Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau
Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009 | 6 p.m.
Even when he's hidden away in a crowd of 42,000 at a U2 concert, you can feel the power of the president. Or in this case, a former president. "Another Elvis in the building," as Bono proclaimed from the stage, referring to the man he formally introduced as "William Jefferson Clinton." He's here, somewhere, in Sam Boyd Stadium, and during a nightlong shadowing of uber-driven stadium director Daren Libonati on one of the busiest nights of his life, there is a sense that we will actually meet Bill Clinton.
"He wants to be able to enjoy the show," Libonati, in full stride while moving through Sam Boyd's club-level party, explicitly says. He says it more than once, in fact, and the message is clear. Do not pester the president during a U2 show in Vegas. But still ... he's around here somewhere.
If anyone can get us there from this distance, it's Libonati. A former UNLV placekicker (his holder was former UNLV quarterback and A.D. hopeful Steve "Strip" Stallworth, a favorite piece of Rebel lore), Libonati hustles up and down and around the old football stadium. As he keeps ahead of me by a step, always swift apace, you peer around corners and duck your head into seemingly unpopulated suites, craning to see if the president is yet on site.
As all the pivotal moments have been time-stamped — including the moment at 3:30 when Libonati went into a brief panic when the screen on his BlackBerry flashed white, then went blank — this one happens at about 9 p.m. We're on the club level, sitting at a high-top table as opening act Black Eyed Peas frolics about, and I casually ask, "What about meeting Bill?" Libonati looks around the table at his wife, whose name by happy coincidence is Hillary, and Leslie Finfrock, daughter-in-law of late former UNLV arena and interim athletic director Dennis Finfrock. "Let's do that," he says, and the four of us take to the stairs and head up to the press level, where a number of suited gentlemen are positioned in front of the opened door. Among those we spot inside are fresh gubernatorial candidate and current County Commissioner Rory Reid, and looking out toward "The Claw," U2's enormous stage construction of 160 feet that hoists the 360-degree, interlocked video panels, is President Clinton. I tell one of the guys lording over the suite that I am a writer in town who works for a Friend of Bill, and then I sidle over to Reid, who says, "What brings you here?" "I am here to meet the president!" I shout. A uniquely powerful moment is happening, and I'm barely keeping it together.
Clinton was in town for a private fundraiser for Reid and to also speak at the National Association of Convenience Stores trade show at the L.V. Hilton. And, of course, to see this pretty spectacular band. Moments after we talk with Reid, Clinton is led over to our group, and Libonati says, "I want you to meet myHillary, and Clinton laughs. He meets Leslie, then turns to me, and I disclose, "I work for the Las Vegas Sun." He instantly says, "I've been a U2 fan for many years. They were instrumental in getting my Global Initiative started, and they performed at the dedication of my library."
Employing characteristic verbal dexterity, I respond. "Rain!" This is in reference to the song "Rain," by The Beatles, which Bono sang on that day in November 2004 because of the downpour that welcomed the Clinton Library's unveiling. "Yeah, it really came down on us," Clinton says. Then he adds, "You know, I golfed today with Edge and his father. His dad is 78, remarkable guy." As I ask, "Where?" the stadium lights drop, the crowd roars, and the music booms.
That was it. Clinton turned away, but as he did so, I noticed that the entire time he'd rested his right hand on my left shoulder. Pure charisma. It was a night for rock 'n' roll, and this guy is a genuine rock star. Even Bono says so.
More snapshots from the Libonati World Tour of Sam Boyd, on a night when the stadium set records for highest-grossing show and highest-attended show (41,500 paid, 42,241 in the house). It was a wild experience, in every which way:
- Kats' tweets from the concert
- LasVegasWeekly.com: U2 showcases classic past, passable present (10-24-2009)
- Bill Clinton in Las Vegas, plans to see U2 concert (10-23-2009)
- Glitches, technology and tears pepper U2’s Las Vegas legacy (10-22-2009)
- Tickets released for sold-out U2 show at Sam Boyd (10-22-2009)
Earlier in the afternoon, hours before the show, Libonati says, "It's all planned out now, all the pieces are together, but you can't predict behavior. You can't anticipate how people are gong to react, if they've had too much to drink or are so excited about being at the show that they do something stupid. That's my concern now." We're standing atop the roof of Sam Boyd, the spot where Libonati says he'd prefer to watch any event for the up-top view of the entire field. As we walk across, the cinderblock plates make a crunching sound. This is not a VIP suite, to be sure. It's about 4 p.m., we're alone up here, and the stadium is empty but for the hundreds of workers prepping the stadium for the huge crowd. We hear a voice and glance up, at one of the light standards, and scaling the 150-foot structure (untethered) is operations director Jeff Chalfant. He is taking some photos of "The Claw," and is not shooting down at the stage affect, which is in fact taller than any of the light standards in the stadium. This will be one of the more distinctive sets of photos in Sam Boyd history. Libonati motions toward the parking lot on the stadium's west side, which is reserved for limousines, probably hundreds. To the north is a very wide entry way designed to serve as a cab line. "We can go six lanes wide," Libonati says. "The complaint out here has always been that cabs will drop people off at the stadium but won't come back to pick them up. We've made it easy for them to do that."
But as we find out later, this is a maddeningly late-developing plan.
It's just past midnight, and a thick line of thousands of fans snakes from the cab line almost back to the stadium. The show has ended an hour ago, but where maybe 200 cabs should have been lined up by show's end, there are none. Occasionally one will make its way to the throng, but the scene is taking on a third-world dimension, as it seems multitudes might wait all night for a ride back home. Libonati and Events Services Coordinator Kenny Sasaki are watching the lot from the roof and are alternately involved in energetic conversations with state Taxicab Authority reps and Metro officers, trying to get cabs to the people and coordinate the flood of traffic. I work my way down to the line of fans, and they are pissed. They are being told to take a CAT bus from Tropicana Avenue to the MGM Grand for $1.75, and take their chances at the hotel — and you know you're in a fouled-up traffic situation when a CAT bus and the MGM Grand seem viable alternatives.
Many fans are distressed to learn CAT bus drivers require exact change -- $1.75 being a lot more difficult to produce than a Visa card. One couple from Montana said they'd been in line for 90 minutes. "You could take the bus," I said. "No, we're almost to the front, and we've spent all this time here already," one says. The bus is just another line, they reason. They'll count on the phalanx of cabs to finally arrive. Then I'm asked, "Do you have a vehicle?" I'm not using the KatMobile to taxi tourists to the Strip. Not tonight, gang.
It isn't until after 1 a.m., maybe 1:30 a.m., that the cab line is working as intended. Dozens of taxis are toting away relieved visitors. There will be discussions between Libonati's team and the Taxicab Authority, as many fans — thousands — found this sort of outcome inexcusable. It marred an otherwise amazing event.
Libonati is promoting his alma mater, pre-show, and carrying four UNLV basketball jerseys to Craig Evans of Live Nation. Evans is a point man between Libonati and the members of U2, and he's sitting in a little modular trailer behind the stage. Libonati hands him the jerseys, one of which reads, "Bono 1," and asks Evans to present them to the band. "If we get lucky, they'll wear them onstage," says Libonati, not considering that the site of Bono — who favors jet black attire and wraparound shades these days -- wearing a basketball jersey for any school might seem a little ... oh, uncool, for starters. But with his unwavering school pride, Libonati pushes forward, and Evans says, "We'll see, we'll see," and smiles. The jerseys are not worn, though the band could take a good sum for them on eBay or at some live auction someday.
We're just in front of the stage during sound check, with Bono testing his voice while facing back toward the band from the stage's circular walkway. They are crashing through a tune I'm unfamiliar with, but we're getting chills and so immersed in the moment it does not matter the song. Libonati explains the conversations he's had with Live Nation exec Gerry Barad, covering a year and a half, which started with pitching the Sam Boyd show as a mere concept, then discussing specific dates. "They ask, ‘What about this date?' and I'm saying, ‘No, we've got a football game on that date,' but when you start talking actual dates, you're getting close. I knew then we were getting close." A great deal of confidence has been placed in Libonati's crew, as the U2 operation brings in 110 big rigs, and the load-in is a $1 million operation. Libonati says the three UNLV venues under his direction — Sam Boyd, Thomas & Mack and Cox Pavilion — will pull in 300,000 visitors between this weekend and the end of the year. The National Finals Rodeo and a Professional Bullriders Association event bump those numbers up. "We're bringing in a lot of bodies," he says. "These are unique visitors, and the economic flow will be substantial. We're really proud of that."
As the band works to find the sound to its liking — 15 minutes behind schedule to get it right — Libonati says, "I am trying to be relaxed, but I really want to throw my hands up and scream. I'm so excited right now." It's more than three hours before show time.
Libonati has been taken away to "settlement," where his financial figures are squared with the tour promoter's. He will be out of circulation for more than an hour, during which I imagine a scene from a gangster movie, where Libonati is tied to a chair and pistol whipped for an extra grand. But no such skullduggery takes place; the process is mostly just a rote comparing of spreadsheets to make sure all sides' figures match.
During Libonati's sequestering, I walk the stadium with Joe Carter, the head of the stadium's food and beverage department. Something about Carter: He once served hot dogs to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling during the NBA All-Star Game in Houston in 2006, the year before the game was held in Vegas. It was there that Carter learned all you need to know about the prospects for an NBA team in Vegas, as Sterling said we'd need a stadium built with at least 100 corporate VIP suites and sell them all. Sterling says he's among the owners who doubt the city has that kind of infrastructure (especially today).
Also, Sterling loves hot dogs, and he's hardly alone. "You do surveys of fans, and they'll tell you they want tuna wraps," Carter says, "but when you offer them tuna wraps at a game, they always want hot dogs. Nobody wants a tuna wrap during an event." Carter introduces me to the "fast pour" beer-serving system, where plastic containers are filled from the bottom rather than top, through a hole covered by a magnet at the base of the cup. It's several times faster than the normal method, and thus you can serve many more thirsty fans.
"Merch is getting killed," Carter says, referring to the merchandise booths selling U2 shirts, caps, key chains and even bandanas. This is not necessarily a good thing, as the stadium keeps only a percentage of merchandise profits (typically 25 percent) but keeps all of the concessions. So Carter is far happier with a thick line of beer drinkers than a mass of folks descending on a merchandise booth.
It's simple to gauge how much the stadium might make during a given event: tabulate the full crowd, then estimate how much each person will spend on concessions. A rodeo crowd will probably spend $7 a pop; U2 fans might go $10 to $15. Boxing and MMA are the highest-spending, doling out an average of $20 per capita (or "per cap," as Carter says). A good night, tonight, would be about $500,000 in concessions.
We happen upon a beer booth, one of 10 additional serving stations installed just for this show, and Carter looks at the price sign: $7 for a 20-ounce cup. "Hey! Where are my tall cups?" The crew scrambles for the 32-ounce cups sold for $10 a shot, which are emblazoned with the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. "People love these cups," Carter says. "This is the kind of thing I find sometimes when I walk the concourse before the show." Carter knows his staff so well that he spots one of his fastest bartenders outside the main press box, instead of the far busier concourse level. "I don't know that I'd put him there," he says. "You want your fastest people where the action is, not up here."
At 5:45, the crowd is finally let into the stadium. "It's all over now," Carter says. "It's like rolling a boulder down a hill. Once it starts, you can't stop it." It's a finite period of time to make $500,000 or so, just five hours. "I like a ‘big door,' " Carter says, playing off the term "big window." "Vegoose, you have a 12-hour door. Not tonight."
Libonati finally emerges from the "settlement" trailer, seeming none the worse for wear. It's back to the roof, where we watch the late-arriving crowd file into the stadium. "That's the end!" he says, pointing to the final car in the long line entering. "It's 8:10, and we're in. Yes!"
Libonati is excited about so many facets of the production, it's hard to keep track. One moment he keeps referring to is the 600 cases of beer that he and 25 other staffers lugged into the stadium. "It was like a keg line, one guy passing cases to the next, all the way down the stadium. Unreal." He designed an art piece, a framed photomontage of Vegas, for the band to commemorate the show. His passion is contagious.
"To go from conversations on a phone, where this is just a concept, to seeing it live, is incredible," Libonati says. "I learned a long time ago to believe in what you can't see." But what is remarkable about Libonati's job is he doesn't get to see much of the show. Not the entirety, anyway. But there were some remarkable moments: the lounge-y take on "Viva Las Vegas"; the wildly spinning screens during "Vertigo"; the Las Vegas snow globe brought onstage, which looked like it was purchased yesterday at Bonanza Gifts; the surging takes on "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday"; the unexpected cover of Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." They took to orbit to talk to astronaut "Frank" from the International Space Station, who said hello to Las Vegas as he weightlessly tumbled around. Bono used Vegas-related icons to introduce the band, except he tossed out "David Blaine" when speaking of The Edge. Nothing about Criss Angel. He also said, "And I'm Wayne Newton!" Snort-giggle. I'm sure The Wayner is tickled at that.
Chatter from the staff: From Director of UNLV Tickets Michael See, who remembered trying to install a ticket office at MGM Grand in 1994 for the Barbra Streisand concert that opened the Grand Garden Arena and nearly melting the phone lines (See has had far better results with UNLV tickets, which opened in 2002). "Back in 1994, Internet wasn't what it is today, and we had a terrible time," he said. From Sasaki, explaining the traffic problems: "We can't force private cab companies to come out to us. We can only make a plan for them to come to us. It's frustrating." From chef John Ayers, when it's pointed out that he shares a name with a former San Francisco 49ers great, "I know, I know. And I'm a Cowboys fan!" Also, spotted throughout the show, UNLV President Neal Smatresk, who says the last great band was The Beatles, but who was a U2 fan for "one night, at least." He met with Clinton, too, who Smatresk said advised, "Go back and do some lectures." To keep sharp, evidently. Former Rebel defensive back George Maloof was on the club level. Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson was in-house, too, and count him as one who believes the Cheap Trick/Sgt. Pepper production could work as a resident show anywhere in town. Who else? Oh, Sun political columnist Jon Ralston, booking through the concourse. I should have taken him up to meet Clinton.
Near night's end, Libonati makes one more trip to the "settlement" trailer to chart numbers and sign contracts. He doesn't share specifics, but earlier in the night, UNLV Assistant Vice President of Finance Rhett Vertrees estimated that the net would reach $1 million. The concert documents folded in Libonati's hands, we charge back toward the stadium as "The Unforgettable Fire" vibrated the facility. A blonde woman cuts between us. She looks slightly familiar, and Libonati says, "Paris Hilton!" I catch a glimpse of her from behind. She's filled out some, and not in a bad way.
The night ends in a decidedly non-celebratory manner, stressing about cabs and stranded concert-goers and waiting for the lot to empty. After I talk to the people in the cab line, I venture back to Sam Boyd once more and run into Carter. "The Claw" is being dismantled, and every fan has vacated. Carter walks me into the Sam Boyd business office to take a look at the final concession numbers, which are $550,000. "It's good. I was afraid it would be only, like, $400,000, so we're happy. Relieved, too." Say this for U2, they always leave us feeling spent.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.