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Punk Rock Bowling’s expanded edition upped the intensity in 2019

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The main stage crowd during Flag’s Saturday night performance at Punk Rock Bowling.
Photo: Chip Litherland

Puzzled and likely inebriated passengers in vehicles heading southeast on Fremont Street shortly after 2 a.m. Monday morning heckled a group of a few hundred people largely outfitted in black T-shirts, studded jackets and various colors of hair dye.

Punk Rock Bowling’s Sunday night club shows, including a sold-out Murder City Devils-headlined Bunkhouse bill, had just let out to send a sea of music fans ambling back to their hotels and inadvertently slowing down the sparse oncoming traffic.

“Freaks,” was the first, classic insult hurled from a woman leaning out the window of a white SUV.

“What is this,” someone from the next car yelled, “some kind of cult?”

Punk Rock Bowling founders Mark and Shawn Stern would presumably take that as a compliment, but the truth is, this might have been the year their annual event transcended cult status. It’s now more like a megachurch of punk rock.

2019 Punk Rock Bowling Festival

No festival survives into a second decade without evolving, and Punk Rock Bowling has undergone its share of transformations from an industry gathering in the late 1990s to a full-blown festival pogoing to different locations across town more recently. Count Punk Rock Bowling 2019, the 21st edition overall, as the latest turning point.

This was the year the festival became supersized. Between pool parties, lounge acts, club shows and, of course, bowling tournaments, punks could have conceivably spent 16 hours a day indulging in festival-related events from Saturday through Monday.

The main festival, held at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center for the third-straight year, remains the centerpiece, where everyone converges for eight hours each day of the Memorial Day weekend for a slate of performances that also expanded this year. The number of daily bands doubled as Punk Rock Bowling added a long-overdue second stage, expanding its footprint and drawing a larger crowd. Single-day tickets for Saturday’s opening festivities sold out and made it unofficially the most-attended day in Punk Rock Bowling history.

Naturally, there were growing pains. The second stage ran ahead of schedule, of all things, for a large portion of the day, defeating the purpose of nonstop music on alternating stages. Instead, many smaller bands found themselves competing head-to-head for attention with their main stage counterparts.

Drink lines also swelled to the point of frustration, partially because of confusion with the new r.Cup protocol, which required attendees to purchase reusable cups with a $3 deposit to be refunded upon return.

Descendents

Descendents

To Punk Rock Bowling’s credit, however, those issues were resolved over the final two days. Set times stayed precise, lines moved more efficiently and the reusable cups turned into a positive—an environmentally friendly way to ensure trash wouldn’t clutter the venue.

Saturday might have been the busiest day in Punk Rock Bowling history, but Sunday could lay claim to being the best. In addition to a smoother overall experience, the lineup was varied and excellent, with bands seemingly feeding off of each other’s energy.

Monday was another unmitigated success, with 12 of the 16 bands, including all three headliners, making their Punk Rock Bowling debuts—an important dose of freshness for a festival that has sometimes been criticized for rehashing similar lineups.

The newbies held their own with the veterans this year, as this list of my favorite acts at the main festival is almost evenly split between the two camps. In a weekend of standout shows, here are a dozen that particularly stood out.

12. Auxiliö The all-female LA quartet was one of the first bands to play on Sunday and made the glut of male-dominated street punk groups that preceded it on Saturday sound tame by comparison. The crusty, d-beat rumbling was more indebted to Infest or Discharge than The Exploited or The Casualties, making Auxiliö easily the most ferocious act of the weekend.

Refused

11. F*cked Up It’s difficult to translate material from last year’s maximalist LP Dose Your Dreams to a midday festival set, but the Toronto experimental hardcore institution pulled it off as well as could be expected on Sunday. Frontman Damian Abraham raged along the barricade for some of the set, but much like on the latest record, also willingly ceded the spotlight to guitarist/vocalist Josh Zucker and bassist/vocalist Sandy Miranda for new songs and set standouts “Tell Me What You See” and “Normal People.”

10. The Lillingtons The reunited Wyoming pop-punkers fit 10 songs into an abbreviated 25-minute set on Sunday, many of which surely stuck in fans’ heads for the rest of the day. Ramones-esque earworms were dished out in large supply as The Lillingtons drew heavily upon 1999 cult-classic Death by Television.

9. The Specials Moshpits turned into skanking circles Monday night for the festival’s finale, which was fittingly the most joyous performance of the weekend. The English two-tone legends have long been at the top of the Stern brothers’ Punk Rock Bowling headliner wish list and proved worth the wait. In addition to the fun provided by singing along to nearly 40-year old staples like “Rat Race” and “Too Much Too Young,” a guest appearance from Saffiyah Khan gave the set a momentarily vital feel. Two years ago, a photo of the then 20-year-old Khan defending a woman against a far-right protest group while wearing a Specials t-shirt went viral and later led to her collaborating with the group on “10 Commandments.” The band’s mid-set rendition of the understated spoken-word piece hit harder than the numerous politically fueled power-chord blasts that filled the grounds all weekend.

8. Teenage Bottlerocket A day after bowling over fans with The Lillingtons, lead vocalist/guitarist Kody Templeman came back to top it with his slightly newer and more aggressive project. Teenage Bottlerocket appeared so energized by drawing arguably the second stage’s largest crowd of the weekend, it flew five minutes past the scheduled stop time. No one seemed to be complaining, and few left.

The Damned

The Damned

7. Drug Church The Albany, New York, grungy hardcore outfit released its most sonically polished work with last year’s Cheer, but no one would ever know that after catching the best second-stage show of the weekend on Sunday. The Cheer tracks sounded significantly dirtier onstage, enlivened with vocalist Patrick Kindlon’s gruff delivery and guitarist Cory Galusha’s spastic stage presence. The large sing-along reaction to set-closing “Weed Pin” hinted that the song might be carving its place among great modern punk anthems.

6. The Damned So much for there being no place for showmanship in punk rock. Damned frontman Dave Vanian’s punk credentials predated most everyone’s on the lineup, and the 62-year-old’s theatrics helped set his band’s 50 minutes apart as the first truly memorable performance of the weekend on Saturday night. Vanian twirled around with his old-school microphone and ventured down to the crowd during a full execution of 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette, an album that sounded like it was created to be played live. The album builds to a crescendo on final track “Smash It Up,” which The Damned followed up live with “New Rose,” known as the first-ever punk single in the United Kingdom, ending on an undeniable high.

5. Flag While The Damned put on a show that felt massive, Flag followed on Friday night with a performance that in some ways felt as intimate as a club show. The collection of former Black Flag members—original vocalist Keith Morris, guitarist Dez Cadena, bassist Chuck Bukowski and drummer Bill Stevenson, plus Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton—effectively shrunk the massive stage by slowly congealing into a semicircle facing inwards at each other. The visible chemistry made all-time punk classics like “My War” and “Nervous Breakdown” punch all the harder. More anticipation surrounded their pair of headlining performances in 2013 and 2016, but this was the best Flag has ever sounded at Punk Rock Bowling.

4. Descendents Some bands’ material doesn’t translate well to festivals. Other bands are tailor-made for them. The Descendents are fall into the latter group. Actually, the Descendents are tailor-made for this festival, apparent during the group’s fourth Punk Rock Bowling headlining appearance on Sunday night. If punk is about community above all else, there’s nothing more communal than 10,000 strangers in a field belting out every word to pop/punk psalms like, “I’m the One,” and “Suburban Home,” despite light rain and relatively cold temperatures. The Descendents opened with the latter song to catch many off-guard and instill an enthusiasm that never waned until heavy wind interrupted the band’s hour onstage by cutting out the sound a couple times over the final songs. The musicians persevered anyway, not letting technical issues stop them prematurely.

Shame

Shame

3. Adolescents As the SoCal hardcore pioneers came out, a backdrop reading “Soto” lit up in the font of their iconic logo as a tribute to their lone continuous member, bassist Steve Soto, who died last summer. That set the tone for a fast-paced 35 minutes Sunday afternoon that were equal parts emotional and vicious. It’s always tricky for a band to carry on without a synonymous presence like Soto, but the burden apparently must have motivated longtime vocalist Tony Reflex, who was frenetic onstage. Many acts dedicated songs to Soto throughout the weekend, but nothing did his legacy as much justice as his own band’s resiliency. The Adolescents are one of a few Punk Rock Bowling regulars that are taken for granted because of their omnipresence. The combination of Soto’s death and this year’s showing should provide a warning against such an attitude in the future.

2. Shame Leave it to a group of British youngsters—none of Shame’s five members is older than 22—to remind that a reckless spirit is the bedrock of practically all great punk. The post-punk revivalists’ Monday afternoon set was downright irresponsible. Bassist Josh Finerty leapt on everything in sight and pulled off a mid-song cartwheel. Drummer Charlie Forbes broke a cymbal about halfway through. “Bet you’ve never seen that before,” quipped singer Charlie Steen, who was a few minutes away from walking and diving on the crowd. Guitarists Eddie Green and Sean Coyle-Smith were relaxed by comparison, but still swayed with an intensity reminiscent of Guy Picotto and Ian MacKaye in Fugazi’s halcyon days. Sonically, Shame takes influence from English forbearers The Fall and The Clash, a sound they executed perfectly despite the chaos. It’s not an insult to the aforementioned legends to mention Shame in the same sentence, not when a band is so exhilarating that fans chant its name afterwards.

1. Refused Crossed arms became clapping hands, steely glares gave way to banging heads. The Swedish hardcore masters won over some of the most cynical of onlookers camping out near the front of the stage in anticipation for the Descendents Sunday night. A relatively brief 45-minute slot forced the band to filter its setlist down to essentials, and the performance was all the better for it. Refused bookended its time with arguably its two most seminal songs, opening with “Rather Be Dead” and closing with “New Noise.” The only respite from the band’s breakdowns in odd time signatures and incendiary choruses wasn’t much of one at all, as vocalist Dennis Lyxzen went on a wide-ranging progressive political rant before launching into new, unreleased song, “Blood Red Until I’m Dead.” Skepticism was natural when Refused first returned and cashed in from a 14-year hiatus in 2012 despite a catalog of anti-capitalist songs and a promise to stay “f*cking dead.” But the continued commitment to putting out post-reunion material and the quality of the live product has put any thoughts of impure motivations to rest. There’s no doubting Lyxzen and his bandmates’ conviction in person, not when he’s leading the charge by spin-kicking his body to exhaustion and screaming his voice hoarse. Refused has now played Punk Rock Bowling twice—it headlined in 2016—and has been the most explosive force on both occasions.

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