Bender Jamboree Review: Bluegrass, Bats and Banjos

by Apr 26, 2018Adventure, Reviews

Bender Jamboree 2018

The following is an actual account of the events that transpired during the inaugural Bender Jamboree Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada from April 11 to April 16, 2018.  This is a factual and real portrayal of what went down in Vegas.  If you are looking for detailed setlists, play-by-play sit-ins and lists of performers, look elsewhere.

If you want the truth, you have come to the right place.

M y brain came to in a smoke-filled haze of lights, sequins and the machine-induced sounds of money. As I lay another chip on the table to double my losses, I couldn’t help but notice something was … different.

I’d been here before – maybe not this exact spot, but this space on the plane along which we all perpetually slide, slither and dance.

Yet, somehow, it all had changed.

The carpet still shouted up at me with its stain covered images of showgirls and olive-filled martinis. The “7”s on the machine continued to evade the desperate old woman from Kentucky seated across the room, feeding the beast with her every last wish and hope.

The air was still filled with artificial oxygen.

Yet there was now something new in the air… something alien and strange.

The unmistakably uplifting twang of banjos had invaded the space, distorting the atmosphere in ways unimaginable.

Yes, that was it! Undeniably and inexplicably, I was hearing Bluegrass music.

In a Casino!

It all began to come back to me now. The reason for this…madness.

I was on a Bender.

But how did I get here?

What transpired to put me and – I now realized as I looked across the table at the pink unicorn with an obscene pile of chips in front of him, flanked by a pair of aliens and large, green lizard – my attorney, Neil to be here? Now?

On my way to a music festival, I am always wrought with anticipation and excitement.

The sleepless nights of hours ago, spent wondering if we had thought of everything (we hadn’t) and what we may have forgotten (it doesn’t matter) had been washed clean with the third Singapore Sling.

Along with my partner, Kelly, and my attorney, an ornery pink unicorn named Neil, armed with as many supplies as we could muster, we were on assignment, on our way to a music festival.

In Las Vegas. 

For six days.

We’ve been to countless festivals together, we three, but this one feels different.

This one feels an added twang of exciting possibilities.

The only comparison I can draw is Strings and Sol, another festival wrought with anticipation. Oh, sure, it lands us at an incredible all-inclusive paradise, where anything one wants is at their fingertips, but there is a packing vortex of worry into which all temporarily fall, sometimes for months leading up to the event.

This feels similar, but different still.

We’re not leaving the country, but it feels like it!

Is there a more foreign place in America than Las Vegas? A city that conjures such anticipation, excitement, and nervous energy? A destination with so much possibility?

Someone once said, “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.”

As we are flying Southwest and not driving a Great Red Shark of a Chevy convertible, we alas did not have a suitcase full of ether or mescaline. But this is Vegas, and along with gambling, prostitution and any other number of potential sins, weed is now legal.

I’m sure we’ll find trouble if we go looking.

We arrived at the Plaza Hotel and Casino without incident, despite the lizards that were tormenting my attorney, Neil.

Best not to tell him about the bats.

Typically we maintain that a music festival is best experienced as a marathon and not a sprint. At the very least we aim for an extended series of sprints.

But this is a Bender.

We were given 2 extra days to this festival, granted by the gods or the devil, it remained to be discovered.

Day Zero is what we call that first extra day, prior to things beginning in earnest.  Before the masses arrive, when only the veterans and fools have come to play, often indistinguishable, the two.

Old friends were united, new ones quickly made, and without fanfare or a starting gun, only the perpetual lights of old town Vegas to play witness, this Bender was underway.

B ender Jamboree took place at The Plaza Hotel and Casino which lies at the heart of downtown Las Vegas, at the beginning (or end, depending on the fullness of your glass) of Fremont Street, the epicenter of all the best and worst of the assembled freaks in Las Vegas.

You won’t find gorgeous centerfolds or high rolling millionaires on Fremont. Elton John and Cirque du Soleil don’t perform at this end of town. No Penn and Teller or Cher. No, this is not the place for Eiffel Towers, Pyramids and dazzling fountain shows.

You will, however, most likely encounter a 300-pound man in a bikini taking pictures for a dollar, hoping he may gain another 50 pounds and eat for free at the steak and shake joint on the corner, as a bachelorette party zip-lines overhead and a thousand people march by with their cameras pointed at the “sky”.

Yeah. Fremont Street.

The perfect setting for the debauchery that was about to descend on this city, known for its debauchery.

D ay became morning as it sneakily does in this town without time, and the majority of the freaks began to arrive from all corners of the country, each and every one of them on the same mission – to seek out the American Dream.

And to go on a Bender of epic proportions.

The “Hometown Throwdown” was our opening theme. This was the day to proudly wear our points of origin as a badge before we ripped them apart and all became citizens of the Plaza Hotel and Casino for the foreseeable future.

Some wore sports jerseys from teams around the country. Some, like this reporter, were able to celebrate being a World Champion from Philadelphia. Others blended several points of origin, not committing to a land in which to set their flag. Some represented the United States and some Mexico. There were even those from other planets and dimensions.

They most likely were responsible for the bats.

One by one and two by two, like fabled animals from an Ark (or an Arc, or Goodwill or Savers), everyone began to make their way to the casino floor for the start of the festivities.

An open bluegrass pick kicked off the first of what would become a non-stop onslaught of strings. The music would not let up until the dust clears (or is all consumed) some 80-hours in the future.

Our Bender was officially underway.

As band after band had us traveling from stage to stage, back up to our rooms, and back to the casino floor once again, the full weight of the assignment we had undertaken began to show itself, like a ham soaked in rum floating in the muddy waters of the American Dream.

This was going to be no easy task. Bender Jamboree was no place for rookies. Only the seasoned veterans are going to be left standing when the pieces are picked up and gambled away once again.


T he Plaza Hotel and Casino was built in 1971 and maintains some of that ‘old Vegas’ charm. Or maybe some of its carpet. Either way, the comfort of the hotel is on a different level than some of the mega-resorts of the strip.

And you can take as you will.

One may not have all of the comforts of the Venetian or the Bellagio, like meals prepared by world-famous chefs, delivered to your room and served to you from a golden spoon in a bath of champagne. You won’t see shops where you can buy diamonds, furs, and Teslas. The concierge will most likely not send an endangered tiger to your room on request.

On the other hand, the Plaza is very comfortable, like that faded sofa you just can’t let go. There is a high-class steakhouse on the premises, as well as several decent restaurants and a couple quick-serve food options that work in a pinch. There are shops, and while you won’t find fancy jewelry, the selection of fun and tacky Las Vegas souvenirs is as good as anywhere else in town.

And the Bender Jamboree staff was extremely friendly, accommodating, and even fun. While not technically on the same Bender we were exploring, some of the staff members were rumored to have been seen chasing bats from tower to tower, dancing and smiling all the while.

The fifth floor of the South Tower is the home of the rooftop pool, overlooking the Fremont Street Experience and offering the only glimpses of the sun and sky, a world outside the Plaza, for the duration of the festival.

There was plenty of room to lounge, as well as a bar and burger stand.

Music on the pool level was held on a stage erected for the event at one edge of the rooftop. To the left of the stage is one of the Plaza’s impressive murals, covering the entirety of one side of the North Tower. Look to the right and you’ll see the classic rotating sign for the neighboring Golden Nugget Casino. The Golden Nugget sign played tricks on a few eyes in the crowd, as its spinning turned to swaying that may have been caused by the wind or maybe the ether. Most likely both.

Pool sets were a definite highlight of the Bender Jamboree. A chance for fresh air was welcomed by all, and relaxing in a lounge chair while listening to Billy Strings doesn’t suck.

There was always plenty of space to dance and move, and the sound was great, for the most part. (Some said they would have liked the music to be louder further back, by the bar and hot tub. My attorney recommended that we spend the majority of our time riding the rail or getting down on the dance floor, so I cannot attest to this complaint.)

The Pool Stage was put on hold due to high winds the first day. We suspected it was actually because of all of the damned bats up there, but whatever the case, it meant that the rooftop was closed until the Jon Stickley Trio lit it on fire early on Friday afternoon. Stickley Trio set the tone for what was to be expected on the rooftop of the Plaza, and the rest of the artists received the message loud and clear.

Fruition, Infamous Stringdusters, and The Lil Smokies were amongst some of the names to deliver incredibly high-energy dance parties on the roof of the Plaza. Lindsay Lou and Billy Strings made their mark, and one of the highlights was Billy and Jon Stickley going head-to-head during the incredible Leftover Salmon set.  The California Honeydrops took it to the crowd, leading a dance-floor party that rejuvenated many a tired pair of feet.

Yes, everyone was energized purely by the music.  

Once back into the safety of the Plaza and its enhanced air and lighting, there were three other options for music.

The Casino Lounge is exactly what it sounds like. Literally, on the casino floor, artists performed for festivarians and slot junkies alike. The Casino Lounge also hosted the Ramble and Late Night Jamboree, bookmarking each day’s music with open jams. Colorado’s TIMBER! hosted each of these jams, and easily won the award for Hardest Working Band at Bender Jamboree. Including their own great set in the Juke Joint, we counted at least 8 sets of music from these fruit-hat loving freaks!

The Juke Joint served as another indoor venue, a smaller room with an elevated stage, some seats and, of course, a bar. A welcome toast and Hot Buttered Rum officially kicked off the festival on Thursday, and the Joint was smokin’ through late Sunday afternoon. The Lee Boys brought their sacred steel as a nice change of pace, and Head for the Hills and the Shook Twins were amongst many of the memorable sets from this intimate room.

The Bender Showroom played host to the main events of the weekend. A large, tiered theater with several seating areas and an ample dance floor easily fit the entirety of the Bender crowd. Once the other stages called it quits for the evening, Bender Jamboree continued to rock at full-tilt in the Showroom well into the morning.

Infamous Stringdusters filled the showroom on Thursday evening, and by the time Fruition left the stage, we were all fully and completely engaged in a Bender from which we might not easily return.

The Travelin’ McCourys, Sam Bush and Greensky Bluegrass all left their mark on the Bender Showroom as well. The next illusionist or lounge act that has the unlucky task of filling that stage is going to surely note that it feels a bit different than it did before. In fact, the whole room was certainly changed by some of the magic that occurred during Bender Jamboree.

Moments like Sam Bush blowing out his birthday candles, and Elvis and a pair of Showgirls singing harmony on “Leap Year” with Greensky Bluegrass. I also seem to recall Dave Bruzza finishing Billy Strings’ show while Billy finished Dave’s beer, and the Infamous Stringdusters playing “Possum” to a raucous dance floor while the bats quietly swooped down from above, sharing in the groove.

Dustbowl Revival was responsible for their own fair share of memorable antics, as their two sets on the Showroom floor each brought us well into the following day.  They had the honor of closing down all of the stage-oriented festivities at the festival, an honor this reporter would gladly bestow upon Dustbowl Revival at each and every festival in the future!

Through the smoke, haze, strings, chips, and trips, there was a shitload of music on all of the Bender stages.

I’m sure you can read about it somewhere.

I started to come to my senses as the elevator slowly descended, or maybe the building was merely rising. Either way, I became aware of my surroundings and started to think that maybe I was not alone. In fact, there were a dozen freaks packed around like marshmallows in a blender. I should have felt frightened, yet somehow I was calm. Calm and…happy. For reasons I could not explain, every face within that elevator bound for glory was wrapped in elation.

As we filed out of the elevator onto what floor I do not know, I realized that I was surrounded by lizards. And bats. Those damn bats. And beer. Lots of beer. And what’s with all the Hawaiian shirts?

I looked to my attorney, Neil, only to discover that he, too, was in disguise. As we were on assignment, this did not strike me as odd as it might some, a pink unicorn in a Hawaiian shirt. Yet his choice of subterfuge, combined with the garb of all those surrounding him had me wondering…

…is it “Beer and Loathing” night?


After the initial Hometown Throwdown theme, we all moved on as one to a theme so weird that the interpretations were plentiful. Hunter S. Thompson look-alike’s flooded the slot machines and the lizards were no longer painted on my brain by ether but were standing right in front of me, ordering cocktails and shooting craps.

And the bats. They were everywhere.

For a first-year festival, Bender Jamboree did an exceptional job with the fun and attainable themes on every day of the festival. The attendees of Bender Jamboree did an even better job of fully embracing each and every theme, adding twists and turns where deemed fitting, and getting as goofy and weird as Vegas would allow.

And Vegas allows a lot.

“Caturday Night Fever” brought out the best of the disco cats, and the funky felines got down and dirty all night long.

“Pajamboree” let us stay comfy all day long, as we lounged around in our best PJs well through the next sunrise.

As days blended into one another, new themes seemed to emerge. A lizard with cat ears and pajamas was not merely another hallucination.

Or was it?

Elevator rides served as the great equalizer at this particular gathering and the inception of many an epic journey. Artists and fans alike, all forced to submit to the will of the great towering shafts, releasing all will to the whims of the gods and freaks pressing buttons on every floor.

Toss in a handful of “norms” asking, “Is there a costume party or something?” and you get one hell of a ride.

Inevitably all rides must come to an end. Some with the thunka-thunka-thunk of a railcar pulling into the station. Some with a nod and an Uber tip days later. Other rides cease their momentum the moment Fabio gets hit in the face with a seagull, but that’s an entirely different story, altogether.

All rides at the Bender Jamboree reached their maturity on the casino floor.

Talk about walking through the stargate wearing an invisible cloak that only you can see.

Stumbling out of a chemically induced elevator ride into a casino can be a bit of an adjustment. Luckily, Benderites were all around, providing a temporary shield from the reality of the slot machines blazing from all corners of the room.

At any point, there was an adventure to be found, if the adventurer went seeking.

As professional journalists on a major assignment, I, along with my partner and my attorney, took an adventure outside of the set boundaries of the Bender that must be shared in this impartial account.

We attended an actual Las Vegas wedding.


Two wonderful souls truly in love decided to bless this awful town of sin with the little bit of sunshine they had to offer into the world, and we were somehow chosen to be among the honored witnesses.

To a chapel that had previously seen to the holy bond of none other than Jon Bon Jovi and whomever he married in Vegas, a small group departed to witness the bond of Matt and Lauren. Performed by the King himself, the ceremony was every bit as magical as one would have hoped, and then some.

Elvis was on a Bender that would put each of ours to shame. When we departed the chapel, save the Bride and Groom who remained for their intimate pictures, Elvis the King looked to me and said, “Uh huh… leave the unicorn.”

What went on in that chapel after our brief departure, I can only guess. My attorney surely is not spilling any beans. Although he did avoid eating any for several days.

What I can attest to, and my 8 witnesses will most certainly collaborate, is that Elvis, against accordance of the sacred Chapel of Jovi, longingly asked to leave his station and join us on our sacred Bender.

It may have something to do with the fact that we told him Sam Bush was playing.

Or maybe it was the pink unicorn.

All I know is that not everything stays in Vegas.

I dropped another handful of chips on the table, taking a cue from my attorney, who surely was on a streak, though streaking towards what end I could not tell. To my left was now seated a giant green lizard. Or maybe it was just Vince Herman. I can’t be sure.

The journey on which I had embarked some 120 hours ago, the mission I had chosen to endure, the assignment I had taken on a quest for truth, enlightenment, and the American Dream, it was drawing to a close.

A few stragglers remained. The veterans and fools again. This time easy to differentiate. We were all fools, and now all foolish veterans.

We had succeeded where others had not attempted to try. We had undertaken the unimaginable and lived to tell the tale.

We had undergone a Bender that will live in infamy.

We had survived six nights in Las Vegas.

At a music festival.

“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”

This was Bender Jamboree.

For a full photo gallery, go here.

Here’s a quick taste!