Punk Rock Bowling turns Las Vegas into a more inclusive (and still crazy) mosh pit destination

It used to be that if a visitor to Las Vegas wanted a taste of punk rock while they were in town, they had two options: Ask a punk if any local bands were playing at the Double Down Saloon or drop some quarters in the Sid Vicious slot machine at the Hard Rock Casino.

The Punk Rock Bowling and Music Festival, which is now in its 24th year, has changed that.

What started as a modest amateur bowling tournament created by Shawn and Mark Stern of Youth Brigade and BYO Records for people in the punk rock music community has expanded to five nights of fun spread over multiple venues across downtown Las Vegas.

Punk Rock Bowling has become the biggest annual music festival of its kind, drawing bands and their fans from all over the world.

The first band to play the bowling tournament was punk rock cover crooners Me First and the Gimme Gimmes in 1999, making guitarist Joey Cape, whose band Lagwagon played the main stage on Saturday, one of the longest tenured performers of the festival.

The bowling tournament awards ceremony, which often featured performances by Manic Hispanic, became a full-on show, and the seeds of the festival were sown.

(Full disclosure: Twenty years ago I bowled on a team representing L.A.-based Razorcake fanzine. We were called the Blatant Stereotypes and we came in second place. This doesn’t have any bearing on the story, but I thought you should know.)

After moving from venue to venue over the years, Punk Rock Bowling is now held outdoors at Downtown Las Vegas Event Center over three consecutive nights with two alternating stages.

Two additional components have become mainstays of Punk Rock Bowling: Pool parties are held before the festival and local club shows afterwards, but sometimes they all blend together.

During Bad Cop / Bad Cop’s set at the Citrus rooftop pool deck atop the Grand Hotel & Casino on Friday night, an enthusiastic punker plowed through the pit and plunged directly into the pool.

The club shows provide fans with the option of seeing bands in a more intimate setting and allow up-and-coming bands to play in front of crowds that come from all over the world.

For instance, L.A.’s one-man synth punk sensation N8NOFACE headlined a sold-out show on Sunday with Codefendants, Zig Zags, and Knuckleheadz.

“It really means a lot to finally play and be a part of Punk Rock Bowling,” N8ATE said before the show. “I could never make it years before and always had friends going or playing. So to be playing and attending for the first time, I am really stoked.”

All of these events mean more opportunities for bands and harder choices for fans, but the plethora of options means there’s something for everyone.

This diversity of styles is reflected in the festival’s three headliner’s: L.A.’s pop punk progenitors (and poor spellers) the Descendents, the utterly unclassifiable Devo, and London’s two-tone terrors Madness.

It also means difficult decisions for the performers. Joey Cape was hoping to catch RKL, whose members he played with when he was a teenager growing up in Santa Barbara.

“I really, really wanted to see RKL because I grew up with those guys,” Cape said. “I saw them a couple weeks ago, and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen, but it’s really hard to see everything.”

The festival has gotten so big, it has an app that lets attendees select their schedule. It’s handy for the performers, too.

“I’ll be catching up with an old friend that I haven’t seen in a long time,” Cape said, “and all of a sudden my phone goes — bleep — 30 minutes until the Subhumans!”

Karl Alvarez, bass player for ALL and the Descendents, has played Punk Rock Bowling several times and is wary of it becoming too big.

“I’m not really generally a big fan of huge festivals for this music,” Alvarez said. “I feel like the small club is the natural environment for punk rock. But at the same time, without the festivals, I don’t get to wander around and discover new bands, and that’s the key thing about festivals — the Warped Tour was great that way.”

Tuna, the lead singer of SoCal’s Sweat, couldn’t wait to check out John Reis, whose new band Swami and the Bed of Nails, played a club show on Friday, and Rocket from the Crypt, one of his old bands, played the main stage on Sunday night.

Reis was excited to see the Chats, who came all the way from Australia. “I love the Chats,” Reis said. “I think ‘Smoko’ was one of the best punk rock singles released in the last decade.”

For most everyone I talked to, Devo was the main attraction. Devo hasn’t disbanded, but the new wave rockers out of Akron, Ohio, no longer tour.

“I’ve seen Devo a bunch of times,” Reis said, “and I feel that any opportunity to see them should not be missed.”

Punk rock is often defined by what it is not. It’s marked by scene politics and tribal differences and, over time, has splintered into a seemingly infinite number of subgenres.

Punk Rock Bowling has done the impossible: It’s made Las Vegas into a legitimate punk rock destination. For example, there’s no question the Punk Rock Museum, which opened last year, wouldn’t have set up shop in Las Vegas if Punk Rock Bowling hadn’t laid the groundwork.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Lisa Brownlee, one of the museum’s co-founders, said of the relationship between the festival and the museum. “There’s something for people to do in between stuff. Whatever we’re doing helps them grow. Whatever they’re doing helps us grow. It all makes sense for everybody.”

Co-founder Vinnie Fiorello of Less than Jake agrees. “It’s more than one weekend of the year,” he said. “We’re here to support the Las Vegas music scene, the Las Vegas punk scene.”

Linh Le of Bad Cop / Bad Cop has noticed a subtle but significant change in the festival over the years. “The first time I played here was in 2014, and honestly not much has changed, but I will say that the ambiance feels a little bit more inclusive, which is really nice. It feels way more welcoming.”

Le’s not the only one who’s noticed. Last year Greg Norton, the legendary bass player of Hüsker Dü, performed at the festival with his new band, UltraBomb. It was his first trip to Punk Rock Bowling, and he had such a good time he decided to come back.

“Why haven’t I been doing this every year?” Norton said. “So this year, I decided to hang out and just be a fan and have a great time.”

While the tent has become bigger and the lineup more diverse, has Punk Rock Bowling been good for local punks?

Kevin Wilcox, the vocalist for Las Vegas’s own Suburban Resistance, believes so.

“It’s been great for local punk bands,” he said, “because number one, they need a bunch of cheap local openers, and so we all get a little spotlight from that, get a chance to play on some cool shows. And number two, just because this exists in our city, every bar in town has punk bands. Every local band is playing. It’s beautiful.”

Ruland is the author of “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records.”

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