For the past two decades, Memorial Day Weekend and Las Vegas have become synonymous with the gathering of nearly 15,000 punks from all over the world. After postponing the 2022 festival, Punk Rock Bowling (PRB) was welcomed back with open arms by the punk community.
The event was not without hiccups, but delays and an inescapable summer heat couldn’t defeat the punk spirit. However, the first delay meant The Dollheads played to a smaller crowd than anticipated because people were not allowed in yet.
The Venomous Pinks played a solid 30-minute set and made the most of their time. Bassist Gaby Kaos sounded great singing “Cross My Heart and Hope to Die.” They closed with the female empowerment anthem, “We Do It Better.”
Suzi Moon kicked things off with “Dumb & In Luv” and then the fun, catchy “99 Miles to Pasadena.” I was really impressed with guitarist Drew Champion, who scorched a killer solo on “I’m Not a Man.”
One of the biggest breakout moments of the weekend for me was watching Surfbort’s set. They immediately hit you with a fury of fast, loud punk rock as lead singer Dani Miller spit out “Pretty Little Fucker” followed by a cover of the Hollywood Squares’ “Hillside Strangler.” Guitarists Alex Kilgore and Matt Picola began playing the opening riff to “Lot Lizard 93,” a song infectious in both its lyrics and music. For “Back to Reaction,” Miller climbed off the stage and sang while standing on the barricade.
For “Cheap Glue” she walked into the crowd, before lying down on the hot gravel and then led the packed crowd into jumping along to the chorus with her. I imagine this was the performance most people were talking about Tuesday morning.
Two weeks ago, Lee Ving, lead singer of the seminal punk band Fear, released a statement that due to a recent medical diagnosis and treatment, the band may only be able to perform for a few more months.
They have plans to release an album soon, but for now, Punk Rock Bowling was the start of the FEARwell tour. They opened with Ving’s signature “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4” before kicking into “The Mouth Don’t Stop” and “Fuck You, Let’s Rodeo.” Spit Stix is a beast at drums; while you might just hear loud, fast noise, there’s a precise method to his drumming madness and he is by far the backbone and soul of the group. They played “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” with Ving playing harmonica in place of the sax, the ‘70s anthem “I Love Livin’ in the City,” and closed with “More Beer.”
The punk rock supergroup known as Me First and the Gimme Gimmes started their set with lead singer Spike Slawson playing Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” as one by one each member joined him, culminating in Strung Out’s Jake Kiley ripping a mean solo.
They played what Slawson called their “four for Friday (even though it falls on a Saturday)” of country hits including, “Jolene,” “On the Road Again,” “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” After asking each member, including bassist CJ Ramone what they were thankful, for it segued into their final number of the day, “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp).”
I heard several people say the best set of the weekend was by none other than Los Angeles’s own, The Interrupters. As the band warmed up the crowd leading into their first song, lead singer Aimee Interrupter stormed the stage and they kicked into “Take Back the Power.”
A skank pit started that lasted their entire set. Clad in a black and white polka dot top and her signature leather jacket, Interrupter said, “This song is a true story, but it’s also about my fridge” as they played “Turntable.” I was really impressed by the band’s maturation in sound and lyrics with their latest release dealing with heavier subject material with an evolved sound. They played both singles from that album, “In the Mirror” and “Raised by Wolves.” They did an energetic rendition of “Family” before closing with “She’s Kerosene,” which had people loudly singing along.
As the sun went down and the desert breeze finally started to roll in, the crowd was aching for headliners, Bad Religion.
They surprised me by opening with “Too Much to Ask” before Brian Baker played the iconic guitar intro to “American Jesus.” Another deep cut was “Turn on the Light,” which they’ve only played a handful of times in the past decade.
The one drawback about seeing a band headline a festival is this usually means an abbreviated set due to time filled with typical fan favorites.
Well, Bad Religion is the exception to that rule, playing a 22-song, hour and fifteen-minute set. The band played their mega hit, “Sorrow,” but the crowd was treated to a nice surprise as Aimee Interrupter came back out and turned the song into a duet with lead singer, Greg Graffin. They closed their epic set with “I Want to Conquer the World” and “21st Century (Digital Boy).”
On Sunday, I made sure to get a good spot for Playboy Manbaby who I would say is like the MC5 punched MC Lars in the face. Lead singer Robbie Pfeffer is known as much for his satirical lyrics as his funny banter and explosive live performance. During “I Love Myself” and “Mermaid Pterodactyl” I noticed Youth Brigade lead singer and Punk Rock Bowling co-organizer, Shawn Stern standing side stage and recording Playboy Manbaby’s set. For their last song, Pfeffer climbed down and sang “You Can Be a Fascist Too” on the barricade to a crowd who sang back each word of the chorus.
Face to Face is a band that I’ve never seen disappoint live and Sunday was no exception. No introduction as they walked on stage, just lead singer Trever Keith playing the opening chords to “A-OK” and the rest of the band kicked in like a thunderstorm.
They played “old music for the old people” like “Walk the Walk,” and the gorgeous heartbreak song “Blind.” But they also showcased just how good their new songs are, such as “No Way Out But Through.” For my money there is no better punk rock bassist than Scott Shiflett – just watch his riffs on “Bent But Not Broken” or his solo on “It’s Not Over.” I’m biased for sure, but it was by far my favorite performance all weekend. They announced it was Keith’s birthday and passed out cupcakes to the crowd before the band played their biggest hit, “Disconnected,” to thousands of fans singing along to the ‘90s staple song.
There was some concern about whether UK legends, The Damned would perform Sunday as they had to pull out of a club show the night before due to lead singer Dave Vanian having a migraine.
However, from the opening notes of “Street of Dreams,” it was immediately apparent the boys were back in solid form. They even played songs from their album “Darkadelic,” released just a few weeks ago. Captain Sensible looked sharp as ever shredding on “The Invisible Man” and Vanian was clad head to toe in gothic black. He dedicated “Born to Kill” to founding member “BJ – Brian James.” Paul Gray began the familiar bass riff to “Neat Neat Neat” which eventually saw Sensible playing the solo with his guitar behind his head. After a solid set that had several people claiming this was the best set of the weekend, they finished up with “Smash It Up” and “New Rose” which had a giant pit going until they played their last note.
Arguably the biggest crowd all weekend long gathered around to watch Rancid headline Sunday night. They opened with the title track of their latest album, “Tomorrow Never Comes,” and eventually closed with its first single, “Don’t Make Me Do It.” I was front and center against the barricade and they got off to an amazing start when just a few songs in, the barricade begin to tip forward. Security saw and did their best to try and physically hold the crowd back but they were no match for 15,000 rowdy punks.
During “The 11th Hour,” the band was told to stop as a team of crew members began working to repair the barricade. Co-lead singer and guitarist Lars Frederiksen tried to fill time by telling jokes and doing a solo performance of “The War’s End.” Fellow lead singer and guitarist Tim Armstrong joined him and they did a stripped down version of “Ruby Soho.” It would ultimately be 40 painful minutes of patience before the band was cleared to rock again.
Fortunately, the crowd was more than willing to resume where they had left off as the band kicked off with “Journey to the End of the East Bay.” They played everything you expected, from “Out Come the Wolves” and some rarer gems like “I Wanna Riot.” If you’re talking about all-time great punk bassists, Matt Freeman is at least in your discussion if not at the top of your list, as you can see from his mind-boggling solo in “Maxwell Murder.” They played “Black and Blue,” “Tenderloin,” and “Rejected” and finished off with “Timebomb” and “Ruby Soho” (this time as a full band).
Infamous Stiffs were the first band I saw play on Monday and the five-piece hailing from SoCal came in playing punk rock that harnessed the classic Orange County punk sound. Their set consisted mostly of songs off of their album, “Kill for the Sound,” and they sounded great on “New Sensation,” particularly the guitar riffs and solo.
If I had to sum up lead singer Olga Svetlana of the Svetlanas in one word, it would be “intense.” She sings and dances like she is possessed, snarling every lyric like pure venom spitting out with anger and ferocity. The Russian band can channel that same aggressive spirit into a heavy hardcore sound on songs like “Jump” and “All I See is Red.”
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Ultrabomb, a sort of punk rock supergroup consisting of Greg Norton (Hüsker Dü) on bass, The Mahone’s lead singer Finny McConnell, and U.K. Subs drummer Jamie Oliver.
You can certainly hear the influence that each member brings from their own bands, while still creating music that sounds fresh. With as much experience as they have, I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising how great their live energy and presence is. Norton took lead vocals on “It’s Not Funny,” and for those concerned about his health scare last year, he looked terrific, jumping around several times throughout their set. They played Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and the Subs’ “Tomorrow Girl.” McConnell said that more than once punk rock had saved his life and he was certain just about everyone in the crowd. He played “Punk Rock Saved My Life,” which featured impressive drumming by Oliver.
Since an unexpected reformation in 2014, L7 has remained active and is celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Bricks Are Heavy.” Their heavy grunge-punk sound was as fierce as ever and even from the very back of the festival grounds, you could feel the thumping of Jennifer Finch’s bass on “Fuel My Fire.”
The thunderous guitar from Donita Sparks against Suzi Gardner’s scowling vocals on “Andres” echoed throughout the night air. By the time they played “Pretend We’re Dead,” the crowd was amped and singing along leading into Sparks’ solo dripping with reverb and effects. Watching them perform in everything from their badass attitude to the music and lyrics, you see just how much they paved the way for bands like Surfbort and the Svetlanas.
There was a literal energy you could feel from the crowd anticipating Suicidal Tendencies’ performance as chants of “Su-i-ci-dal” began shortly before their set. It was announced last year that the legendary Los Angeles band would be performing their debut self-titled album in celebration of its 40th anniversary. As soon as lead singer Mike Muir rushed on stage and the band kicked into “Suicide’s an Alternative/You’ll Be Sorry,” a massive pit opened up and would not quit until the band’s last note.
By the time the band launched into “Institutionalized,” the pit exploded into a ball of visceral and aggression as the crowd could no longer contain itself. For the band’s final song, Muir came down and sang on top of the barricade as the band and crowd alike chanted along, “S.T.! S.T.!”
Finally, the time had come to wind down Punk Rock Bowling 2023 as bagpipes began blaring, announcing the Dropkick Murphys’ arrival. Lead singer Al Barr has been on hiatus and in his absence, co-lead singer Ken Casey has taken lead duties for all songs, forgoing his usual guitar.
This was kind of a different side than we usually see of Casey, allowing him to focus on lead vocals while moving about the stage and interacting with the crowd. After playing one of their sing-along anthems, “The Boys Are Back,” Casey announced they were playing the first song they ever wrote and went into “Barroom Heroes.”
For the last chorus and outro of “Worker’s Song,” Casey came down and sang to the crowd on top of the banister. After going back on stage, just two songs later Casey was back on top of the barricade singing, “Smash Shit Up,” letting people sing on his mic. Always one to champion for equality and harmony and never shying away from figuratively and literally fighting racists, Casey announced, “Here’s one I wrote about my grandfather.
Another guy who liked to fight fucking Nazis. His name was John Kelly, and it goes like this – ‘Boys on the Dock!’” They ended with “Shipping Off to Boston” to a sea of people chanting each word back, to the point where I even saw security singing along. It was a lovely way to put the kibosh on Punk Rock Bowling.
As always, I had an amazing time and am already checking the calendar until I can return next year. I have no doubt Shawn Stern will make things even better next year.