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Punk Rock Bowling: cool weather, NOFX’s ‘Punk in Drublic’ and a Beauty Bar surprise

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Nell “Potato” Johnson and Chris Graham flaunt their punk pride.
Photo: Chris Bitonti
Chris Bitonti

The demand for neon hair dye and Elmer’s Glue is at all-time high in Las Vegas, as the streets of Downtown flood with foot-high mohawks for the Punk Rock Bowling music festival.

The Bunkhouse hosted this year’s opening performance Friday night in the back alley of the western-themed bar. Despite relatively cool temperatures, the masses packed in for the late night, complete with a giant beer cooler and grill. I was welcomed to the scene by Union 13’s Mexican-hardcore version of Rancid’s “Roots Radicals,” before California punk ambassadors Dr. Know took the stage, led by original frontman Kyle Toucher. Know rocked through a set including some deeper cuts off 1984’s Plug in Jesus in true speed-punk style with a dash of metal—a high-energy performance despite the absence of longtime lead singer and former child star Brandon Cruz. Friday night’s top highlight goes to The Adolescents, proving punk knows no age boundaries. The nearly 50-year-old rockers can still shred like teenage skate punks, and left me primed for the ruckus ahead.

Saturday’s gates opened at 3:30 p.m. to the hordes of punk fans occupying every space imaginable Downtown. The walk to the 6th and Mesquite was a sea of mohawks, studded clothing and Army booted fans making their way to the festival grounds. Entering through the main gates, I was greeted by a row of tents filled with band merch, pop-up record shops and children’s punk apparel. Further ahead were half a dozen food trucks, including Roaming Dough, Grouchy John’s and a sparsely patronized raw vegan food tent.

Minutes in, all three beer tents were packed as I made my way to the main stage, an impressive set-up with a great neon backdrop of Downtown that would make any local proud. The sun was shining and a slight breeze flowed through the crowd as band after band took the stage and burned through its brand of punk. One early highlight was Vegas representative, Holding Onto Sound, playing PRB’s big stage for the first time. The locals didn’t let us down.

Saturday’s lineup was an eclectic one by punk standards, featuring Celtic band The Real McKenzies, Seattle punks The Briefs, the funk and reggae-infused tunes of The English Beat and snot-nosed headliners NOFX. The Adicts performed my favorite style punk: glam—ridiculous, not too serious and catchy as hell. Band members shot streamers into the crowd, threw confetti and cycled through Clockwork Orange-themed costumes, each more outlandish than the last. The Adicts’ showmen careened through drunken sing-a-longs including “Who Spilt My Beer," “I Am Yours” and “Life Goes On.” Singer Keith “Monkey” Warren summed it up well: “Is this not the best f*cking day on the planet or what?”

Spirits were high as NOFX took the stage to close out the main festivities of Day 1. The California punk veterans are no strangers to PRB and are just a few months away from celebrating their 30th anniversary as band. They made it clear they would dig deep through their catalog when Fat Mike proclaimed, “New records? Nobody cares about new records. This is Punk Rock Bowling.” And after some convincing from the crowd and guitarist El Jeffe, the band performed classic 1994 record Punk in Drublic in its entirety. Spoiler alert: “They Still Suck Live” is a lie. NOFX performed for over an hour and a half and even counted down the minutes until the outdoor festival had to close, fitting in as many songs as possible as the clock ticked away.

I began heading to Las Vegas Country Saloon to catch performances by Good Riddance and No Use for a Name but changed directions upon receiving a tip. It would turn out to be my best decision all day. Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba had tweeted about a special 1 a.m. guest performance at Beauty Bar, and that venue’s Trailer Court was packed to capacity amid speculation over who might join Skiba’s PRB showcase.

I squeezed my way to the side of the stage as Skiba and Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, formerly known as Tom Gabel, took the stage for a solo performance. Grace, in town for a non-PRB show at the M, played for the second time Saturday night—two of her first shows since announcing she would live as a woman. It was an intimate, amazing performance that I feel fortunate to have witnessed. Transposing Against Me!’s rock anthems into simplified acoustic versions made Grace’s voice sound even more powerful. Her brief but fantastic set of mostly impromptu fan requests included a performance of the title track to upcoming record Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Skiba had a tough act to follow, and though fans rocked to Alkaline hits, Grace stole the spotlight.

I stumbled out of Beauty Bar at 3 a.m. to find Downtown’s streets still packed with punks. Two more days to go.

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