Four hundred ninety days. That’s how long the delay was between when Punk Rock Bowling 2020 was supposed to happen and when it finally did. That’s how long punk fans have been impatiently and rabidly awaiting the chance to see live music again, and just as important, the chance to reunite with friends.
Normally an annual Memorial Day event, the 2020 festival was postponed for the first time in history due to the pandemic. Punk Rock Bowling (PRB) started in 1999 by brothers Mark and Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade and Royal Crown Revue, as a way to celebrate punk music and bowling. Since its humble beginnings in a bowling alley in Santa Monica attended by just a few people, the festival has exploded into a full weekend attended by thousands and celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019.
In addition to the main stage, PRB added a second stage (dubbed the Monster stage) on the adjacent street which allowed more bands to be added. With set times scheduled so there was little to no overlap, fans could catch every band by taking a short walk in between both stages. What was great is that it’s not considered a slight to be playing the second stage. In fact, other than the Descendents, my entire day one was spent at the Monster stage as all of my favorite bands were playing there, and there were many.
PRB kicked off on Friday and the very first band I got to see live was San Pedro’s Bad Cop/Bad Cop. If I had to describe them, the analogy that best comes to mind is Voltron. Four incredibly talented females who each bring their own unique skills and personality and come together to form one mega force to be reckoned with. The setlist pulled from their two most recent albums, 2017’s “Warriors,” and 2020’s “The Ride,” and showcased all three lead vocalists. The set kicked off with “Retrograde,” featuring lead vocals by guitarist, Stacey Dee. This was followed by “Certain Kind of Monster,” highlighted by a roaring beat from drummer, Myra Gallarza and piercing vocals by bassist Linh Le. The set ended with the guitarist Jennie Cotterill-sung “Wild Me,” a theme on female empowerment.
There were so many great bands and performances, it’s impossible to write about all of them, but we’ll cover some significant highlights. Next up was Pears, the New Orleans-based hardcore punk band. They blitzed through their seven-song frenzied set, which concluded with lead singer Zach Quinn crowd surf as the band finished playing.
When a band like the Dwarves is playing, you know fans from all walks of life will be showing up as they are often noted almost as much for their great songs as their sometimes controversial lyrics and album covers. The set opened with “Dominator” followed by “Devil’s Level,” featuring vocals by lead singer, Blag Dahlia and screeching vocals by bassist, Nick Oliveri (formerly of Queens of the Stone Age and Kyuss). The Dwarves played the fun sing-a-long, “Everybodies Girl” and closed with “We Must Have Blood.”
As the sun began to set, the crew began setting up for New Hampshire’s The Queers. Only a band like The Queers could get through 21 songs in a 30 minute set. The band, heavily influenced by the Ramones, played songs spanning their 40-year career, including last year’s “The Queers Save the World.” Of the times I’ve seen them play live, this was the first I could recall that lead singer Joe Queer was only singing and not playing guitar. They played fan favorites “Tamara is a Punk,” “I Met Her at the Rat,” and closed their set with “Punk Rock Girls.”
Another standout was Anti-Flag. They blasted “Die for Your Government” and the crowd began singing and chanting back the chorus in unison. Without pause or talking, the band immediately launched into the “Press Corpse,” causing an even bigger pit to open up. The Pittsburgh band had amassed the largest crowd all day for the Monster stage and an echoing boom sang back each word as they thrashed through their set. The crowd leaked into the food stands and even saw one person sitting in a tree to catch a better view. As always, co-lead vocalist and bassist, Chris #2 shined on “1 Trillion Dollar$” and “This is the End (For You, My Friend).”
As the clock struck 9:15 p.m., the band most people came to see began to take the main stage: punk legends Descendents. This band is no stranger to playing fast, short songs with little banter in between, which is necessary if you want to squeeze in a whopping 30 songs into an hour time slot. The Hermosa Beach band played songs from every one of their albums, from “Milo Goes to College” to “9th & Walnut.” Descendents are one of those rare bands who have managed to stay relevant and increase in popularity over the last 44 years.
Lead singer Milo Auckerman will even tell you they helped create the genre of pop punk. They have influenced countless bands over the years, many of those who were playing the actual festival. I saw Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s Stacey Dee proudly singing along to “Suburban Home.”
As soon as guitarist, Stephen Egerton began ripping the opening notes to their first song, “Everything Sux,” a mosh pit immediately erupted swallowing up anyone nearby. This led into “Hope” and “Good, Good Things” with absolutely no rest in between.
The masterful Karl Alvarez was incredible as usual with his trademark basslines in “I’m the One” and “Bikeage.” Descendents concluded their set with “Smile” as drummer and founding member, Bill Stevenson, stood up from his set and indeed smiled, looking out into the crowd. What a fitting way for the first day’s festivities to end.
The first band on the Monster stage kicking off Saturday’s show was Vegas natives, Suburban Resistance, who were playing for the first time at PRB. The 20-minute set included about five songs pulled from their two albums, “Suburban Resistance” and “SRII.”
If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about Whittier natives, Plague Vendor, chances are one reoccurring theme came up: they are one of the best live acts around. Saturday was no different. Plague Vendor’s eccentric stage antics, coupled with the energy of lead singer, Brandon Blaine, and fast, heavy music is the perfect formula for an incredible set that torpedoed the crowd. What stands out in just about every song is Michael Perez’s loud, thumping bass, forcing you to take notice. Songs included, “New Comedown” and “I Only Speak in Friction.”
Towards the end of the set, Blaine had shed his shirt and stood on the guard railing, hovering above the crowd reminiscent of Jim Morrison as he proclaimed, “This is a new song!” and the band then led into “Run,” captivating the crowd.
Over on the main stage, Youth Brigade began their set. It is always a nice treat to see Youth Brigade, not only because they are punk rock legends dating back 40 years, but because lead singer, Shawn Stern and drummer/brother,
Mark Stern were the masterminds behind Punk Rock Bowling. Rounding out the lineup is brother, Adam Stern on bass, and John Carey, formerly of Old Man Markley, on guitar. Mark, however, was actually missing from today’s set and Shawn announced, “Mark is having a baby.” As is tradition, the Los Angeles band closed their set with a rousing rendition of their iconic, “Sink With California.”
It was kind of a genius idea to pair The Bronx right after Plague Vendor on the Monster stage, capitalizing on two high-energy bands. Whether you’re a fan of their music or this is your first time seeing them, L.A.’s The Bronx will immediately grab your attention and get you moving.
Matt Caughthran is arguably one of the best front-men today, where no stage is big enough to contain his energy. As is common, Caughthran asked to “part the seas” and create space on the floor, so he could walk into the crowd in the middle of their fifth song, “Knifeman.” “I want to see everybody moving! Everybody moving! Everybody moving!” he commanded, and as the chorus kicked in, the audience obeyed, jumping and pogoing in unison with Caughthran. It was as beautiful as it was chaotic and wonderful.
Back to the main stage and Leftöver Crack began their set with “Archaic Subjugation.” Whenever you see Leftöver Crack play, you know you will also be getting a few Choking Victim songs, as both bands were fronted by Scott “Stza” Sturgeon. A few songs in and Stza announced, “This is a Choking Victim song,” as the band launched into “500 Channels.” Hearing that iconic bass intro, it was hard to not notice that something was missing; longtime Leftöver Crack and Choking Victim bassist, Alec Baillie, passed away unexpectedly in November of 2020.
The band spent a few minutes paying tribute to him with a series of photographs projected onto the huge screen behind them, showcasing Baillie playing bass, spending time with friends, and even intimate pictures of him as a child. They then played “Ya Can’t Go Home” as a giant black and white photo of Baillie showcased behind them with the song title imprinted.
Streetlight Manifesto, a seven-piece ensemble hailing from New Brunswick, NJ, is often recognized for their excellent musicianship. The band began their set with “A Moment of Violence” to the delight of crowd members who loudly sang back each word to guitarist and lead vocalist, Tomas Kalnoky. Leftöver Crack’s Stza could be seen side stage singing along to several songs. The set consisted of fast-paced songs that got audience members dancing and skanking in formation.
Even amongst these talented musicians, drummer Chris Thatcher somehow manages to stand out, often holding his sticks in a traditional method and alternating between jazz drum beats and frantic paced drumming, such as “With Any Sort of Certainty.” To the crowd’s delight, Streetlight closed their set with the favorite, “Somewhere in the Between.”
The last set for Saturday night was on the much-anticipated reunion of Hermosa Beach’s own, Circle Jerks. This was definitely the biggest crowd of the night and just as the band launched into “Deny Everything,” the biggest mosh pit of the night opened up. If you thought Descendents played short, fast songs and were impressed by their 30-song set, Circle Jerks played a mind-blowing 33 songs in a slightly shorter timeframe.
Circle Jerks had not played in over a decade due to internal conflicts, but had agreed to reunite as one of the headliners at Punk Rock Bowling 2020 in celebration of the 40th anniversary of their legendary debut album, “Group Sex.” When the festival rescheduled for 2021, fans were delighted to hear that Circle Jerks were one of the bands who were still on the bill.
Guitarist Greg Hetson, also formerly of Red Kross and Bad Religion, was in phenomenal form, looking the best I have seen him as he shredded song to song with little room to breathe in between. Songs included “I Just Want Some Skank,” “Beverly Hills,” and the ever-popular, “Wild in the Streets” which received a huge ovation.
Next up was The Last Gang from Los Angeles. Led by the intense, angst vocals of guitarist Brenna Red, the band began with “Sing For Your Supper” off of their first LP, “Keep Them Coming.” Over half of the set was dedicated to showcasing songs from the band’s upcoming release, “Noise Noise Noise,” including the first single of the same name. Drummer Robert Wantland alternates between laid-back reggae beat and pounding drum rolls seamlessly. Bassist Sean Viele is always one to bring a lot of energy to a show, jumping incredibly high and screaming the lyrics, sometimes without even using a mic. Guitarist Kenny Aquino’s delayed guitar effects reverberated nicely as the band played, “Believe in the Poet.”
Descendents fans that enjoyed the band’s headlining Friday set were excited to catch All, consisting of three of the four members: Stephen Egerton, Karl Alvarez, and Bill Stevenson. Rounding out the lineup on vocals was Chad Price. The band was remarkable, with Price sounding just as good as he did 20 years ago. The band zipped through 17 songs in just 40 minutes, including “Fool,” “Paper Tiger” and “She’s My Ex.”
The much-hyped Murder City Devils was another act I was excited to see live for the first time and they did not disappoint. Lead singer Spencer Moody growled vocals as the band played ferocious music, often accompanied by a haunting synthesizer keyboard, lending to their horror theme. The Seattle-based band squeezed twelve songs into their 40-minute set.
Anticipation grew for the English Beat, the 2Tone juggernauts drew the largest crowd at the Monster stage. As soon as the band played “Twist & Crawl,” fans of all ages began to skank, and singing along. Guitarist and lead vocalist, Dave Wakeling vocals were incredible and the music connects with multiple generations.
Co-lead vocalist and toaster Antonee First Class was entertaini9ng as always and brought the crowd to an amped level of music hysteria. Wakeling and Antonee provided an excellent pairing and the band played hits, such as “Save It For Later,” “Mirror in the Bathroom.” as well as General Public tunes like “Tenderness.”
Aside from a PRB club show the night before, Lunachicks had not performed together in 17 years. However, from Theo Kogan’s vocals to the tightness of the remaining band, you would not have realized they ever stopped playing. Several people commented that they had one of the best, if not the best, set all weekend.
The band had never officially broken up, yet had only played two shows in the past two decades. Their influence can be seen in the voices and music of several female-fronted bands since their inception. Lunachicks showed you could be feminine, but tough, beautiful, yet unconventionally so. Though once seen as outlandish and brash, their style and popularity helped normalize tattoos and loud colors for women of punk rock, and eventually overall fashion in general.
Kogan, donned in neon yellow tutu, dedicated “Bad Ass Bitch” “to all the women who are running [things] behind the scenes.” The New York band recently released their own biography in July of this year entitled, “Fallopian Rhapsody: The Story of the Lunachicks,” which they were selling autographed copies of at their merch booth. Their 45-minute set included, “Jerk of All Trades,” “Luxury Problem,” and finally ended with, “Down at the Pub.”
As I walked back to the main stage, the sad thought struck me that I was about to see the last band of the weekend and Punk Rock Bowling would be coming to an end. The one upside was that I was about to witness Devo play for the first time ever. The set began with a 40-year old promotional video of Rod Rooter, a sleazy record executive at the label that owns Devo. A video cuts to Rod Rooter now, who is still so disappointed at Devo, “his biggest career regret.” A huge ovation roared as the band walked on stage, immediately launching into “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man).” The always amazing and inimitable session drummer, Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, A Perfect Circle, Vandals) has been with Devo since 1996, and it’s an exciting opportunity to see him at work. He was infallible as ever, keeping the beat all night.
Other than guitarist Josh Hager, the other original members of Devo are now close to or in their early 70s, but they still sound great. Gerald Casale on bass and synthesizers provided great backup vocals on songs, such as “Peek-a-Boo” and “Going Under.” His energy and enthusiasm was definitely contagious. After four songs, the lights went down, and the band members donned their signature red energy dome hats.
Guitarist and backing vocalist Bob Mothersbaugh began strumming the iconic intro to “Girl You Want” as the loud ovation swept through the crowd. This was followed by “Whip It,” which really showcased lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh’s vocals and how good he still sounds.
The lights dimmed again as the members left the stage, this time returning in their trademark yellow jumpsuits. The Akron, Ohio band launched into two covers, first the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” sung by Mark, and then “Secret Agent Man,” covered by Bob. The set really came together as they played, “Gates of Steel,” where all the elements and members really shine through, finally culminating in “Freedom of Choice.”
This was my fourth straight year going to Punk Rock Bowling, and this was by far my favorite experience. It might have been a combination of a lineup featuring so many of my favorite bands, discovering several new bands, and of course, nearly 500 days of delay between the annual shows.
As the saying goes, you don’t really know what you’ve got until it’s taken away from you. I finally get what is so special about Punk Rock Bowling and why it gets bigger each year. As of right now, plans are rumored to return to Memorial Day weekend for the 2022 Punk Rock Bowling. Let’s hope the world gets healthier, less scary, and we can continue enjoying live music without any further delays. I promise not to take it for granted this time.