Pre-fest and Day One: Punk Rock Bowling 2017

The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound.

“A Horse With No Name,” America

Last year, I was a novice. I didn’t understand what Punk Rock Bowling would ask of me. This isn’t just another three day festival– it’s a party. It’s an excuse to get together with your punk friends, old and new. There’s beers, there’s all your favorite bands, and then there’s a couple thousand punks to see you through it. Punk Rock Bowling is a party that rages across Memorial Day Weekend, and having been broken-in last year, I finally understood.

You have to know the basics. Vegas is a city built in a desert– you’re gonna be hot. Vegas is dry, because it’s built in a desert– drink water. Vegas is at its hottest when the festival starts– wear shorts. There’s also the issue of scheduling. Last year, I went all in and went to more club shows than I cared to see. There were too many nights of me nodding along to bands I only kinda-sorta liked and then yawning my way out the door. This year, I knew what it was gonna take. When Punk Rock Bowling is laid out before you, there is enough to do without adding to it. I picked two club shows, ones of bands I loved, and then I stuck to that. This is my vacation after all, and I took it on my own terms– with that new level of focus and experience, I was ready to tackle the behemoth that is the 19th Annual Punk Rock Bowling, and I’m happy to say I had a blast.

The basics of the festival are simple. Three days of bands at the main festival, culminating in a big headlining act each night. After the festival, but often times with a fair amount of overlap (this is one of the more unfortunate things about the festival– if you want to see the openers at your club shows, you generally have to leave a song or two into the festival headliner) there are club shows featuring stacked and varied lineups. Street punk, skate punk, acoustic, hardcore, classic, sad melodic stuff– it’s all there in walking distance from Fremont Street. Which is, I would say, the festival’s greatest coup, eliminating the need of DDs or even really any sense of vehicular self preservation. It’s all right there.

Besides the festival and club shows, there were also pool parties with stellar lineups in their own right, flash tattoos from Bouncing Soul Bryan Kienlen, a comedy show sponsored by The Hard Times, punk documentary screenings, and of course, everything else Las Vegas has to offer on its own. You get the idea. Punk Rock Bowling isn’t just catching a show or two– it’s a 24-hour, three-day job, where the workforce is tattooed and hellbent on fun.

I arrived to Vegas two days early, so I had plenty of time to settle in. My first PRB extracurricular was the aforementioned comedy show. It took place at the Gold Nugget with a lineup of punk comics, headlined by Sideonedummy founder Joe Sib. We all filtered in, not sure what we were in for, and as one would imagine, the front seats were the last to be taken. Goodrich Gevaart, Hard Times writer and comedian, encouraged folks to take the front seats, promising that “it wasn’t that sort of show,” and that no one would fuck with them “in a way that wasn’t fun.” I’d never seen any live stand-up before, but I’d watched a fair amount from the comfort of my home. I was happy to say that all the comedians present were hilarious, poking good natured fun at the punks and themselves, sharing stories about their punk past. My favorite bit was when John Michael Bond brought an audience member on stage to play the game Sad Man or Bad Man, where we had to guess whether the lyrics on the screen were those of a pop punk band or a mass murderer. Good times were had by all. I hope this is a tradition continued by next year’s Punk Rock Bowling.

The stand up ended just in time to start another bar tab and then head off to the first show of the weekend, a set of acoustic performances by Off With Their Heads, Brendan Kelly, Steve Soto (of the Adolescents), and locals No Red Alice. The Beauty Bar is one of my favorite venues in Vegas, and usually has the best deals in town ($6 PBR and a shot is the equivalent of holding up a liquor store in other cities– straight up robbery). It’s a smaller space with an outdoor stage, but intimate, and therefore perfect for the sort of show this was going to be.

No Red Alice started the show with a pretty breezy set with lots of asides and jokes. At a couple points the vocalist even started strumming and singing Off With Their Heads’ “Clear the Air.” They played some acoustic punk that reminded me of Chuck Ragan’s more punk-driven solo stuff. I was nervous for Steve Soto, as the last time I saw an old school punk-rocker-gone-solo was in a similar setting last year didn’t go nearly as well (looking at you, belligerent Grant Hart). Soto was humble and a pro, playing countrified acoustic songs with writing chops to spare. He gave the audience fair warning that he wasn’t going to do any Adolescents’ songs, because, “they’d sound like shit” on acoustic. Brendan Kelly came up next and played a pretty straightforward set of mostly Lawrence Arms songs. I was joined by Dying Scene head honcho Dave Buck around this time (who, in infinite kindness and wisdom, made sure I kept a drink in my hand for the rest of my night). Dave’s a big fan of Brendan Kelly’s solo stuff, and was disappointed by the lack of I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever tunes, as for me, I’m always good with some Larry Arms. Off With Their Heads ended the night with a set of tunes that translated a lot better to the acoustic setting than I would’ve thought. Folks were screaming along and holding beers to the night sky. All in all, a pretty great way to end the night.

The next day, we woke up, probably way too early and wandered around Fremont for a while, drinking beers, meeting people, and getting stoked for the fest. It stands to say, that a couple things did change this year at PRB. The location was moved, and with that comes some good and some bad. Maybe this was the new venues fault, or just general disorganization, but the press and VIP folks had a helluva time getting in the first day. So long was the wait, in fact, that we missed the entirety of New Trends and part of Mobina Galore. When I did get in though, I went straight to the stage to see the latter in action. Of all the early openers I saw in Vegas that weekend, Mobina Galore stands as the best. They sounded loud and full for a two-piece, with gravel-throated vocals and hearty melodies. It’s like a stripped down version of the Reinventing Axl Rose version of Against Me!, and for me, they were easily one of the highlights of the fest.

Drug Church were one of the few post-hardcore acts of the fest, and as expected, provided a different feel from the rest of the lineup. This is the sort of stuff that goes with cold winters and black T-shirts, and accordingly, it felt a little dissonant for a sunny afternoon in Vegas. Still, I was impressed with their composition as well as their intensity. The other band who could perhaps lay claim to a similar genre was Plague Vendor, who played next. The crowd grew substantially for the Epitaph post/garage/psych band, and they threw down a set of performances that were a little bit Iggy and a little bit At the Drive-In. At this point in the day, the stage was christened with a thrown bra, and I got to roll my eyes as singer Brandon Blaine located the admirer and asked her to prove it was hers. It was a kind of dumb, rockstar misstep in banter that marred an otherwise good set.

I’d never seen the Interrupters before, but man, they were one of the other biggest surprises of Day One. I’m not a huge ska guy, but I was humming along and smiling throughout their set. They brought a lot of fun to the festival and I could tell a large part of the attendees were smitten by their upbeat ska-punk tunes. Their cover of “Sound System” by Operation Ivy was a huge hit, and probably the best version of it I’ve heard aside from the original. The Spits played next, and were fine, but not really my taste. Just some pretty solid, three-chord punk rock in the vein of the Ramones.

OFF! was the next band on the Day One lineup that I wanted to see. I’d seen them before, and I’d see them again. There’s something about OFF!’s unhinged throwback hardcore. It’s music from another time, performed by one of its originators, given new life with the help of a new generation. Keith Morris is as vital as ever on stage, going off about politics (as one could guess, a post-Trump PRB is going to have a fair amount of politics, a theme that would run through every day of the festival), moving across the stage like a caged animal, spitting words like poison seeds. This is also a good point to mention that one of the upgrades in the new festival grounds were two large screens where folks who weren’t up close could see the action in crystal-clear high definition– although the venue seemed lackadaisical about making sure it was showing what was going on on stage for the entire set, rather than show sponsor commercials, or even more dull, the Punk Rock Bowling logo on a black screen.

I won’t bury the lead here. There were a lot of punks who were there to see Iggy, and probably a lot more who wanted to see Discharge, Pennywise, Cock Sparrer, The Dickies, The Adicts, Fidlar, and a lot of others throughout the weekend, but for me, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes were my most anticipated act. Yeah, it’s true: I have a soft spot for oldies and Fat Wreck– if you grew up with NOFX and parents with a radio, you probably do too. They didn’t disappoint in the least. Singer Spike Slawson oozed greasy charisma as he crooned out pop standards, introducing many with an obligatory, “This next one’s a cover.” As I was watching them play, I could only think that if any band represented Vegas, it was them. They were as happily gauche as neon, slots, and floral prints and a lot more entertaining.

Iggy Pop was up next, but I had places to go. Yep, that’s right, club show. I stayed through the first couple of songs, and as soon as the Godfather came on stage, hordes rushed up toward the stage, going crazy for “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Passenger.” I got to see a little glimpse of that famous stage presence before I left, but alas, I had to bounce. Iggy Pop is cool and all, but I didn’t grow up with him and I’ve never been much for my hobbies becoming obligations. There were tons of punks going wild for him though, so I didn’t feel too bad leaving him to his fans. That’s part of PRB, you gotta do it on your own terms.

What I left for were two of my favorite bands playing on the same ticket. It was Wolves & Wolves & Wolves & Wolves, Bad Cop/Bad Cop, Toys That Kill, The Lawrence Arms, and the Menzingers. Stacked lineup. I left Iggy in time to see about half of Bad Cop/ Bad Cop’s set. Their harmonies were tight and they played some songs off their upcoming album, including “Amputations.” New songs are usually a bit of a hard sell in the live setting, but from what I heard at the show, Warriors is gonna be a killer album.

The Bunkhouse is set up uniquely, it’s an outdoor venue (mostly)– similar to the Beauty Bar– but much larger. It’s a big dirt lot with an outdoor bar and a dead pickup in the middle for our most brazen to sit. Connected to it is a small indoor venue. They did a pretty cool thing at this show, by alternating the opening bands playing inside and outside, to make set-up easier and keep things moving along. So, Toys That Kill played next in the indoor venue, and I listened and nodded along from outside with a PBR. I’m honestly not that familiar with the band, despite seeing them before, so I used that time to chat with my other Dying Scene peeps about the events of the day.

The last time I saw the Ramblin’ Boys was a brief encore in Portland, where the Falcon went into the crowd as a conga line and came back as the Lawrence Arms. So, technically, I only saw them for two songs. Seeing them for a full set was one of my white whales. We all have bands we want to mark off our bucket list– The Lawrence Arms are one of mine. They came on with all the bravado and swagger inherent in their reputation, promising to “rock the dicks off” everyone who came before them. They played a lot of tracks off Oh Calcutta!, including my absolute favorite, “Recovering the Opposable Thumb,” and ending with “Are you there Margaret? It’s Me, God.”  It was an awesome set with a whole lot of energy, but as great as it was, The Lawrence Arms were only my second favorite band playing that show. The next was going to be something.

I’m a pretty reserved guy most of the time. Sometimes I’m in the pit, but most of the time I’m sipping a beer and singing along in the back. I don’t mind. The days of feeling guilty if I don’t knock elbows during my favorite song are long behind me. I’m there to listen and hang. All of that nonchalance leaves when I see the Menzingers. My favorite bands come and go, but the Menzingers are one of those that I couldn’t shake if I tried. Chamberlain Waits, On the Impossible Past, and their most recent, After the Party will be spinning for a long time coming for me. Some bands write the score to your life, the Menzingers are my Hans Zimmer. So, I went nuts. I was screaming along, I was hugging new friends, we were closing our eyes and beating our chests, howling out slice-of-life vignettes that have been internalized to a heartbeat. The Menzingers played a fantastic mix of old and new, opening with “Tellin’ Lies” and ending with “In Remission.” One of the biggest surprises of the set was a Rancid cover. They rocked “Roots Radical” and we rocked with them, the booze and the fervor even encouraging my usually reserved self to start a circle of drunken skankers.

Day One ended with a big bang, and our lives were started anew in a baptism of nebulas and catharsis, reborn and re-energized– blah, blah, blah. We were tired. We slept and we rested up for the insanity that would be Day Two.

Check out the gallery below and stay tuned for our follow-up articles detailing the continued debauchery that is Punk Rock Bowling!

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