A first timer’s impressions of Punk Rock Bowling 2016

Punk Rock Bowling came and went this Memorial Day weekend in a sun-seared flash and for the first time, I was burning with it. I dragged my pretty green eyes out of the pretty green city I call home and took my first step to a weekend of firsts. First fest, first plane trip, first time in Vegas.

This won’t be a thorough recount of setlists. I don’t know enough of every band’s catalog to make that happen. This is intended as a way to capture what Punk Rock Bowling is, for those of us who haven’t themselves to first yet. This is about the experience, because the experience transcends a festival lineup.

You can read the tale of my first trip to Punk Rock Bowling in its entirety below.

We left PDX at night. I had spent the day pacing, trying on nervous tics to pass the time. I’m not much of a flier. I sat and thought and paced and talked and drank airport beers until it was time to do-the-thing-people-aren’t-meant-to-do. My tension had peaked over the course of the day and I was starting to wonder if I could do this. Luckily, as we approached the gate, I spotted the denim-end of a common thread: punks. And then suddenly it all felt a little more natural. Punk Rock Bowlers; common ground; distractions! We chatted about what we wanted to see and soon the natural camaraderie of punk rock eclipsed my fears of flying and I was up in the air, zipping past land only good for zipping past. Before I knew it I was being told to strap in for landing and we were there. As painless as it gets, folks.

Our punk crew shared a big ol’ Uber and took us to Fremont Street where we parted ways. Coming into town, we could see lights and landmarks and all the sort of stuff you see in the movies, but this was the first time we were in the thick of it. The neon corridor that is Fremont is a sight to behold at night. People are hustling and bustling, drinking giant beers on the street, performers are playing, and nearly-nude women are hocking pictures for cash. Fremont at night is decadent and alive, and on Punk Rock Bowling weekend it is covered in punks. There’s a strange and satisfying dissonance there, seeing this denim infestation work itself into the center of possibly the most un-punk place in the world. But there they were nonetheless, drinking in bars, ordering at restaurants, playing the slots right next to fanny-packed tourists– all in a mess of jorts and patches.

At the end of the bacchanalia, standing as a monolith over Fremont Street, we found the Plaza; grinning like Dionysus over his glory and works.

After check-in, we were left with the urge to get back out there. After all, the city was alive, man. Stuff was happening, punks were everywhere. We took advantage of Vegas’ open-container laws and grabbed a couple beers from a convenience store and sipped as we strolled. We ran into the airport punks by chance and soon we were a small mob sauntering down Fremont. Everything up until this point, besides the sublime view of hundreds of punks on the same street, was mostly just an impression of the odd and gaudy entity that is Las Vegas, but here was my first real Punk Rock Bowling moment: standing outside, drinking a PBR, and we hear familiar chords from inside a club. Duh-nuh-nuh-nuhhhh. Duh-nuh-nuh-nuhhhh. And then “You went to school for a year or two–”  And we collectively lost our minds. On the other side of the door, Jello Biafra was trilling an encore with The Guantanamo School of Medicine. A song I never thought I’d hear sung live by its original vocalist. It was insanity. That was the moment where I realized this wasn’t just a collection of shows. Punk Rock Bowling is an event. We went to bed with neon circles glowing in our irises, excited for what could possibly come next.

And, as if on cue–

The dry heat of the desert robbed us of most of our joy to live. The sun slash-and-burned through any romantic notions of the city leaving us with an impression of the ugly reality. Las Vegas is a ballsack without the benefit of moisture. It’s a tacky wonderland for the tasteless. There’s not a step you can take where someone isn’t trying to hustle you out of something. It’s a trap meant to separate people from their money. In Vegas, we’re all just raccoons reaching for silver in a jar.

That day, I discovered a couple other things about Vegas too. First, was that there beer is ridiculously expensive and lacking in quality. Sixteen-dollars for a 32oz of Dawn of the Red? Puh-leeze. Or how about when we went to a little tavern and the most worldly brew on their menu was Shock Top? And to add insult to injury they were charging $7 for a pint. Woah-boy. My girlfriend and I complaining about beer prices would become a consistent and well-developed theme for the coming days. We made the most of it though and did the tourist thing and ate at the Heart Attack Grill– a greasy and bombastic experience that seemed right at home in Vegas. And then, we hunkered down and did the inevitable: we gambled. We took ten bucks in and went at it like the couple of hicks we are, not knowing anything and really just throwing money at machines. Buttons were pressed at the cost of a dollar. Somehow, I got a decent return of $250 and suddenly I really liked Vegas again.

Spanish Love Songs, Death By Stereo, H20, and Good Riddance were playing at the Fremont Country Club that night. We got in the giant line and were pleased to see things running efficiently. We were inside in no time. The club was fairly large and surprisingly cool, even when packed full of people. I suppose Vegas has air conditioning dialed in to an artform at this point. This was my also my first opportunity to meet other DS-ers who made the pilgrimage this year, including Head Honcho Dave Buck. Spanish Love Songs opened the show with some Menzingers-y pop punk with strong hooks and emotional delivery. It was good stuff and pretty much right up my alley. In between sets I went to the bar and asked how much a beer was and left empty-handed when I was informed a can of Miller Lite was $12. You’re not fooling anyone, bar-lady, I know what Miller Lite is, and I know it’s not worth twelve-bucks. But these arguments all fall on deaf ears in the desert. She just gave me a plastic smile and said, “It’s Vegas, baby!”

Death By Stereo was up next and put on an incredibly fun show. They have a dumb energy about them, that coupled with their screams for circle pits and metal guitar solos came a sort of endearment. They were a ridiculous band to watch live and one I was glad to be able to see. H20 came up next and played a well-received set sprinkled with hardcore-dude nonsense about how friends are like family and so on. They were never really my thing, but they played well together and its hard not to at least be a little stoked by watching a bunch of lifetime fans have the time of their life.

At this point I was beyond worn out. It’s past one and Good Riddance hasn’t started yet and I am once again wondering if this might just be a little too hyped up for me. Am I old? Am I supposed to want to buy $12 beers and stay up till two or three to see bands I never really got into? Punk Rock Bowling was starting to become exhausting. I made it through about half of Good Riddance before I decided to bounce and get some shut-eye. Tomorrow was the first big day of the festival after all. I cut my losses and hoped for a better tomorrow.

Pears was playing a Hangover Helper show at the Beauty Bar at noon. This was one of the shows I was looking forward to the most. To add a little gravy to seeing one of the most hyped bands in punk rock, it was a free show with free tacos. Say what? That’s right. Free tacos. And I’ve got to admit, they were pretty good tacos too. This was exactly what I needed and was the first step to turning Punk Rock Bowling around for me after an exhausting first day. The Beauty Bar does things right– with a bar that becomes an outdoor venue and reasonably priced drinks.

Vegas locals No Red Alice played a strong set that I found myself enjoying quite a bit. I recall them sounding like a pretty strong pop punk band that never quite gets into pop territory, digging their feet instead into the dirt of melodic punk. Their recorded output though points to a folk punk sound, so take whatever I say with a grain of salt. Illicitor was another local Vegas band and were a little harder and also pretty awesome to check out live. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either band become a lot bigger in the coming years. But then, of course, we weren’t standing in the midday sun to see a couple Vegas locals. We were here to see Pears, and see them we did. They played their spastic and catchy hardcore to a crowd of true believers, ending with their cover of “Judy is a Punk” with plenty of time to make it to the main festival.

I’d never been to an outdoor fest before, so I didn’t know quite what to expect. I’m a frequent showgoer, so I have a certain expectation for live music, and for me it centers around the intimacy of a club experience. You can feel the music up close, you can see the band, and you can do it all amongst others who have been touched the same. One of my biggest surprises was that despite its hugeness, Punk Rock Bowling maintains that intimacy to a degree. It’s a goliath of a punk festival, but ultimately it’s still punk rock. The stage is big enough to be visible from most places, and the crowd is big. But, like at any punk rock show– circle pits break out, punks put their fingers in the air to sing along, and all is still right in the world. Even the nasty, skin-crinkling heat felt like a cousin to the humid grossness of a packed venue.

But, the actual Punk Rock Bowling grounds were more than just a festival, it’s a Punk Rock Shopping Experience. It’s a fair that specializes in studs, patches, and vinyl. Vendors line their tents up under the sun like a traveling strip mall. Old horror movie shirts, more Rancid stuff than anyone could need, pin-up dresses, music; it feeds into the probability that you aren’t going to like every band, and when that band you never cared about starts playing all of their hits off that album you always hated, you have time to browse through shirts and LPs and other such knick-knacks no one needs. And, of course, there’s food. Lots of food.

The bands that played the first day were honestly more hit and miss for my tastes. The best of the early bands was Melted, No!se didn’t do much for me– but then again, I have a full head of hair and nary a suspender in sight. I’d never seen Youth Brigade before, but aware of the Stern Bros. connection, I was prepared for it to be an obligatory set. I was surprised to find I really liked Youth Brigade and the crowd seemed to be earnestly into it. They ended as a lot of PRB sets end, with a bunch of people on stage screaming along to an old favorite. The Bronx were incredibly tight live, and maybe had the best stage presence of the day. Their melodic take on hardcore was interesting, but not really my style.

Subhumans played with a sort of old school punk zeal that reminded me of how long the genre had been around. These dudes were old; and they played like a clip from a 70’s music retrospective representing punk. They were awesome. Funnily enough, the next day I was talking to an English punk about the Subhumans, and he said that back home they play to a crowd of about hundred people, and in the U.S. they can do a thousand. More power to them.

The Exploited is probably what I remember the most clearly from the first day of Punk Rock Bowling. Not because of some sort of revelation, nor because of some long held connection to their music. Here was a band, that much like the Subhumans lives on in the form of patches stitched to denim. You could throw a rock and hit an Exploited patch, and there they were on the stage before me– punk parody in person. They played tight, for sure, and for awhile I was even enjoying their sound. But then, as the night dragged on, so did they. The Exploited have one sort of song and it goes like this: chug-chug-chug, bark-bark-bark, noodly-noodly solo, bark-bark-bark. I could’ve done with about twenty minutes less of that.

I never got too deep into Black Flag, so I only watched about half of Flag’s set, which was quite good. Once they played “My War,” the only Black Flag song I’m decently familiar with, I figured it got about as good as it’d get. The band was in high spirits and joked about how lucky they were to still be alive. I would’ve liked to see more, but I had another club show to get to. So, I left to the soundtrack of Black Flag riffs, into the night– toward Leftover Crack.

For the Lady and I, our enthusiasm was waning. The days were long and the nights felt like that scene in In the Mouth of Madness where Sam Neill keeps driving out of town and then ending right back where he started. When you’re tired, Punk Rock Bowling becomes Lovecraftian horror. You look upon its unfathomable presence; its never ending lineup that populates its never ending days; and soon your brain starts to melt into a spongy puddle of anhedonia. We had no problem showing up casually late to the Leftover Crack show (once again at the Fremont Country Club), because frankly, we were exhausted. We caught the last song of uber-spiky-haired Starving Wolves and the Lady thought it was cool and aesthetic enough to buy a shirt and patch. We didn’t really know where in the set we landed, so I had the hilarious misinformation that the next band was D.I. I had never heard D.I. before, and I always thought they were hardcore, so imagine my surprise when the legitimately most ska band I’ve ever seen comes out. We’re talking ska maxed to 11. We’re talking zoot suits, horns, two frontmen who dance around, flat-brimmed fedora with feather in the band– we’re talking serious ska. And it was amazing. It was rejuvenating. Their music was sonic fun and it was infectious. Suddenly the day didn’t feel so long and we couldn’t stop smiling. This was Los Skarnales, and if I had to list my ten favorite sets of Punk Rock Bowling, they’d be in my top five.

D.I. came and went for me without much going for it. Not really my thing. Typical melodic-hardcore. It was played with a sense of humor though, which was appreciated. Leftover Crack came on stage and were their usual crusty ska selves, which is to say great. I felt a certain kinship with Sturgeon, as he also seemed to want the set to be over in favor of escaping the heat. They were great though, and played some of their heavier tunes along with a Choking Victim cover. One addition from when I had seen them last was that they now have a female guest vocalist who had some sick screams. I regretfully was not able to catch her name. We bounced before they wrapped it up (an unfortunate, yet common theme) and went out into the hazy neon of late night Fremont to fall asleep as soon as we hit the mattress.

When I woke up, I was renewed with a certain resolve. With this resolve came truths. My first day was a learning experience. And it is true: you have to learn how to do Punk Rock Bowling. From then on, I would not allow myself to suffer out of duty to any band. I would not feel bad for leaving, I would follow the winds of the weekend to do whatever I want. With that simple proclamation, and the realization that PRB isn’t just seeing shows, I took a deep breath and suddenly felt ready to tackle the day. So, we went to the Hangover Helper Show and saw our-almost-hometown heroes (home-corner of the U.S.-heroes?), Success. And they were amazing. They killed it in the hot sun, with shoes melting to asphalt and everything. They also played a wonderfully earnest cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “American Girl.” Rev talked about positivity, but he did so in a way that didn’t feel preachy, and dare I say, maybe even a little inspiring. I’m not a big posi-band dude, because so much of it comes across as cheap sloganeering. But I can attest that Rev walks the walk as well as he talks the talk. The handful of times I’ve seen him, he’s been nothing less than genuine and kind. When you see the source, it paints an easy picture.

The second day of the festival was actually the day I was most excited to see. It was practically catered to me. I got there early enough to see the Negative Nancys, who are the type of band that spells the word ‘cunt’ to make a chorus. Their music had a kind of old school punk feel to it that was pretty cool. Be Like Max played next, and I was interested them, because even back in Portland, a random guy at a show told me to keep an eye out for them. And then, in Vegas, people kept telling me to check ‘em out. I’m glad I did. They play ska punk and they do so really well. Their songs are catchy and they have an engaging stage presence.

But then, Night Birds played. The first big band of the day. The already legendary Night Birds. They ripped through their set, playing their catchy and surfy brand of hardcore. While I was watching them, I almost felt like I was watching the purest heir of punk rock, the cleanest bloodline from the beginning. It’s more than the fact that their music is an amalgam of early hardcore, the Ramones, and surf– the attitude is there. It has that snotty feeling of being young and rebellious, of having fun with your music.

Right up there in my top five best sets of PRB, right next to Los Skarnales, were the Sainte Catherines. I’d never really listened to them much, only knowing that they were a political Canadian punk band that doe-see-doe’d the line between Hot Water Music post-hardcore and skate punk. I had a complete blast during this set. The Lady and I didn’t leave the crowd for a second. The Sainte Catherines music was both danceable and aggressive, and we had an amazing times letting beer teach us to move with it.

The day didn’t really let up after that high point either. The Dwarves played next, which the girlfriend was super excited for. Which, begs the question: if I’m the punk writer, but she’s the one who’s super stoked for the Dwarves– is she more punk than me? Either way, this is another top fiver set. They played Blood, Guts, and Pussy from beginning to end, stopping for some macho bravado from Blag. And then, as if it weren’t enough to hear a classic album played in full, they brought on Stacey Dee from Bad Cop/Bad Cop to help sing “Sluts of the U.S.A.” We lost our minds, this time in the good way– not the exhausting Lovecraftian way. The Dwarves pulled out all the stops again and had Sturgeon from Leftover Crack help with another tune. Say what you will about their level of sensitivity, but they know how to put on a show.

The next band I was stoked to see was up next, the illusive Dillinger Four. That’s a crazy lineup of great sets, right? Night Birds, the Sainte Catherines, the Dwarves, and Dillinger Four. This was another of those bands I never got deep into but I always kind of figured I’d really like them if I gave them a half-chance. Their personality came through easily, as they joked about being asked to play a parking lot. They were fast and melodic, and I saw firsthand the roots they laid down for so much of the sadsack pop punk that I love so much. Shortly after their set, I bought a shirt.

I relaxed at the bar for Millencolin and let the old dudes take the pit. Buzzcocks played next with a special introduction. It was cool to see so many old school bands play the festival, so many progenitors of a style gathered in one place, arm-to-arm with modern bands carrying the torch. The club show for the night was Chuck Ragan though, and I was determined to not leave early for that one, so I cut my losses and left the festival for a little rest. I missed the Descendents, but as part of my new maxim, I held no regrets. There was more fun to be had, and it was to be had on my terms.

The Beauty Bar hosted the Chuck Ragan show. And as I mentioned earlier, the Beauty Bar does it right. The beers were cheap for Vegas and the night air was bearable in the outdoor venue space. This show was exactly what we needed, acoustic guitars and harmony to end a perfectly crazy day at the festival. The beers even made the entitled and grouchy former Husker Du dude, Grant Hart, semi-tolerable as he berated the audience. Chuck Ragan played songs spanning his many albums, and he did so with some expert accompanying slide guitar. His voice was resonant and pitch perfect. I was left marvelled with seeing his talent firsthand. There’s a lot of punk rock dudes out there, and the glory of the genre is that anyone can participate– but Chuck is something special. I couldn’t imagine his voice going to waste so he could cook fries for a living. He’s a one of a kind talent.

We stayed for the whole set and left happy and satisfied for the day. When we woke up in the morning, we found ourselves with time to spare. There was no club show today, no Hangover Helper show we needed to make it to. We took a deep breath and hung around Fremont and gambled a bit until it was time to hit the fest again. The punks were still out in full force, the visual culture clash between denim and neon stringing a wide smile across my face. There was a calm that day; after a big day, this was ours to take it easy.

But– there was a white whale I still needed to spear. The reason I bought the plane tickets was in this very city, this very day. That melodic riffing, genre-dancing reason was Dag Nasty. A sighting of Brian Baker eating breakfast at my hotel was all I needed to be reminded of why I was here in the first place.

At the fest, Rayner played to a small collection of supporters. I was actually really impressed with their set. They played well, owning the stage as if they were no stranger to big festival rock shows, filling the air with their catchy brand of punk rock. Sic Waiting played next and reminded me of a sort of 90s throwback punk band, all Bad Religion and Strung Out with a bit of a modern flavor. Italy’s Giuda was my biggest surprise of the day. They carried with them an intoxicating rock ‘n roll swagger that translated through bluesy riffs with lots of chugging hammer-ons. And solos! There were solos! It was pure fun and not a bad palate cleanser.

Off With Their Heads were in good form that day, making jokes and complaining about the heat. Ryan Young made me a devotee by talking shit to Fireball, sponsor extraordinaire and garbage liquor producer. Their set was made up of old and new, with a couple deeper cuts thrown in for good measure. They finished their set with “Clear the Air,” where Ryan ended the song in the crowd, being jostled around by his biggest fans. It was a big love-fest, and the usually bitter and introspective Off With Their Heads came off as positive and uplifting in the daylight. It was an interesting twist on one of my own personal favorites.

Dying Scene Head Honcho Dave always likes to tell the story about how he hated Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues at first listen, how he picked it up and was let down immensely. And then, for whatever reasons– kept listening. Once, twice, three times a spin and an immense disappointment becomes an incredible classic. For Dave, this is one of those formative albums; the grower to trounce all growers. To this day, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that album all the way through. But, I know that Strung Out is one of those bands. So, when they took to the stage I understood something big was going to happen. I watched a wave of former-teenagers; older, wiser, but nonetheless passionate merge into the crowd. The band was fast and aggressive, nailing metallic solos as if there was no time lost. But I was saving up my energy, because up next was the band that made all of this melodic punk happen. The first merging of hardcore and melody, the riffs that taught a thousand six-stringers to play.

Seeing Dag Nasty play, from the front of the pit, was surreal. Here they were: a band I never thought would play again.

I started listening to Dag Nasty back when I still lived in Idaho, but they’ll always be connected in mind and spirit for me to the Portland area. Before I moved to the Rose City Metro, I’d go for shows. Dag Nasty was one of my blind buys that accompanied one of my first real record shopping experiences. Seven hours later, back in the drudgery of mountains, racism, and cheap rent, I gave it a spin. And there I was, in awe, that a band could be this good and so underrated. Can I Say is a masterpiece of punk rock.

And when I looked around, and I saw the crowd, I realized there were others just like me. For all of us, the Dag Nasty cultists, this was the real headliner. A surprising amount of the pit new every single word, and they sang as they moshed and gave devil horns to Brian Baker’s iconoclastic soloing. Original vocalist Shawn barked with the best of them, projecting a calm and grateful demeanor in between songs.

When the set ended, us cultists wore our smiles proudly, humbled to see one of the greats play. Of all the offerings Punk Rock Bowling made this year, this was the must-see– Dag Nasty was worth the trip alone.

Face to Face played next and the Lady and I reconnected. I was still buzzing from the last set. I watched a little bit here and there as I wandered through the vendors one last time. I felt the night winding down, but I got what I came for. The night had cooled down and the weekend was nearing its end for us. The fans of Face to Face packed tight with raised fists and erupted as the last rounds were made.

We left the festival ground then, smiling. Laughing. It was time to pack again. Down the street, we talked about what we just saw, the power and rarity of truly great performances. Back at the festival, we could hear the massive crowd woahing along to Face to Face, united by sounds. It was loud and perfect and beautiful and could be heard ten blocks away. Just like it should.

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