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Rock in Rio USA: The 15 Best Things We Saw at Pop Weekend

Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and Charli XCX crash Vegas to close the Brazilian festival’s United States debut

Rock in Rio

Rock in Rio's 'Pop Weekend' brought Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and Charli XCX to the Las Vegas Strip.

Ethan Miller/Getty

Founded in 1985 with a lineup that included Queen, Rod Stewart, AC/DC and James Taylor, Rock in Rio made its United States debut last weekend, bringing in bands like Metallica and No Doubt for two nights of rock & roll in southern Nevada. This past Friday and Saturday, the festival went pop, outdoing itself with a lineup that included Taylor Swift, Charli XCX, Ed Sheeran, John Legend, Big Sean and a group of rogue, roving bagpipers.

Rock in Rio's pitch was a global one; in addition to the two main stages and the EDM enclave, there were three different spots for music from diverse backgrounds. Yet the sum of the parts was a decidedly Vegas cacophony — just ask the 20 couples who got married on festival grounds. And what screams "Las Vegas Strip" more than Bruno Mars pumping ceaselessly amid palm trees and beer vendors? These are the 15 best things Rolling Stone caught at the festival's second weekend. 

Bruno Mars

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Best Throwback: Bruno Mars

Bruno Mars is a veritable force on the radio: With only two LPs under his belt, the Honolulu-born singer has 11 Top Five singles as a solo or featured artist. But it was a couple of covers that ignited the crowd during his Saturday night performance, which closed out Rock in Rio USA. Taking a stab at Ginuwine's "Pony" and R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)," the "Uptown Funk" star proved that, though his energetic live set hearkens back to Sixties R&B, the turn of the century is right in his wheelhouse. Mars and his band were at their finely-tuned best, shrugging off the frigidity of the desert night. Julio, get the stretch!

Taylor Swift

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 15: Recording artist Taylor Swift (C) performs onstage during Rock in Rio USA at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds on May 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Best Executive Decision: Taylor Swift

Just prior to her headlining set on Friday night, Taylor Swift pulled the plug on a planned livestream of the performance. For an artist so committed to sharing events with her massive fanbase, it seemed an odd move. It made more sense when both audio and video went off the rails: A series of testimonials from Taylor's closest friends flitted in and out, voices mismatched with faces, Lena Dunham inexplicably accounting for all three members of Haim. Later, during "Wildest Dreams," the sound dropped entirely. The "Bad Blood" singer recovered, moving coolly through an abbreviated version of her just-begun arena tour. Still, someone should gift her the John Hughes Blu-Ray box set and spare us the between-song monologues. 

Charlie XCX

Christopher Polk/Getty

Best Rebellion: Charli XCX

Charli XCX's Friday performance was well attended, especially by Rock in Rio's youngest fans, and the singer hit the stage with a barked, "How you fuckin' doing, Vegas?" It only got sharper and less FCC-friendly from there, and, appalled as the festival's many parents may have been, the Cambridge singer made out like a true rock star, never more so than when she led a sing-along through her massive "I Love It."

Jessie J

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Best Freestyle: Jessie J

Jessie J's set ended as so many will for the rest of her career: with the inescapable "Bang Bang," performed this time sans Ariana Grande or Nicki Minaj. But the highlight was something entirely off the cuff: About halfway through her time onstage, she decided to do a little crowd work, singling out a man who said his name was Harvey. For the next several minutes, she quizzed him about his life, rhyming and harmonizing about it all the while. Though she's already known as one of the industry's most reliable pop writers, this was a welcome reminder of her acute ear for detail. 

Ed Sheeran

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 15: Recording artist Ed Sheeran performs onstage during Rock in Rio USA at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds on May 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Best Return to Roots: Ed Sheeran

Six years ago, Ed Sheeran was an unknown in the truest sense, bouncing around Los Angeles venues, plying the singer-songwriter thing on a level that might seem just a few steps away from busking. But after the staggering success of last year's x — Spotify named Sheeran the most streamed artist of 2014 — he embarked on his first headlining arena tour. Coupled with his prior support gig on Taylor Swift's Red shows, he now has plenty of experience proving his worth in front of increasingly bigger crowds. Rock in Rio might have been one of his biggest, but he still controlled that sea of hands and lighted iPhones as if he was inside a 200-head nightclub. Closer "Sing" was particularly intimate.

Big Sean

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 16: Rapper Big Sean performs during Rock in Rio USA at MGM Resorts Festival Grounds on May 16, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

C Flanigan/FilmMagic/Getty

Best Family Tree: Big Sean

If you're a rap fan, Big Sean's set left you missing others: E-40, who was nowhere to be found for the pair's massive "IDFWU"; Rick Ross, who was absent during "Sanctified"; Jay Z couldn't make it for "Clique"; and "Blessed" went on without either Kanye West or Drake. But if you were to ask Sean, the loss felt most deeply was that of his grandmother, to whom he dedicated "One Man Can Change the World." Mildred Leonard was not only a constant presence in Sean's life, but one of the first black, female captains in the history of the U.S. Army. After serving, she went on to be one of Detroit's few black police officers.

Zip LIne

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Best Adrenaline Rush: The Zip Line

Rock in Rio USA was relatively tame compared to some of our more debaucherous domestic festivals, but that doesn't mean it lacked its fair share of attractions. Approximately 1,000 people per day used a long zip line that spanned the crowd diagonally, in front of the main stage. The optimal time to partake was the early evening (for instance, the G.O.O.D. Music signee's 5:30 p.m. set), and remarkably, no one was ever injured.

EDM Stage

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 08: The EDM stage is shown at Rock in Rio USA at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds on May 8, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ethan Miller/Getty

Best Set Design: The EDM Stage

The electronic stage at the festival looked like it was encased by a giant spider with only six legs — Vegas has never been known for its realism. Musically, the acts that played there provided a through-line between the two weekends, and DJs like Gaslamp Killer (who, for whatever reason, fell under "rock") could have easily played either. Apparently EDM is one thing that everyone can agree on. Who knew?

Wicked Tinkers

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Best Buskers: The Bagpipe Contingent

The outer fringes of the festival grounds were dedicated to a litany of name-brand merchants occupying storefronts made to look like the center of a small town. These rows of shops were punctuated by stages where small acts played to audiences of wildly varying sizes. But there were a couple of roving performancer as well, most notably — and most audibly — a kilted-up crew that couldn't put down the bagpipes. No word from the concessions staff as to whether the reloadable currency wristbands could purchase some fresh haggis. 

John Legend

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Best Transition to Elder Statesman: John Legend

When John Legend debuted all the way back in 2004, he got lifted with "Used to Love U," a Kanye West-produced single that sounded like a fiery spat from the last pew of your local church. His output has grown more reserved with time, but that hasn't made it any less affecting: His chart-topping, Grammy-nominated "All of Me" melted the crowd on Saturday night, as did "Glory," the song from the movie Selma for which he and rapper Common won an Academy Award. Perhaps stepping in for the young Sam Smith, who dropped out due to a hemorrhaged vocal cord, heightened the effect, but Legend's performance was a bold look at an artist approaching 40 but continually tweaking his sound to stay ahead of the curve. 

Rock in Rio

Ethan Miller/Getty

Best Vantage Point: The Ferris Wheel

A festival Ferris wheel is not the most unique idea — even the Gathering of the Juggalos has one. But in Las Vegas, the attraction provided a unique perspective on the adjacent Strip. At the wheel's peak, you were at eye level with the neighboring Circus Circus hotel and casino, where some of Rock in Rio's younger attendees absconded to win stuffed giraffes and other trinkets. 

Tove Lo

Tove Lo performs during Rock in Rio USA at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 15th, 2015.

Ethan Miller/Getty

Best On-Brand Wardrobe Malfunction: Tove Lo

During her early Friday set, Tove Lo experienced what many were calling a wardrobe malfunction when one of her breasts became briefly exposed. Some in the crowd were confused as to whether it was a slip-up or a deliberate move by the Swedish singer, who spent much of her between-song banter encouraging members of the audience to remove their shirts. If the video for her recent single, "Talking Body," is any indication, Tove Lo is entirely unconcerned with those who might have been offended. 

Joss Stone

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 16: Recording artist Joss Stone performs during Rock in Rio USA at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds on May 16, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ethan Miller/Getty

Best Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Revival: Joss Stone

Joss Stone closed the latest of her Rock in Rio performances with a cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," followed by Grand Funk Railroad's "Some Kind of Wonderful." It was the former that brought the proverbial house down, sending one of Saturday's biggest pre-Legend crowds into a frenzy. Maybe it's the cagey veteran wisdom, but Stone proved herself to be one of the festival's most gripping performers, outshining act upon act who might draw better than she farther up the Strip. "Stuck on You," from the forthcoming Water for Your Soul, was especially good. 

Mayer Hawthorne

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Best Prom Crasher: Mayer Hawthorne

Mayer Hawthorne, a last-minute addition after Sam Smith pulled out, probably keeps a bowtie in the trunk of his car. His Saturday set drew much of its punch from songs by Tuxedo, his project with hip-hop producer Jake One. The duo's self-titled LP is a throwback to the golden age of disco, pared down and formatted to fit your screen. Its downtown funk easily translated to Rock in Rio's massive scale and won over even those left wondering when he was going to sing "Stay With Me."

Empire of the Sun

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Best Costumes: Empire of the Sun

All the way back in 2003, Jay Z rapped, "And I don't wear jerseys, I'm 30-plus/Give me a crisp pair of jeans, nigga, button-ups." Then, in 2009, he inexplicably collaborated with Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele. The latter takes a decidedly less conventional approach to fashion, and he and his band arrived onstage in what you might wear to a party in 3015 if your good latex were at the dry cleaners. The look was wonderfully gaudy — even for Vegas.

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