In an era of music-festival overload, Punk Rock Bowling stands out. What began 17 years ago as a Vegas party for the punk-rock industry has evolved into a full-on concert happening, yet it remains true to the vision of its early years—a celebration of outsider culture and the sound that unites its supporters.
Punk Rock Bowling isn’t like the other festivals that have popped up around Southern Nevada over the past decade. Its fenced-in Downtown lot has just one stage, which means there are actual live-music-less breaks between sets. It focuses on one genre, in all its permutations; no DJs, rappers or pop singers on this bill. And it’s relatively cheap—$45 got you nine bands on Sunday.
That’s the day I circled weeks ago for my 2015 PRB visit, largely for its top two acts, Sweden’s Refused and Seattle’s Murder City Devils, but also for the quality and depth of its day-long schedule. On paper, it promised to be a study in the many ways “punk rock” has been interpreted, and I wondered how the fest’s core crowd, which has tended to favor California stalwarts like NOFX, Rancid and the Descendents over the years, would react.
After rootsy Vegas quintet Eliza Battle (disclosure: Weekly contributor Chris Bitonti is the band’s guitarist) and Fat Wreck Chords five-piece Get Dead got things started, rising New Orleans hardcore four-piece Pears put together the day’s most intense half-hour. Bare-chested frontman Zach Quinn provided violent vocals and ferocious energy, while the three instrumentalists kept it fast and noisy behind him. File under bands to watch closely.
Half an hour later, that group’s guitarist, Brian Pretus, was back onstage, to propose marriage to his girlfriend during a pause in The Muffs’ performance. She introduced him to their music, he explained, before dropping to his knees to pop the question. She said yes, but in true Punk Rock Bowling style, kept a beer in hand the entire time. Also, The Muffs still sound great, with Kim Shattuck’s shriek in prime form some 25 years after she first unleashed it on record. Bonus: The LA band played its Clueless¬-made-famous cover of “Kids in America,” which bassist Ronnie Barnett said only recently got added to the live repertoire.
A solid set from Massachusetts melodic-hardcore quintet A Wilhelm Scream followed, and then the crowd swelled noticeably for the arrival of the day’s most iconic name: Jello Biafra. The 56-year-old punk patriarch brought his typically manic, theatrical presence to the party, along with blasts of scathing social commentary between songs. Though he performed with his 7-year-old current band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, he reached back for a few Dead Kennedys gems, inspiring Sunday’s two biggest circle pits with “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia.” Even more sizzling was “Nazi P*nks Fuck Off!” delivered by Biafra in a “F*ck the Tea Party” T-shirt.
The next band, Norway’s Turbonegro, wasn’t technically one of the three-day fest’s top-line headliners, but you’d never know it counting costumes in the crowd. Denim “Turbojugend” (Turbo Youth fan club) jackets were everywhere, and as 8 p.m. approached their wearers assembled close to the stage. I hadn’t seen the sailor-hatted glam-punk troupe since longtime frontman Hank von Helvete left in 2010, and I’m happy to report that new singer Tony Sylvester has the panache to carry on Turbo’s strange tradition fusing silliness (“This is a song about pizza”) with serious chops.
Rain began to fall around the time Murder City Devils launched into their first Las Vegas set in 15 years, and from the start singer Spencer Moody and his mates sounded determined to prove their clamorous garage-punk could be just as forceful as the day’s more famous fare. Piercing guitars and haunting organ were met by the rhythm section’s relentless throb and Moody’s sinister vocals, and it seemed nothing could halt their assault. Until lightning struck.
As the weather worsened and zigzagging streaks occasionally flashed across the sky, fest organizers stopped the show, announcing that it would continue once they were satisfied the lightning wouldn’t come closer. It didn’t, and Murder City Devils returned after about 30 minutes to finish their set. The second half wasn’t quite as riveting as the first—its tough to recapture that type of fervor after sitting backstage for a while—but it came close enough to merit certain consideration for my eventual best-of-2015 concert ballot.
And then it was time for Refused, perhaps the most unexpected headliner in Punk Rock Bowling history—partly because few ever thought the Swedes would return after breaking up in 1998 (they started playing live again in 2012 and are set to release a new album next month), and partly because the band, which has played Coachella and FYF since reuniting, feels a smidge too experimental musically to be a true PRB fit.
But such is the beauty of Punk Rock Bowling. Even if Sunday wasn’t as packed as the Rancid-anchored Saturday, Refused and its fans ultimately meshed well with the fest’s aesthetic. On classic songs from masterwork The Shape of Punk to Come (“Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine,” “Liberation Frequency,” “New Noise”) and new tunes “Elektra” and “Françafrique,” metallic guitar riffs and Dennis Lyxzen’s hardcore screams were greeted with fist pumps and sing-alongs from apparent longtime listeners, and I’m certain Refused gained lots of new devotees by the time it finished just before midnight. The band left without encoring, ’cause hey, punk rock.