The third day of any three-day festival is always stigmatized for being a bit of a shit show. After nearly 72 hours of excessive day drinking, sun beaten debauchery, and late nights that bleed into early mornings, there’s no way around it–everyone around you is haggard as fuck. Well, everyone except us. Because while the rest of Punk Rock Bowling seemed like an awesome time, one we’ve enjoyed for many years, for this go-round we decided to put all our chips on the final day of the fest’s 20th anniversary party to experience what we thought to be the most interesting day of the stellar Downtown punk fest on Memorial Day topped by At The Drive-In, X and Against Me!
It was also the day that seemed to take a gamble on straying away from the festival’s tried and true demographic (i.e. fans of NOFX, which headlined the night before). No doubt plenty of crust punks and hardcore festgoers had already thrown in the towel by the time we rolled into town Sunday night against a sea of weekend warrior headlights grinding slowly in the opposite direction down the I-15.
But opting to go into Vegas with guns blazing on a Monday seemed like a truly punk rock thing to do. For one, it gave us a limited amount of time to experience the hellbound glories of Downtown Vegas–which inspired us to actually take advantage of them. We spent a lot of our afternoon, pre-PRB experience at legendary local haunts instead of wobbling down Fremont Street with margaritas like newbies. We opted for stiff drinks, musty smells and crass conversation in dive bars like Dino’s and the Huntridge where day drunks and local LV punk rockers roam while avoiding the last remnants of the Memorial Day tourist crowd.
We walked down Las Vegas Blvd. and took in the sites of real Vegas in all its mid-century, dilapidated splendor in the shadow of the Strip that feeds on new money and revitalization while other parts are left to rot. Walking past the long-shuttered Huntridge Theater where the Vegas punk scene saw its heyday delivers a wave of nostalgia for any local punker who was around for those legendary days–like the time the roof collapsed in 1995 before a sold out Circle Jerks show and the band wound up playing for the crowd in the parking lot. Despite the gradual fading of Vegas’ old-school history, we’re also glad that some of the vestiges of Downtown’s yesteryear that are still surviving, gentrification be damned. From the last shards of the original Atomic Liquors to the seedy dive bars, the tiny Luv-It custard stand to the $10.98 Prime Rib dinner at the El Cortez, old Vegas is always going to be punk rock to us if for no other reason than the fact that it simply refuses to die.
But seeing the future of where PRB is headed on its 20th anniversary was also a cool reminder that punk will always find ways to bring more people into the genre with its festivals. This year, PRB’s current location of the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center included astro turf and a slightly nicer layout than years past. No longer a sweltering blacktop festival, tired punkers and lingering members of the Turbojugend could rest their weary bones on the ground without suffering third degree burns. Everything from the corral of food trucks to the vendor village were easy to navigate and never felt overcrowded as PRB faithfulls shuffled around in studded jackets and Docs, acquiring band shirts, Suavecito pomade and pizza slices with the greatest of ease.
Bands early in the day had the Herculean task of waking some tired punks from their hangover haze. The Kent-bred cockiness of UK duo Slaves offered a sweaty slap across the face that proved effective in this endeavor. Shirtless singer/drum smasher Isaac Holeman rallied the troops to bridge the gap from the stage to slice of harsh sunlight cutting through the center of the festival ground that always seems to divide the crowd.
“Ay, you lot…take 100 steps forward please,” Holeman said sarcastically. “It’s only a bit of sun and we’re playing in it!” Holman’s full-body convulsions and excessive screaming coupled with guitarist Laurie Vincent’s string-snapping intensity cribbed from bands like Crass and The Sex Pistols ensured that their set never got a chance to cool down. Their snidely infectious thumper “Cheer Up London” brought some levity to their Las Vegas crowd, we even saw a few mohawks perk up a bit.
It was fitting to see a young UK band like Slaves open for ‘70s punk band Angelic Upstarts whose singer, Thomas “Mensi” Mensforth, was likely conjuring mosh pits while their parents were still in grade school. The tatted-up singer from South-Shields was just as brazen, caustic and humorous…starting with his decision to be the only dude on the bill fearless enough to wear yellow Adidas jersey in a sea of black-on-black outfits. Somehow taking his shirt off in public made the portly 61 year-old even more confident.
“I have to say, the women out here are beautiful…and the men are pig ugly,” he said with a smirk. “I’m like a shining beacon up here, they’re like ‘Yes, this is what a man should look like.’” Though Mensforth might be well past his prime, the only original member of Angelic Upstarts managed to bring the best out the crowd backed by his current band and a young kid sporting short shorts and a mohawk dancing on stage the whole time–so adorable!
Most of the cranky crust punkers who wanted to try to leave Vegas early couldn’t do so without seeing Steve Ignorant and Paranoid Visions play “Do They Owe Us a Living?” and “Banned From the Roxy.” But reducing his set to simple nostalgia would rob yourself of seeing the former Crass frontman get better with age as his rage on stage takes on an even more explosive form backed by one of Ireland’s best and sorely underrated punk bands. Despite being visibly worn out from a late night club show as the surprise guest at Backstage Bar and Billiards the night before, Ignorant and his band charged through the set giving it their all.
The alternating energy of Ignorant with PV vocalists Deko Dauchau and the rainbow-dreadlocked Aoife Destruction made sure that each singer kept pace with the relentless thrashing of the band behind them. Though the Crass name and logo took centerstage, this punk partnering forged in 2013 was notably a joint effort which Ignorant seemed as grateful for. He was also one of the handful of performers on Monday who could be seen wandering around the crowd shaking hands and taking photos with fans.
The energy went up a notch when Laura Jane Grace hit the stage as the sun began to set and her band Against Me! kicked out the brand of angst-ridden, rah-rah punk anthems that they’ve collected over the years, starting things off with “I Was a Teenage Anarchist.” Grace’s trademark growl fired from behind a curtain of long hair swept across her face as she sang about inebriated inner demons, personal triumph and surveillance culture as security helicopters circled overhead. The visible security, though obviously appreciated on a national military holiday, was also an eerie reminder that Vegas is still healing and forever changed following the Route 91 Festival massacre (today NOFX finds itself in hot water over some grossly insensitive comments made about the mass killing from the stage). Yet AM!’s show provided an appropriate feeling of solidarity with songs questioning our perceptions of today’s brave new world. By the end, the crowd was too busy shouting the chorus to “Black Me Out” to really notice all that much.
No matter why you found yourself still alive by the third day of PRB, any survivors who claimed to be punk rock were devoted to sticking around for X. As night fell and the iconic LA quartet took the stage, fans from the outer rim of the moshpit to the VIP bar settled in like they were about to watch a classical orchestra perform. Though at this point in their careers John Doe, Exene Cervenka, DJ Bone Break and Billy Zoom have nothing left to prove, they did set out to show the many different sides of their pioneering punk sound.
Sometimes it took the form of their obvious, hard-driving hits like “Los Angeles” and “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.” However, they definitely gave plenty of attention to their roots rock proclivities stemming from way back with songs like “Come Back to Me” from Under the Big Black Sun and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” from More Fun in the New World which featured Bonebrake on the vibraphones, Billy Zoom on sax and Craig Packham on drums. Even during the slowest parts of the set, X delivered with an intense focus that exempified how punk rock is more than a tone or a fashion statement, it’s a state of mind that can seep into any form of music. It was a sentiment that percolated throughout the day right up until the end when At the Drive-In took the stage and ripped it to shreds.
On the heels of their first full-length album release in 17 years (2017’s in•ter a•li•a along with their slightly newer EP Diamanté), ATDI takes pleasure in reminding fans and naysayers alike that this is not simply an effort to cash in on nostalgia, it’s the return of one of the most explosive bands in the history of modern punk. No matter what genre people use to box it in, it will always break out of it. While plenty of festivalgoers were probably quick to bemoan the band’s presence at PRB, the ability to piss off elitist punks was actually the thing that made them fit in the most. From the outset, the band thrashed around and flung themselves at the rabid crowd surfing contingent at the front of the stage. The mic stand twirling, amp climbing and demonically possessed dance moves of frontman Cedric Bixler Zavala have often been compared to Iggy Pop and James Brown. And no one writes songs about post-apocalyptic anarchy quite like this five-piece from El Paso. Most importantly after nearly 25 years of flinging themselves against the wall, they still own their sound and welcome critics as much as they do fans. During the set, Zavala reminisced on a punk show they played in Las Vegas at the Huntridge Theater in ‘97.
“Does anybody remember the last time we played here?” Zavala asked. “It was 1997 and everyone wanted to beat our fucking asses…and look at us now…we’re still here and you still want to beat the shit out of us.”
However, you could argue that even the punks who aren’t big into ATDI had to respect the vigor with which they commanded the stage–probably better than every band we saw on Monday combined. The set, which hewed towards their classic material on Vaya, In Casino Out and Relationship of Command, also included a handful of songs from 2017’s in•ter a•li•a that easily held their own against the songs everyone who stayed came to hear. One of the coolest parts of their set as watching a few mohawks in the crowd join the moshpit and see new fans being converted in real-time, the one thing that ensures punk rock will always be open to interpretation and remain vital as long as people are willing to take a gamble on the unexpected–rarely are they ever disappointed.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.