Wednesday, March 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The spacious lounge attached to Mandalay Bay’s Mizuya sushi bar — you know the place, right when you walk in from the parking garage, separating the casino from the restaurant walk — has long been one of the Strip’s most bustling and boisterous music spaces, constantly full of tourists dancing along to an amped-up cover band.
But something different and quite unique has taken up residency there, sparking a name change. Now it’s called the Rhythm & Riffs lounge and on Friday nights, it’s home to Nashville Unplugged.
Singer, songwriter, actor and producer Aaron Benward launched Nashville Unplugged almost nine years ago at Green Valley Ranch Resort and it’s made the rounds at other Station Casinos properties before landing on the Strip at Mandalay Bay in 2016. It’s a live, acoustic country music show, but all the performers are songwriters and many have penned monster hits for big stars. The intimate experience goes deep into how those hits were created as the songwriters tell the stories of their craft before performing the song.
“I started the show after I came off the road and was working for Warner Brothers as a songwriter and producer and I had a relationship with an entertainment director in town and ended up throwing this idea out,” says Benward, originally from Nashville and now based in L.A. “To me, the songwriters are the heroes behind the music. This show is a way to give fans a sneak peek behind their favorite songs.”
As a monthly show in suburban Las Vegas, Nashville Unplugged built a strong following of locals. On the Strip, the Bud Light-sponsored weekly event is still pulling some of those loyal fans and resonating with Vegas visitors, too. “Mandalay Bay has been an amazing partner,” Benward says. “I was a little concerned about the space because the show is such a listening and storytelling environment and the [lounge] is open to the casino, but it was amazing to see the first show we did there. The people were really soaking up what we were giving them.”
Last week’s installment featured Phillip White, who co-wrote Rascal Flatts’ ACM Song of the Year “I’m Movin’ On”; Travis Howard, who has written for Dierks Bentley, Kat Parsons, Miranda Lambert and more; and Coffey Anderson, a singer and songwriter with eight albums to his credit.
There’s a lot of country music to be found up and down the Strip these days, but Nashville Unplugged is the rare event that provides a completely different perspective on the art form. Benward, who’s been writing music for TV lately and is preparing to shoot his first feature film with new production company Watershed, points out that many of the guest songwriters moved to Nashville or Los Angeles or New York with the hopes of signing a record deal and performing, so their talents go beyond composing.
“These artists are world-class all the way and it happens all the time that someone will come to the show and enjoy it and say, ‘Why aren’t you making those records?’ The performance prowess is at a high level,” he says. “But there’s also the interaction between the writers onstage between songs, which is a really genuine thing to the audience and that’s what really brings them in. It’s like sitting on your back porch sharing your lives through song.”
Nashville Unplugged hits the stage Fridays at 8 p.m. at Rhythm & Riffs at Mandalay Bay (3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702-632-7777) and more info can be found at mandalaybay.com.