This is probably the most un-punk rock situation I’ve ever found myself in during a punk rock festival—hanging in the VIP Lounge. And not the kind of VIP Lounge you’d find at the defunct Punk Rock Picnic stocked with warm Bud Lights, plastic chairs and gas station nachos covered in Cheez-Wiz. My ass is parked on a plush couch under a large tent with misters spraying my sun tanned face while I sip an ice-cold Pacifico. Whittier post punk screamers Plague Vendor thrash and harness the power of the sun barely 50 feet away. As singer Brandon Blaine douses himself in the remaining contents of his Sparkletts bottle to keep his electrified, contortionist body from overheating, the punks who showed up early are grateful to receive a courtesy splash as he throws the bottle into the crowd.
Sitting here in the sanctuary dubbed The Old Man Bar, I watch the midday scene unfold in Las Vegas at Punk Rock Bowling, a festival that, despite getting bigger every year, really hasn’t changed much at its core after almost two decades. Unlike so many other festivals who’ve raced to expand and cater to VIP dwellers such as myself (yes, I eventually did get my ass up and join the party with the rest of the plebs), the vast majority of the people at this fest weren’t expecting or even interested in the idea of sitting down and relaxing or being pampered, even while the sun was out. Anyone who’s ever been to PRB knows that you come out to Vegas to rage, mosh, swim, gamble, sip on two-foot cocktails and run into your high school punk rock buddies you haven’t seen in forever even though they only live two cities away. And of course— spend same time in the hot Vegas sun—wilting mohawks be damned!
In a lot of ways, Punk Rock Bowling can’t help but be what it is by virtue of the name alone. It doesn’t have the sort of fluid freedom of a fest like Warped Tour or Coachella or FYF that is able to evolve to support whatever hipsters and fickle 16 year-olds are listening to at the time. The style and format of the fest will always include some form of loud, intense music with a message and some kind of sport that involves balls crashing into pins. And while all of the aforementioned fests do cater to punk on the fringes of their lineups, there’s no other North American event like PRB that’s managed to endure for as long as it has purely on the strength of a culture and its core audience. And even though the fest has put less and less emphasis on the bowling tournament in recent years (festival creators Mark and Shawn Stern rarely even have time to hit the lanes anymore), it’s still an essential part of the mayhem during Memorial Day Weekend.
Although it’s moved to a new, bigger location at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center (previously in the lot of the El Cortez), this year’s fest definitely included some familiar names in the rotating cast of bands that anchor it every year. We knew Keith Morris and his decades-old dreadlocks would make an appearance (this year with his band OFF!) and the Bad Religion dudes will usually make the trip out (this time headlining Day 2). You’ve gotta have your UK punk element (taken care of thanks to the Droog-inspired outfit The Adicts Oi punk pioneers Cocksparrer the D-Beat dads Discharge). You’ve got your old-school legacy acts such as The Dickies and The Spits, skatepunk heroes of Pennywise and The Bouncing Souls and...whatever the hell Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies are. Iggy Pop, the crown jewel of the festival took center stage on Saturday night to show all the young guns and even some of the veterans on the bill how it’s done.
Aside from the punk rock smorgasbord on the main lineup, the expansion of the fest still manages to retain its intimacy in the form of the packed lineup of sold out club shows with lines that stretched down Fremont Street featuring a few OC staples like The Crowd, CH3 and The Vandals. While rows of punks stood single file out in font of Beauty Bar, The Bunkhouse, Fremont Country Club or Backstage, DIY vendors displayed out carpets and tackle boxes full of homemade spike bracelets, trinkets, patches, pins and other punk paraphernalia. To me the best thing about this festival are the club shows because you get the chance to see a festival succeed at delivering the kind of legendary shows that take seminal bands like Television, The Weirdos or The Vandals and stick them in the same intimate setting they remember from when they were starting out.
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Downtown Vegas as a whole has become much more of a destination in the years since PRB started. Glammed up streets packed with clubs and bars offer all kinds of modern luxury built from the glittery husks of ancient casinos. But it’s still fun to see punk rock and Vegas culture collide in such a severe way over the weekend as fluorescent haired ruffians sit next to blue haired old ladies at the poker table or the thick Doc Martins soles strolling past the buffet at the Golden Nugget. It’s one weekend out of the year where punk truly has a chance to shock tourists who weren’t expecting the surge of liberty spikes. Being from SoCal, the punk aesthetic is so ubiquitous that the majority of people walking down the street in OC or LA wouldn’t bat an eye. But that’s exactly the kind of thing punk always fed off of—the ability to shock, offend and inevitably start some form of conversation.
There was definitely no shortage of communication happening on stage throughout PRB as bands howled and head banged on the main stage in the shadow of the posh hotels and even the Bank of America tower that loomed just off to the left of the festival grounds. It’s a strange thing for a festival full of music meant for the working class in the midst of so much material wealth, high rollers and people who’ve just bet their last dollar. Having a festival full of bands that rail against the corporate bloodlust of a capitalist society might always feel like a novelty in heart of a place like Vegas, but for the crowd and bands who believe in the music, there’s always a hope that a little bit of their message seeps out past the festival gates to the people who actually need to hear it.