set fire to an Ed Hardy shirt and stirred the ashes in a glass of peroxide. Jenny McCarthy was there to cut the show-opening ribbon and push her Blondie’s Bubbles cocktail brand, which was so sweet it made my teeth feel sticky. Reggae band Morgan Heritage brought their rum, Island Vibes, including an interesting key lime flavor, while 50 Cent stopped in to raise a plastic cup of his Branson cognac with cheering fans.


If the Nightclub & Bar Show had an official drink, it was low ABV bubbly water. Hard seltzers and canned cocktails seemed to be available in every vaguely fruity flavor on the planet from apple to dragonfruit, fruit punch to blueberry shrub. After a few samples, most melted together, but the huge array did offer two standouts. Chaco Flaco canned cocktails actually taste like something a bartender might hand you, especially the vodka berry mule, which managed to be fruity yet not cloying. Sip Shine looks to occupy a space between the shot and the seltzer: With strawberry, raspberry and sweet tea flavors, you can drink it straight or mix it with soda or lemonade.

Beer, however, gave up the (convention) floor to the new kid in town. Boston Beer had a two-story dedicated bar for Truly in the center of the convention, but you had to go to a corner at the back to get a Sam Adams. Whereas a few years ago there was an entire section devoted to craft breweries, this edition of the NBC basically had one, Melvin Brewing, standing alone with some damn fine IPAs.

Another trend was the cocktail smoker. Local establishments from Americana in the suburbs to Petrossian on the Strip to Velveteen Rabbit Downtown have offered cocktails that are served with a puff of smoke that enhances the flavor and also allows for a moment of theatrical flair when served. At the NCB, Stundenglass displayed exotic, mad-scientist-inspired devices, while the Foghat was a small, top-of-the-glass disc.
 

The canned drinks and the multi-step ritual of the smoker seemed to be at opposite ends of a trajectory, one sort of emblematic of where not just the industry but everyone is now. For a year, most of us embraced drink at home/drink in the yard/drink in your friend’s driveway socialization. Now that we’re able to go out again, the idea of putting on pants and letting someone else pour is both thrilling and daunting. Part of us wants to get as extra as possible — bring on the stemware, the shrub, the smoke — and part of us is loath to let go of the low-key, low-effort life we got used to.

The convention also saw an increased focus on the dining aspect of nightlife. Throughout the show, a demonstration area hosted a succession of chefs cooking live as a fleet of assistants from the culinary school assembled mini-sized samples of calamari in Romesco sauce or lamb-and-walnut meatballs. Between the array of schmancy apps at the stage kitchen, the pizza and sliders at the sports bar, and T. Will handing out little wax-paper envelopes of addictive seasoned French fries, it was the first year I felt (almost) as full as I did tipsy. 
 

Again, it’s part of a trend seen in our own reviving social scene: During lockdowns, to-go cocktails helped many restaurants stay afloat, while kitchens helped some bars stay open. We can see it in the small bites at newer Arts District bars like Berlin or Cork & Thorn, as well as on the Strip, where the Wynn opened their Delilah supper club and Spiegelworld is working on their own dining/entertainment hybrid. 

Toward the end of the NCB’s second day, a parade of Drumbots and a fleet of food trucks announced next year’s transformation of the Nightclub & Bar Show into the Bar & Restaurant Expo. The show has seen many changes in the 35 years it’s been coming to Las Vegas but, like the industry itself, the greatest changes happened in 2020. And 2021 is when we'll see which are temporary — and which are permanent.

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"I'M GOING to draw while we talk, if that’s okay with you,” Kristen Radtke says as we begin to chat via Zoom. “I’m trying to draw portraits for the Writer’s Block and they’re overdue." As an author and artist who splits her time between Brooklyn and Las Vegas, Radtke speaks of Las Vegas nostalgically after spending the majority of lockdown in New York. Because of that lockdown, Radtke’s newest graphic novel, Seek You, is perhaps more relevant than when she first started the project in 2016. Ranging in topics from AIM chat rooms to the history of the laugh track, Seek You is an engrossing exploration of American loneliness. The multitalented, and multitasking, Radtke talks selfie culture and Vegas stereotypes all while drawing portraits.

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What originally led you to explore loneliness back in 2016?
2016 was a lonely year for a lot of people. I think election years in general are. I've always tried to find statistics on this, but I feel like election years have to be lonelier years because you're sometimes likely to be sort of ostracized from your friends or family if they disagree with you. The cultural conversation gets to this sort of extreme point. I think 2016 was a particularly rough go of it. 

It was kind of like a transition year for me. I sort of felt a little bit in between things, and I was recalibrating my life, and I just started thinking about loneliness. It first started as a series that I did where I was drawing people who were physically alone in public settings. It started on a subway. I was just watching people on a subway because the subway is this place where you’re stuck in a space with people and you get to observe them in a way we don't in other places because everyone's so stagnant. I thought that would be the end of the project, but it just sort of snowballed from there.

I love the way Seek You discusses the internet and social media through a critical lens that never shames people for using the internet or social media. Where does that nonjudgmental tone come from?
I tried to be nonjudgmental, because I think it's easy and the lowest common denominator criticism to say, “Sure, just blame the internet.” Of course, I feel judgment about the way people use the internet every day, just the same way I feel judgment about the way anyone does anything, because I'm a human being, but I think we turn to the internet as a tool for a lot of different reasons. One of the things I write about in the book is that every time there's a new technology, everyone's always lamenting that it's going to ruin the world. And I mean, in some ways, that's true for the internet, when we look at fake news and things like that. It's done, like, an enormous amount of damage. But if we're talking about selfie culture, or something like that, I feel like those problems have been a little bit overstated, because I think we're just using it as a tool to enact stuff we've always done.

As someone who splits time between Brooklyn and Las Vegas, do you see major differences between what loneliness looks like in each of those cities?
There are pretty obvious clichés in both places. In New York, it's not a particularly smiley place, everyone's haggard and rushed. And New York is pretty ugly in spots, like it's a physically ugly city, and there is something that can feel low about that. It's also a place where a lot of people spend a lot of time alone. It's not weird going to dinner alone here the way that maybe in certain smaller towns, it might raise more of an eyebrow. 

I think people who don't live in Vegas project a lot of “Oh, it’s so depressing there.” People always talk about seeing people at casinos in the morning, like there’s a darkness to it. But I think that's mostly an illusion. People are always like, “I visited Vegas, but I could never live in Vegas.” And I'm like, “Well, what did you do?” And they're like, “Well, I went to the Strip.” Going to the Strip in Vegas and saying, “I can never live in Vegas” is like going to Times Square in New York and being like, “I hate New York.” They're both in this space of unreality that's not built for people who actually live there. 
 

You write that you have become a “defender” of Las Vegas. What about Las Vegas endears you to the city?
I just think Vegas is a magical place. I think it's an amazing place for artists. As cities get more and more unaffordable for artists to live in and as gathering spaces for artists, like literal gathering spaces, go away that aren't centered around commerce, there’s still opportunities for that in Vegas. There's places like Fergusons Downtown, where you can just go and be in a way that they're more limited in other places. Getting an artist studio is more affordable in Vegas, and I think, as a result, people have kind of found it to be a haven. My closest friends that I have in Vegas are just amazing people. It's just like such an amazing artistic community in Vegas. So I get annoyed when people make generalizations about a place they don't really know much about.

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The Meerkat Meetup at the Fashion Show Mall
Through July 28
Visual art

AT FIRST GLANCE, the giant colorful plastic meerkats on exhibit at the Fashion Show Mall may seem like another softball stab at consecrating a commercial space with *raking-finger-claw-quotes* Serious Art, but let’s take a minute and unpack this thing. What do plastic models of a southern African mammal in an upscale mall in a drought-troubled Southwest resort town say about Las Vegas? A lot, actually.

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To be sure, the collective behind this playful touring display, Cracking Art, wants you to revel in the good vibes, the cheerful colors, the supersized meerkats’ example of au natural fraternity and instinctive togetherness. So, yes, smile, hashtag, and selfie it up! But Cracking Art also wants you to think about the rising and perhaps unsustainable tension between the natural world and our increasingly artificial presence in it; its use of “Cracking” in its name refers specifically to the chemical reaction that occurs when raw crude oil is converted into plastic — the collective’s material of choice that happens to express when, almost alchemically, the natural becomes human-made. It’s a message about recycling = good, definitely, but there’s also a certain philosophical resignation to a plasticized world. From Cracking Art’s website: “The choice of recyclable plastic for its aesthetic appeal shows acceptance of the inevitability of our world becoming increasingly artificial.” Oh, meerkats! Oh, humanity! (AK)
Free, second level of Fashion Show Mall near Saks Fifth Avenue, fslv.com

‘90s Movie Nights at The District
Saturdays in July
Family fun

You haven’t completed parenthood until you’ve forced your kid(s) to sit through an incomprehensibly anachronistic movie while you shout, “I’m the king of the world!” with the other adults. Check that box July 31st — or any other Saturday between now and then for ’90s movies other than Titanic — on the lawn behind Whole Foods at The District at Green Valley Ranch. Bring blankets and lawn chairs (but not alcohol or glass!) and enjoy Men in Black (July 10), Jurassic Park (July 17), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (July 24), and Titanic (July 31). (HK) 7:45, free, shopthedistrictgvr.com

Live Music at the Sand Dollar
Through July
If Las Vegas has an EKG for its general state of health, it’s the Sand Dollar Lounge. Listen, I don’t care if Lake Mead belches a flaming carpnado on the valley and the Strip is suffocated under an apocalyptic swarm of locust-headed influencers shrieking for freebies, if the Sand Dollar is open, everything is gonna be fine, people. We’re happy to report the battle-tested rock and blues venue is back with its legendary show roster, boasting live music pretty much every night of the week.

Consider this blurb a random scoop of the upcoming sonic goodness set to take the stage this week and next. If pure Americana is your thing, check out The Disparrows (pictured right) on Fri July 9; their sweeping, anthemic rock should be a literal blast in such cozy quarters. On Sun July 11, country artist Rustyn Vaughn Lee applies his slide guitar to elegaic ballads of love lost and found and lost again. And next Fri July 16, the Rayford Bros perform their hook-rich rockabilly perfectly suited for dance-floor shuffling. (AK) All shows free, 10p, thesanddollarlv.com

Use Other Door at Core Contemporary
Through August 14
Visual art

What’s your other door? That’s the question Core Contemporary gallery in Commercial Center asked artists nationwide to answer through work submitted for the juried exhibition, Use Other Door. The pieces selected reflect a range of interpretations on the theme — from Mavis Figuls’ black-and-white drawing of a literal door through which a naked old man drags a chair, to Diane Zizka’s pastel painting of a bubble ring as portal to the ether (right). The exhibit’s opening reception has come and gone, but artist talks, a virtual tour, and the closing reception are still upcoming. Wed.-Sat. noon-4 p.m., free, corecontemporary.com

DJs at Area 15
Through July
Well, if it was Area 15’s goal to rapidly become a kind of bafflingly totalized modern interactive entertainment mothership that defies conventional description via lightly snarky blurb, mission accomplished. I tap out, I tap out! But anyway, here’s yet another addition to the entertainment roster: rotating DJs at its Emporium Arcade Bar. Some upcoming names: DJ ShadowReD (Sat July 10), whose Brooklyn roots exposed him to a range of sounds he incorporates into his sets; DJ CO1 (Fri July 16), a Vegas-based mixer who favors funk, soul, and other old-school sounds; and DJ Dazzler (pictured right, Sat July 17), who uses her musical platform to raise awareness of issues facing the LGBTQ community. It’s all music to our ears! (AK)
All shows 9p, visit area15.com for ticket information.

 

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Photos and art: Nightclub & Bar Expo photos: Ginger Bruner; Kristen Radtke: Amy Ritter; Seek You cover: courtesy; Meerkat Meetup: Courtesy Brookfield properties; Disparrows: courtesy; Diane Zizka art: courtesy Core Contemporary; DJ Dazzler: courtesy Vox Agency

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