Punk Rock Bowling – the annual party going on its 22nd year organized by the team behind the Los Angeles record label BYO Records – made its return to downtown Las Vegas following its forced yearlong vacation due to the Covid pandemic.
Stretching across three nights, Punk Rock Bowling has grown to fill up a weekend with pool parties, pre-parties, after-parties, poker tournaments, and, of course, bowling. With around 100 band, the festival has made itself the destination for punks looking for a weekend soaked in debauchery and Vegas swimming pool chlorine, but has managed to do it in an upbeatly positive and responsibly well-organized way.
While the event usually takes place in May, this year’s was pushed back to late September following the wave of touring and performance cancellations earlier in the year with the different levels of Covid protocol. The change was welcome since it made the daytime performances much easier to attend with the early autumn Las Vegas sun.
In some ways, Punk Rock Bowling is like other festivals – lots of bands, plenty of food trucks hocking their greasy wares, rows of vendors (even if these are selling T-shirts almost exclusively in black and heavy on the skull imagery), and beer tents all around. However, like Russ Rankin — vocalist of the band Good Riddance – put it, “I love seeing the looks on the faces of some old tourist couple from somewhere like Hot Springs, Arkansas, when they see hordes of people decked out in mohawks splashing around in the hotel swimming pool!” And it’s true, for one weekend each year beer drinking and explicitly anarchist anthems can be heard echoing off the casino towers stretching blocks in every direction. The festival VIP sections are filled with dyed hair. We even started talking with other punks – recognized by the shirts of obscure bands they were wearing – inside the Meow Wolf attraction well away from the downtown area who were in town for the festival.
Punk Rock Bowling has made itself probably the best and most consistent punk festival in the Western U.S. Pulling from a who’s who of old and current bands, along with bands and musicians that may be a little more loosely connected to the scene, the festival lineups each year have enough to make misfit high school kids as well as the middle age “back in the day” gang salivate. This year’s festival headliners consisted of Los Angeles pop punk forebearers Descendants (replacing NOFX who, according to the band, are still not allowed to play in Vegas following singer Fat Mike’s comments at a previous event), Circle Jerks from LA’s early wave of confrontational miscreant noise bands making their comeback after an 11 year hiatus, and space age new wave band Devo who may have been a direct influence on many of the bands playing over the weekend.
One of the best aspects of the festival might be the fact that most people are on the same page – the louder, the angrier, the more antagonistic the show, the more energetic the crowd’s response.
“I was 21 in Summer of ’77,” announced Dave Wakeling of the English Beat who packed out almost every available space in the area surrounding the Monster Stage. “And I remember someone told me you can’t be punk if you’re 21. I told him I was 20 at the start of the year…” Wakeling laughed, then gave his smile and continued, “But we’re still here!” before erupting into a set that consisted of the band’s more political songs rather than their normal “best-of” set.
Brandon Blaine, vocalist for the band Plague Vendor, spent much of his time leaping from the stage onto the upstretched arms of the crowd, changing through a collection of attendees’ hats while security frantically tried to catch and hold back the onslaught of crowd surfers floating toward the state railing.
Watching from anywhere outside of the pit revealed the hilarious image of cups full of water or beer being hurled through the air over the sweaty crowd. This may have peaked when New York City’s Leftover Crack played their mix of riotous ska punk.
Youth crew band Youth Of Today represented the more traditional hardcore side of the spectrum, however even at age 55, singer Ray Cappo bounced, leapt and headstanded his way across the stage in whirlwind fashion far outpacing most of the younger bands. Meanwhile The Twits, made up the youngest band to perform in Punk Rock Bowling’s history, with members not even into their teen years.
“Vegas is a fucking horrible place!” Such words is how vocalist Keith Morris opened the Circle Jerks set in the headlining slot on the Main Stage on Saturday night. “I lived here when I was 7. What a great place to raise kids!” he opined before the band launched into “Deny Everything”. The group who had been on hiatus for the past 11 years would go onto play a scorching 33 song set in about an hour an 15 minutes, at times only the frantic 1-2-3-4 of the drumsticks separating the din of noise. The audience reacted with all the anticipated response, hurtling themselves into the air, opening the circle pit, surfing across the block-wide stage area. The band pulled out T-shirt cannons midway through their set to add to the circus like atmosphere.
The weekend capped off with performances by New York’s Lunachicks spreading their theatrical and tongue in cheek brand of feminist punk onstage for their first show of the year, along with new wave band Devo, whose artsy exo-human music was carried through their set in a narrative of old and new video projections, outfit changes, and music spanning their catalog of records. They held the audience rapt, with Energy Dome-capped fans running several deep along the rail at the front of the stage. After a weekend filled with pool parties, beer-soaked late night shows, hot Vegas days, and very little occasion for sleep, the Las Vegas Downtown Events Center floor remained completely packed with people looking on as Devo cycled through songs both familiar and obscure.
With the sun setting on another year of Punk Rock Bowling, it sticks out how much this festival doesn’t feel like the gritty standoffish clubs that many of us were watching these bands play in years ago, but more as an inviting and exciting reunion of friends and fans getting to see old and new generations of music in one place. While much of the appeal of punk in the past may have been the common denominator of everyone who felt that they didn’t fit in with normal society, something which seems to carry far less relevance now that the internet exists, it’s great to see the parents bringing their children – and seeing these kids start their own ‘safer’ circle pits off to the side or hearing people loudly shouting after a band ends of having their first crowd surfing experience. It’s apparent to those who make a point of going to the festival each year that Punk Rock Bowling is continuing to grow and incorporate different angles into their event. (I didn’t get a chance to mention the art gallery of notable punk artists or the bands announcing meet and greets throughout the weekend.)
As a bonus for those interested in the festival after its 18 month Covid vacation, next year’s festival will return in May, marking the shortest duration between PRB parties.
-Shaun Astor with help from Priscilla Nicolette
Updates and happenings can be found at @punkrockbowling on IG or FB.com/punkrockbowling