The opening day of this year’s Punk Rock Bowling felt like a response to those who accuse the festival of recycling past lineups on an annual basis. None of Saturday’s top three headliners had ever played the festival before. In addition to a handful of new acts, PRB featured a fair share of surprises throughout the main stage’s eight-hour run time at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center.
Organizers had expressed a desire to go big on this year’s 20th anniversary event ever since the conclusion of last year’s festival. On Saturday, they got off to a strong start.
D.O.A. The first special performance of the day came via a 40th anniversary set from the Vancouver, B.C., punks widely credited with coining the term “hardcore.” They still seemed worthy of the moniker as vocalist/guitarist Joe Keithley, the band’s lone original member, swung his guitar like a battle axe and pretended to kick bassist Mike Hodsall in the head continuously. Their 30-minute set must have totaled close to 20 songs, and although many of them bled together, their energy was enough to make the set enjoyable.
The Marked Men The Texas-based four-piece broke from the undercard’s street-punk theme with a sound more indebted to The Ramones than Sham 69. Its fuzzier, poppier songs made for perfectly pleasurable midday festival fodder, but it wasn’t enticing enough to turn the heads of the majority of the crowd waiting for their next chance to circle the pit.
GBH A mad rush to the front of the stage ensued as soon as GBH broke into the opening chords of “Birmingham Smiles” off of last year’s Momentum. Unlike most PRB acts that originated in the 1970s, the influential street punks played a lot of new material to augment a selection of classics. The decision worked as it kept the band energetic, with its passion for playing Momentum tracks shining through, and helped differentiate the set from the several others it has played at PRB over the years.
L7 Give it up to L7 bassist Jennifer Finch for being the fest’s wildest performer so far. Finch was so frantic throughout “Deathwish” that she wound up falling over at the conclusion of the set-opening stomper. The reunited Los Angeles band, whose heyday came in the early 1990s, is most commonly associated with the grunge and riot grrrl movements, but it reached near death-metal levels of evil on Saturday with the loudest set of the day. The heavily distorted guitars and snarled vocals of Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner demanded the attention of a crowd that went from curious at the beginning to captivated at the end—sometimes to a dangerous extent.
One fan climbed up the stage only to be tackled by security. L7 may not have even noticed the incident, staying locked in as the headbanging Finch’s blood-red hair swirled through the air. The band was a somewhat risky booking for the festival that paid off enormously. It put on the performance of the day, and hopefully one that organizers remember when they consider more offbeat bookings in the future.
Suicidal Tendencies The Venice, Calif., mainstays took the opposite approach of GBH, and didn’t play a single song that came out before 1999 as part of a “cyco punk” set that focused on their early days. “Before you look forward, you must look back,” frontman Mike Muir said after opener “Suicide’s an Alternative.” The band played most of its 1983 self-titled debut record—with hit single “Institutionalized” a noticeable exception, presumably because the musicians ran out of time.
Iconic metal drummer Dave Lombardo, who joined Suicidal Tendencies in 2016, was more than capable of providing the backbone for the faster, punk-ier material. He pushed the band with mesmerizing speed that made for the best part of the set—that is, until Muir invited women and children on the stage for a pair of songs. Seeing two kids not old enough to drive belt out the lyrics to “Possessed to Skate” and “I Saw Your Mommy...” on both sides of an all-female mosh pit in front of Lombardo’s kit affirmed that not only is punk not dead, but it’s not going anywhere for generations to come.
Rise Against The question going into Saturday’s headlining performance was if Rise Against would play to the crowd and dig into its older, more aggressive material. The answer didn’t take long to surface as it opened with sparsely played “Black Masks & Gasoline” off of 2003’s Revolutions Per Minute, the band’s final album before signing to a major label and buffing its sound to a radio-rock sheen. The most notable embrace of the moment, however, came with its penultimate song, when they invited mega-DJ and self-professed “hardcore kid” Steve Aoki on stage. Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath and Aoki spat dueling vocals on a raging cover of Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes.”
Rise Against dusted off three other Revolution songs along with a number of other deep cuts, but it didn’t get any bigger of a reaction than during ubiquitous singles like “Re-Education (Through Labor)” or “Ready To Fall.” The band may have simplified its songs over time, but it should be commended for never losing its punk ethos through outspoken political commentary and vast charitable endeavors. Punk ethics can’t spark the revolution it seeks if its confined to the scene. Those resistant to that idea, which appeared to be about half of the crowd, left before Rise Against took the stage. Those remaining were treated to a big-time modern rock show—something new for Punk Rock Bowling, but also something well worth exploring.