By Alesha Bates
Special to The Las Vegas Tribune
The evening began with a flood of people in the lobby of the Historic Fifth Street School. Tables of merchandise were set up, some featuring CD’s and T-shirts, another featuring buttons and raffle tickets for an acoustic guitar donated by Washburn. The auditorium opened and the audience poured in to find their seats.
House lights dimmed as Steve and Mundo, the producers of the show, took the stage. As professional musicians who travel the world with their talents, they felt it was only right to give back to the community. They started the Vegas Unplugged Music Festival three years ago to bring a bit more culture to Las Vegas and to benefit the wonderful progress of Opportunity Village. As they left the stage, Roaring Thunder took their seats with a variety of instruments. They lit the room up with a wonderful percussion accompaniment to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Get it Started.” As their name would indicate, the room roared like thunder with applause.
Avalon Landing, winner of the Hard Rock Rising 2014 battle of the bands, performed next. It was truly a hair-raising performance. With two guitarists and a grand piano, and all members in perfect vocal three part harmony, the sound danced from the stage with emotion, depth, and a clear devotion to their art. When asked of their experience, they said, “We put a lot of time into crafting our lyrics and working on our vocals and both of those elements can get lost during a rock show. That’s the whole idea of an unplugged event. You
strip away the spectacle and in turn strip away the distractions…
Roaring Thunder was fantastic. Those kids are so inspiring as musicians and as human beings. My relationship with music in general is perhaps part of a longer conversation but seeing them up there so undeniably playing from somewhere deep inside of them spoke directly to why I love music. I love it as a means to discover one’s self more so than as a craft…. This experience actually really opened my eyes to [Opportunity Village]. Daryll Borges seems to have done a great job with the music-mentoring program there and that was on display Saturday night. Those kids were great. That’s what I’ll remember about that night long-term. They were my favorite act.” Avalon Landing’s next performance in Las Vegas is September 4th at the Cosmopolitan and you can find more details at www.avalonlandingmusic.com.
Bishar Hijazi’s Arab Ensemble took the stage next. Normally a Flamenco-style player, Bishar chose his oud as the instrument of choice for the evening. A tambourine player and a violinist accompanied him. They played a set of classic and also modern Arabic music, demonstrating to the audience the use of quarter notes and explaining several different scales he was using as well. The music
transcended the room in a peacefully eerie way, almost floating through the audience like a tidal ebb and flow, sometimes bursting with energy and other times reeling the audience in closer to await the next crescendo. Midway through their performance, Bishar and the violinist did a duet in which the oud and violin appeared to be in an intimate dance. The oud would pick up pace, notes fluttering out in almost incomprehensible clarity and speed, then as the oud would drift, the violin would follow in with dramatic crescendos and miraculous speed and vibrato.
The second performance of Roaring Thunder opened with Steve and Mundo doing a guitar duet of Wonderful World. After a verse, the full band joined in and two members did solos. The performance was beautiful beyond compare and lead to a full-house standing ovation. Being in the room for such an amazingly awe-inspiring moment was truly a blessing.
PJ Barth performed next, accompanied by Tony Smith on bass and Steve Grantham on drums. PJ’s performance was earth-shaking, booming through the room with all the soul and emotion of the greatest blues performers in history. His rendition of James Brown was utter perfection as well as Steve Grantham’s lead performance of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” but it didn’t stop there. Tony Smith’s bass\ lines were the perfect level of smooth and funky, with a clear master\ level understanding of the instrument. The three of them on one stage\ was a true delight to say the least. After an evening of sincere and moving pieces from other artists, it was quite a change of pace to hear some good, old-fashioned funk and blues from such talented performers.
Washburn’s guitar raffle was next. And the winner is… Angelica! One of the youngest members of the audience ran to the stage to claim her prize. She lit up with excitement as Martin Nievera presented the guitar to her and made jokes like “Are you sure you’re old enough?” and “I need to see ID please.” The room was alive with laughter and excitement for the young winner. As the cheering died down, Steve and Mundo thanked the audience for their support and their presence at this amazing benefit show for such an amazing non-profit, Opportunity Village. They have been in business for over 60 years and have helped over 1900 people with intellectual disabilities to enhance their lives and the lives of the families who love them.
Martin Nievera, the headliner of the evening, was up next. With only his vocals and a pianist accompaniment, he gave one of the most spectacular performances of the evening. His voice was that of a Broadway or Opera singer, and the audience swooned at his charm. He chose songs of inspiration, perseverance, love, and hope. Though it was only vocals and a piano, it seemed the duo played the heartstrings best of all. The crowd was moved and enchanted through every song, every note, and every breath. Martin jumped off the stage to have his father, Burt Nievera, sing along to a Frank Sinatra tune. The crowd burst with excitement as he passed by, serenading several people along\ the way. Goosebumps rose throughout the room at his ability to hit the highest and lowest notes with the utmost perfection and ease.
The show closed with another well-deserved thank you to Opportunity Village and all the miracles they make happen. With the help of a caring community, artists with a passion for making a difference, and the presence of amazing producers like Mundo and Steve, dreams really can become reality. Though many amazing artists performed, the true stars of the night were the members of Roaring Thunder and all of those at Opportunity Village who helped make the show a success.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Opportunity Village said, “Vegas Unplugged was just an overall wonderful experience! Mundo and Stuart were so great to work with, and really made a special effort to support and highlight our OVIPs (at Opportunity Village we refer to the individuals we serve as OVIPs, which is Opportunity Village Important People). It’s great to see a group of talented musicians take the time to support our program, and spend time with our Roaring Thunder as it definitely was a highlight for our performers!
As far as exciting moments go, the performance of “What a Wonderful World,” was the best part of the night for me. Getting to see that song in rehearsal over the past months and then having them nail the performance onstage was so exciting! I think it’s a perfect chance for people to see them as talented performers and musicians instead of just being people with disabilities. They’ve been together since 2011 starting out as basically a drum ensemble but have since branched out so singing and playing melodic instruments as demonstrated with their performance of “What A Wonderful World.”
They performed at the very first Vegas Unplugged back in 2011 and Mundo has always had it in his mind to have them perform at the festival again as well as including the Opportunity Village organization in this and future festivals. They’ve also performed on the Penn and Teller stage, performed with the guys from Recycled Percussion, and performed for Wayne Newton! [Opportunity Village does] vocational training, community employment, day services, advocacy, arts, and social recreation. Ultimately OV is a place for people with intellectual disabilities to make new friends, realize future career paths, seek independence and community integration, and unleash creative passions!
The Opportunity Village Fine & Performing Arts Program serves individuals with intellectual and related disabilities in music, dance, theater, and visual art. The program was designed to increase the individual’s awareness of the arts, support their creative expression, and provide technique and training. The program was also designed to promote self-expression, social interaction and the development of peer relationships. Participants have the opportunity to showcase their visual artwork for exhibition and sale, and perform on the stage at Opportunity Village and community events throughout the year. If anyone in the community has any opportunities to teach, collaborate, or perform we are happy to hear about them!
There are lots of ways the community can get involved with Opportunity Village! Monetary donations are always appreciated, but we also take program supply donations, and the Opportunity Village Thrift Store is a great place to donate items you are looking to part with! Benefit shows or events are helpful too and can be arranged through our Foundation Department. OV can always use volunteers as well! Large groups can help with our Magical Forest, and we are always looking for professional Artists/Musicians/Performers to volunteer in our Fine & Performing Arts program or to host a workshop or class.” Thank you to all who came to show support and thank you to Opportunity Village for all the amazing work you do.
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Alesha Bates, better known as “Captain Charlie,” is a popular Las Vegas entertainer.