Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival :: 05.28.11-05.30.11 :: Las Vegas, NV
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Where most summer festivals throw a fairly wide net to ensnare as broad a range of attendees as possible – a bit of folk-country in the morning, some utz-ish electronic in wee hours, the big rock show at primetime – the Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival caters to one sensibility alone – punk and lots of it. The unanimity of shared musical interests spilled over into a larger collective POV on life – a touch rebellious, absolutely fun loving, a pronounced anti-authoritarian attitude, a lust for loud, unruly rock. Without exaggeration, this was one of the coolest and most enjoyable group of people this heavy duty festival veteran has ever had the pleasure of spending three hot days under open skies with, and the performances from justifiable legends like The Descendents, Cock Sparrer, Leftover Crack and Dropkick Murphys delivered in exultant, life-instilling ways that went well beyond a mere gig.
|Descendents by Josh Miller|
For all of punk’s rep for being hard to handle and a problem for society at large, this gathering found thousands of folks in a great mood, mostly able and willing to police themselves, knocking back heroic amounts of alcohol whilst punching the air and belting out fight songs and debauchery anthems. In its 13th year, Punk Rock Bowling still holds a massive bowling tournament made up of hundreds of teams (largely drawn from bands, record labels and other factions in the punk world) at Sam’s Town Hotel & Casino, but this year the music was its own sizeable draw with a single large stage set up in the giant parking lot across from the El Cortez Casino in old downtown Vegas. The whole district was a serious scene with decrepit end-of-the-line locals mingling with black t-shirted punks flying amazing Mohawks and shooting everyone fuck-y’all expressions. And know what? The out-of-towners and Vegas seniors seemed to mostly get along fine with the loud-mouthed, tattooed folks – who ranged in age from small kids and teenagers to grey haired veterans – even if they perhaps wondered at all the strange imagery and band names emblazoned on nearly everyone’s chest (“Honey, what’s an Econochrist?” – overheard at Fremont Street Experience). In no small way, this event is a weekend long gathering of punk’s tribes, all of us members of the larger family but each person displaying their colors for Bad Religion, Misfits, et al. in a further attempt to bond with their fellow faithful.
Each day of music was a 7-hour marathon with no ins & outs with approximately 30 minute sets at top of day and growing longer until the headliners’ hour-and-change slots. The gate security could have been a little less brusk or rough-handed, and it’s never fun to have to turn out everything in one’s pockets, but one could appreciate their tough stance on some level. Once inside, there was a solid assortment of reasonably priced food and drink and merch booths full of colorful folks who thrived and joked with the rowdy, no-bullshit crowd. The energy level pouring off the stage was largely massive and relentless. When a band toned it down or dipped into soul or reggae it was a refreshing reprieve, but mainly it was all about snarling and scratching, kicking against the pricks and naming names in the corruption game. And beer and fucking were in the mix, too.
|Dropkick Murphys by Josh Miller|
Held over Memorial Day Weekend each year, Punk Rock Bowling is a festival very, very much about freedom and celebrating life. It’s rarely if ever solemn but it offers a firm alternative to those who would hold their tongues and allow the most devious & heartless people to control the levers of society. True freedom of speech is honored at this fest, and that’s bound to be uncomfortable for some (the LVPD officers dotting the crowd definitely twitched a bit during the more overt “pig” baiting from the stage). But an honest look at America’s history – hell, the history of most countries – finds outlaws and rabble-rousers pushing our collective evolution forward. Blind acceptance and lethargy do not a culture move, and this weekend was all about unquiet, unsettled thinking. And what’s better is we managed to throw a four-alarm rager to go with our patriotic efforts.
For something called “punk” as a general header, there was remarkable diversity on display. From the succinct, hook-laden approach of Off With Their Heads to the blistering, blood churning attack of the Krum Bums to the almost-too-Social-Distortion-aping Filthy Thieving Bastards, the first day announced that there was more than one flavor on offer.
|The Aggrolites by Josh Miller|
The most different option of the day also happened to be one of the tightest, most thoroughly entertaining bands of the whole fest. SoCal’s The Aggrolites dropped a grinning, shuffle spawning dose of their self-described “dirty reggae” on us as the sun finally, blissfully dropped below the buildings surrounding the asphalt square. Thick grooves abounded, all caressed by the amazing Hammond organ purr of Roger Rivas. It’s the kind of music one can do the backstroke in, floating and kicking and always kept bobbing by the steady beat and voluptuous bass. Mixing in covers like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” with strong originals, The Aggrolites produced a sound that anyone sweet on, say, Dumpstaphunk and Papa Grows Funk would likely flip over, especially since their mix of politics, dance and love ditties similarly carries on the Sly & The Family Stone tradition.
The chorus of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Nobody’s Hero” could serve as a tidy motto for the weekend: “Get up/ Get out/ Be what you are!” The veteran Irish band predictably landed one of the hardest, clearest knockouts at PRB. Even with regular lead guitarist Ian McCallum out sick, SLF barreled ahead like it was still 1979 and Inflammable Material was a new album. Fill-in shredder John Haggerty (Naked Raygun, Pegboy) more than stepped up, keeping in stride with this extremely sharp, disciplined band. Singer Jake Burns still breathes fire AND croons with more outright smoothness than the genre often allows. The Fingers nailed a Specials cover and brought down the house with “Barbed Wire Love,” introduced by Burns as “a song about love that fucking sucks.” If all punk sounded like this, well, I wouldn’t be entirely unhappy.
|SLF's Jake Burns by Josh Miller|
Like some great flexed, tatted-up bicep, Dropkick Murphys came out swinging and never really let up. They are a true headliner, taking control of wherever they play quickly and gripping it hard until they power down. The use of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” for intro music was apropos given Phil Lynott’s obvious influence in their songwriting and attitude. The mix of traditional folk instruments like banjo with loud electric guitars and a punishing (in a good way) rhythm section is devastatingly effective - punk in spirit but pub ready, sea shanties and worker laments arm wrestling with drinking shout-alongs and teary story songs. Good show. I pity the band that has to follow them at another festival.
By the second day there were more Port-a-Potties in answer to Saturday’s long waits, and the whole process of entry/exit was smoothed out. This was very well run music gathering, and it seemed like the organizers were adapting to conditions in real time to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
|The Undertones by Josh Miller|
With the sun burning cruelly above and whiskey and other party additives slowing our pulses, we entered the music grounds closer to sunset, greeted by swift-booted stomp of The Undertones. Again, Ireland represented with a taut, propulsive set marked by some of the fest’s best songwriting. It’s enough to be rowdy and rude for a punk event, in some ways, but what lifts the wheat from the chaff is tunes that stick, and The Undertones have a shit-ton of ‘em. “Teenage Kicks” simply doesn’t get old, and if you didn’t wriggle a bit during this performance I’m not sure what you were doing in Vegas.
Having never seen Bouncing Souls before, I was pleasantly surprised at their showmanship and punchy, ear-snagging tunes. Much of the set was pure adrenaline punk but the hooks were stronger than most and they tossed in a actual acoustic guitar-fueled ballad. It reminded us that punks are actually a fairly romantic lot at heart – sweet on each other, loyal as all get out, prone to mythologizing highwaymen and outsiders. When so many have stopped believing in a LOT of things, it was really nice to be surrounded by folks who still believe in capital letter ideas like Truth, Love, Freedom and Friendship, this last one being charmingly touched on by the Bouncing Souls on “Manthem.”
He's my friend he's my alibi
My accessory to the crime
A bond that will never die
Till the end of time
Not having a REALLY good time at Me First and the Gimme Gimmes speaks of a calcified soul. Yes, the cheese factor is huge and it’s all cover tunes of the rankest sort BUT they do it ALL so well. And Las Vegas was the ideal setting for these lounge suited dorks to serenade and disturb. The “Theme To Rawhide” was introduced as something “gay cowboys do it with,” and then they plowed into punk-i-sized versions of Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” Styx’s “Come Sail Away” (such a collective groan but I belted out the “carry on!” bit at full volume), The Eagles’ “Desperado,” “Tomorrow” from Annie (“Do you like show tunes?” asked lead singer Spike Slawson, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and most touchingly, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” which found a number of punk rock boys and girls cuddling.
|Me First and the Gimme Gimmes by Josh Miller|
Okay, I take back what I said earlier about all punk sounding like Stiff Little Fingers and amend it to, “If all punk sounded like Stiff Little Fingers AND Descendents, well, I wouldn’t be entirely unhappy.” The night closing headline set by this textbook perfect punk outfit was a study in what to do right in punk rock. The musicianship was lock-tight and barbed with edges, expected and otherwise, and all in service of songs sheared of all fat, all waste, none a second longer than need be. Milo Aukerman still belts ‘em out with a controlled gusto that’s jaw-dropping impressive, and the slashing, swerving guitars of Stephen Egerton leave one feeling clean and ready for action. Descendents careened through a ridiculous number of songs in a relatively small amount of time, and I’d be surprised if almost everybody didn’t get their favorite song based on the face-breaking smiles and boisterous chorus work in the crowd.
|Larry and His Flask by Josh Miller|
Special mention must be made for a tweener-set by the merch booths late in the evening by Oregon’s Larry and His Flask. Having missed their main stage set, I was drawn in INSTANTLY by their cavorting yet still awesomely musical impromptu hoedown. With brass and acoustic instruments prominent in the mix, they aren’t punk in the classic sense, but their rowdy tunes and even rowdier stage demeanor sure are. And the songs curl around your ear and seduce you in a really homey manner. Split Lip Rayfield in their barn-burning Kirk Rundstrom days springs immediately to mind. This band is seriously on the move, capable of fitting in at a punk fest, on Warped Tour or sharing a stage with the likes of Trampled By Turtles. I don’t buy into “love at first sight” much but this time it happened. They have a new album, All That We Know, arriving digitally June 21st and the CD and LP will be in stores August 9th.
Monday was a truly epic day of punk rock. If you love this stuff, then you dream about a day like this. Beginning with high energy sets from Stagger And Fall and Reducers SF, the day truly slipped into a groove with the blazing, highly musical performance by Citizen Fish. A mixture of spit-flecked agit-prop lyrics, never-take-it-too-seriously delivery and playing that’s way more mature and practiced than they like to let on, Citizen Fish were a punk answer to Cab Calloway’s orchestra or military precise 60s ska, but bettered with angry, piercing guitar and an embracing, community building energy. They employed raw force and finesse with great skill in service of good melodies and memorable lyrics. They drew much of the set from the new Goods album (released March 1), their best in 10 years, and gave us one of the finest refrains all weekend with, “Let’s get angry/ Let’s get mad/ Let’s get back to what we had!” It’s rare for a band with such a jovial presence to have complex polemics, too, but Citizen Fish pulls it off, sending us into fest’s closing hours with the wish, “Have a good rest of the day, rest of the year, rest of your life.”
|Punk Rock Bowling 2011 Crowd by Josh Miller|
Originally scheduled Killing Joke was forced to cancel but in their stead we got two winners - Manic Hispanic and later Agnostic Front (who knocked out as good a set of modern punk as anyone going, especially shining on new cuts from the excellent My Life, My Way - 25 years and counting and these stalwarts are still a dead solid bet). In the hottest part of the day, the cholo-proud Manics stalked the stage, mischief dripping off them. They started by asking, “Who’s still fucked up?” and the irreverent, quick banter never quit unless they were playing one of their leaping, classically punk songs. Besides the overtly ethnic bent, this is mainly yummy-as-fuck meat ‘n’ taters punk. When a fight broke out early in the set, they chastised the guys involved from the stage: “Violence is the product of a little dick. Why are you fighting when this guy [pointing to guitarist] has a big bag of weed,” to which the guitarist responded, “It’s alright, I have my medical PCP card.” They got us to turn and flip off the crackheads in the adjacent apartment building overlooking the fest, and later joked, “You know what we like to do? When we’re back at the pad, rolling a number, we like to listen to Bieber [sings, “Oooh, baby, baby”]. Come on, you know you know this song.” And for the classic rock fans in the crowd, it should be noted that some Manic Hispanic tunes had the sex-inducing, grinding crush of early AC/DC. That ain’t nothing but good, people.
The Dwarves gave us their thoroughly unwholesome sound, a score for bad thoughts and bad behavior ushered in by, of all things, the Mighty Mouse theme. Beginning by asking us to “stop them before they fucking kill,” the “Jesus Christ of sin & vice” Blag Dahlia soon confessed, “My voice is fried from doing cocaine. I’ll just hand the mic around and let people do the singing part and I’ll just do the getting paid part.” At one point, he did give the mic to a kid against the rail, who got up onstage and totally murdered two songs dead! It was a real moment, DIY in action, seeing a fan become the frontman for his favorite band, stalking the stage with preternatural authority and sizzling through the vocal delivery and never missing a line. Afterwards, Blag said, “You don’t get any money for that.” Not a sentimental bunch, but they did remind us that “hardcore punk is good time music” in a very visceral way.
|The Dwarves by Josh Miller|
Leftover Crack was in many respects the most archetypically punk act at this year’s fest. Besides proffering a blistering, raw-flesh-leaving sort of music, they actively antagonized law enforcement (“This song is called ‘One Dead Cop’!” which included a crowd chant of “Fuck the police!”) and brought their own pump-powered spray paint unit to splash red all over the giant, inflatable Miller Lite and Jameson bottles that flanked the stage all weekend. Fan fave “Rock The 40 Oz.” was dedicated to “anybody who has to go to work or school the next day,” and closer “Burn Them Prisons” kindled a blaze inside anyone who gave themselves to this debauchery fuel.
In many ways, it felt like the entire festival lead up to closing headliners Cock Sparrer, the U.K. proto-punk outfit who’ve been around since 1972. They were the next step onward into rougher territory from The Who and Small Faces, but they’ve always retained a love of hooks and irresistible choruses that resonates with their ancestors. The band themselves went on to influence every 70s era punk band onward. It was a touch surreal to see them quite alive, quite in control of their faculties and quite capable of bettering all that had come before them in PRB 2011’s last gasp.
|Cock Sparrer by Josh Miller|
“When I was growing up in the East End of London,” remarked lead singer Colin McFaull, “if someone had told me one day I’d be playing Las Vegas, I’d have told them to fuck off! I’m still pinching myself.”
Us, too, Colin. One picked up on how their music had been a catalyst to the Buzzcocks, Ramones and Sex Pistols. You felt their working class roots in the things they chose to sing about and the attitude they helped instill in those of us not nearly as tough or flagrant in our resistance to the status quo. They were the band that inspired old punks, like myself, to get up close and take/throw a few shoulders in the pit while spilling our last beer and hugging strangers. Cock Sparrer simply arrived at this music before most everyone else caught wind of it, and to bear witness to this virile, ferocious and downright masterful performance was a goddamn privilege. Roaring the key lines from “What’s It Like To Be Old?” and “Take ‘Em All” made one feel part of something good, a force for change and fairness. And it didn’t hurt one bit that we were mostly loaded and loose at the time. It was a moment that cemented my resolve to return to Punk Rock Bowling (and actually check out the bowling) next year. This is a special festival and one that needs to go on any punk fan’s bucket list.
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