They called it the “neon sleepover.” The Route 91 Harvest festival — three days of country music on 15 open acres in the middle of the Las Vegas skyline.
Country king Luke Bryan once called Route 91 an “adult playground,” Rolling Stone wrote, and the lineup for its fourth year was “stellar.”
Eric Church would headline on the first night — black leather, loud guitars and big drums before a sold-out crowd of tens of thousands.
Then on Saturday, Sam Hunt, once called “country music’s biggest pop crossover hope since Taylor Swift.”
And then the third night, which in many ways has not ended.
2nd Year for David & Deb at Route 91 Harvest Festival. Not bad for a couple of 60 year olds. #route91harvest pic.twitter.com/wjr3z0VFf7— David Jackson (@davidjsr1) September 30, 2017
A couple got engaged to the lyrics of High Valley’s “Make You Mine” in the late afternoon, while electric fans blew mists of water into the crowd beneath the fierce Nevada sun.
Olympic champion Michael Phelps wrapped his arms around his wife. They had traveled from Arizona to catch the festival with friends.
It was, Nicole Phelps wrote on Instagram, the “perfect #datenight.”
By nightfall, revelers covered the field in front of the main stage, a shimmering mass of people under spotlights. “One for the books,” Brothers Osborne wrote on Twitter.
When Church took the stage for the main act, a skull flashed on the drum beside him.
“We can’t believe we get to do it all over again,” trumpeted the festival’s official Twitter account as the crowd returned for the second day.
“Never know what surprises await.”
Kayla Ritchie and Megan Greene had come from California. They packed brightly colored boots, in which they would be seen at the end of the weekend — walking hand in hand down the Vegas Strip, in shock.
Brett Young played on Saturday. So did Lauren Alaina, and Maren Morris — who remembered it as one of her favorite shows.
The festival “seemed to arrive out of nowhere” four years earlier, Las Vegas Weekly wrote — a country music festival in repurposed parking lot, surrounded by casinos.
Dwight Yoakam accidentally called it the “Route 99 Festival” when he played the first year, but the show caught on. The next year, a Weekly reporter found the lot “so clogged with lawn chairs and blankets that at times it was nearly impossible to maneuver.”
It felt like a family reunion of Nashville stars to Bobby Bones, who called Route 91 “possibly the best country-music festival of the year.”
When Bones took the stage Saturday, he fed off the unique energy of the crowd and the rare location. From behind his microphone, he could see the Luxor’s distinctive pyramid, and other hotels farther out.
“That was one of the happiest crowds that I have ever seen,” he told his band after the show, and hung around to see his friend Hunt close out the second day.
The crowd pressed up against the main stage’s fences that night, and the hotels shone like gems above.
Inside one of those hotels, the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, a man with a gun waited and watched on the final day.
From his room on the 32nd floor, police said, he would unleash a stream of constant, rapid gunfire, leaving at least 58 dead and hundreds hurt in what may be the worst shooting in modern U.S. history.
And then he would die himself. But first, more than 20,000 people gathered below his window enjoyed one last day of music.
By daylight, the crowd ran toward the stage.
By evening, 21-year-old Taylor Benge sat drinking Red Bull vodka and margaritas.
He didn’t really like country music, he told The Washington Post, but had recently gone through a breakup, and this was a way to distract himself.
So he sipped and listened as Kane Brown’s set gave way to Big & Rich and the final acts of the weekend, and what he and many others would mistake at first for fireworks.
“We put on a show so people can have fun and forget about some of the day-to-day life things,” Jake Owen, the night’s penultimate act, later told Bones, who had played the day before.
“We live this life of not being scared,” Owen told NBC’s “Today” show after the massacre.
He made it through his set that night, and then walked onto the stage with a couple of friends to watch the festival’s closing act — headliner Jason Aldean, who months earlier had been crowned entertainer of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards just up the Strip.
Aldean was barely five measures into “When She Says Baby” when the shots started.
“Is that gunfire?” Owen remembered thinking, about 50 feet from the center of the stage.
The gunfire continued, steady against the beat of the song:
It’s tough just gettin’ up/Throwin’ on these boots and makin’ that climb/Some days I’d rather be a no-show . . .
Shot after shot, faster and faster.
Owen said he could hear the gunfire ringing off the stage. “Pray to god,” he wrote on Twitter. “Love you guys.”
Aldean sprinted off the stage. Owen ran, too. So did other singers, workers and all the thousands of spectators — fleeing and screaming, falling and dying.
The night would go on, but the music was done.
Heather Long in Las Vegas and Wesley Lowery in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated.