Punk Rock Bowling 2017 - Live in Asbury Park (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Punk Rock Bowling 2017

Live in Asbury Park (2017)

live show

One of the most interesting aspects of the Asbury Park division of Punk Rock Bowling this year was how different bands brought contrasting strategies to the stage. Case in point, the Dwarves headlined PRB’s inaugural show at the famed Stone Pony the night before the main stage opened to the public. The show had been billed as Conflict and the Dwarves, but a week or so prior, Conflict had to drop off the bill due to visa issues- that is to say, the Dwarves were now headlining an ostensibly anarcho-punk show. The Dwarves have attacked punk as a concrete genre throughout their career and if anything, Conflict has embraced that concept. So, knowing that they might be facing a hostile crowd, the Dwarves had to formulate a strategy for playing in jersey, one of the country’s tougher locales.

Never shying away from the concept of showbiz, the Dwarves laced up and met the, perhaps reluctant, crowd head on. No intro. No small talk. No attempt to warm up to the place. Instead, the band blasted right into “Unrepentant” and then smashed through about 80% of 1997’s classic The Dwarves Are Young and Good Looking in salute to that album’s 20th anniversary. Indeed, instead of trying to deliver to the crowd what the crowd may have previously expected the Dwarves played the hard gambit and did what they do to the best of their ability. And frankly, the gambit worked. As the band ping ponged from hardcore to revved up pop punk, the place got down.

Then, when it seemed as though they had breached the gate, they doubled down and smashed through a second set of their hardcore classics. As is their modern style, the band polished up their grimiest numbers into sharp, hitting numbers – “Back seat of my car” was particularly snappy and they took their poppiest numbers and gave the tracks a harder sheen – “Sluts of the USA” still had its Bay City Rollers bounce but also grew an new violence to its sound.

All in all, they thrashed through 23 tunes in all, and by the end, had clearly won over the crowd. Had the band just showed up for “Another gig” their all-in stratagem may have backfired, but the band did what they do with such conviction even the most dour anacho-punk got down as “Drug Store” rattled throughout the stage.

Earlier in the evening, Stigma, the band fronted by hardcore veteran Vinnie Stigma delivered a full set of NYHC stylized hardcore. Obviously, by this point, Vinnie stigma knows what he’s doing and it’s clear why this sound has resonated for over three decades. Conflict’s semi-replacements Blanks 77 took the stage next and people were down. As they zapped from one pogo-punk tune to the next, the band equally paid homage to the early genre as well as reveled in a certain self-awareness. If anything, Blanks 77 underscored that having fun is an important aspect of punk rock, and also that unfortunately, many other bands seem to forget this key aspect. Blanks 77 did not. Similarly, the show opened with rising punkers Wyldlife who make their trade in Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell stylized tunes. The band have taken their lesson to hearts and have nearly mastered the form.

The next day, PRB proper kicked off, just yards from the beach. Early in the day, Crazy and the Brains played the biggest stage in their career to date and one could tell that they came to battle. Singer Chris Urban, who always walks that hidden line between Darby Crash, Hugh Heffner, and Pee Wee Herman, rushed on the stage wearing a fancy bathrobe, skipper’s hat, and donkey rope. The band then blasted into their set. CaTB started out as a folk-punkish band, focusing on the interplay between Jeffrey Rubin’s unique xylophone and Urban’s acoustic guitar. But since then, the band has added Ernest Young on the guitar and Jon Lango on the drums and have morphed into something that has touchstones of various punk genres, but isn’t nailed to any one thing- it doesn’t hurt that bassist Brett is cool as a block of ice, despite amping up his own bass lines into something that is both muscular and zippy.

At their PRB show, the band focused on their rougher side, pushing their tunes to the brink while maintaining their eccentric sprit. New tune “Candied Yamz” exemplified this precisely, with its rushing guitar lead which is then accentuated by the band’s trademark xylophone sparkling. As they zoomed through their set, the crowd was into this band. This band was made for the big time.

Later on the in the day, modern punk icons Dillinger Four served a crowd pleasing set of their energetic, scruffy beard-punk. The crowd knew what they wanted to see and the band knew what that was, delivering a greatest hits style set. While the band likes to feign a certain sloppiness between their songs, when playing live, they dropped the charade and masterfully balanced practiced precision against unpredictability.

I must admit, it was a bit frustrating for me throughout the day to hear so many people say “who’s Charles Bradley? Who is this guy Charles Bradley?” No doubt, the soul singer was a bit of a left field pick, but variety is the spice of life and Charles Bradley is the saffron of the music world. That’s why, despite the vast amount fo effort PRB put into getting people to know who Bradley was before the show, the day of, most people still seemed to be asking who he was.

Well, after his set, no one was asking anymore. Wisely, Bradley and his nine(?) piece band made no attempt to accommodate the punk audience and instead, brought the audience to him through a vivid, moving set of genuine soul. Many modern soul singers seem to fail as they seem to be going through the technique and motions of, say James Brown’s voice crack and Sam Cooke’s cooing, but the actual spirit is absent. This is not so with Bradley. Perhaps because Bradley was singing (to a tiny audience in unknown clubs) during the Cooke/Brown era, Bradley made his point with every vowel, every pause, every crack, every thing. When Bradley sings of pain, you believe him. When he sings of joy, you believe. This was none more true than when he did a greatly extended version of “Changes,” his Black Sabbath cover. Not only did he draw out the heartache, melancholy, and wisdom buried in Geezer Butler’s lyrics, but daringly, at the end, he performed a monologue about equality. Bradley posited that all roses on earth were created by the Father, the yellow one, the red one, the white one, and that they are all equally beautiful. Then, he added at the end, with a twinkle in his eye, “don’t forget about the black rose…” It’s a testament to Bradley’s mastery and sincerity that he could bring a clearly spiritual message to the punk rock audience and be received with an extended applause.

(As a side note, I saw Bradley on the boardwalk the next day- in long sleeves and slacks to boot- and took just a moment to talk to him, and indeed, the Charles Bradley on stage is the same person as the Charles Bradley meandering down the boardwalk, ice cream in hand.)

The first full evening closed out with the Specials and across their 40 some years, this band is as pro as they get. Singer Terry Hall sounds like he just walked out of the recording studio. Guitarist Lynval Golding plucks the strings like an excited teenager and bassist Horace Panter still revels in those lumbering low notes.

Interestingly, the loaded the front of their set with their weirder, groovier numbers like “Ghost Town” and “Man at C&A.” The band stretched those numbers out in order to underscore the importance of experimentation and general weirdness in Jamaican music. After the massive jams, it as off to the races as the band tore through their earliest classics like “Do the Dog,” “Gangsters,” and “Too Much Too Young.” Although they’ve played these songs thousands and thousands of times, they still brought the heat and the crowd received it warmly.

Early on in the next day, Posers made the argument for embracing punk rock in its purest sense. The band has always paid respect to punk’s earliest origins- the concept of three useful chords, songs that are actually songs, and a healthy dose of rock, but they’ve also made it a point to not stop there. When they played punk rock bowling, they really brought the good stuff. Blasting through both of their seven inch EPs and a few new songs, the band unleashed ripping guitar licks while also singing lyrics that flipped from ambiguity to bold declarations. But, importantly, none of the songs were “you need to think like this!” Rather, the band is more artful than that, choosing to coat themselves in the slightly nihilistic, but also kind of funny, shell of singers like Poly styrene, Penelope Houston, Tomatu Du Plenty and… take your pick. Singer Jade is a dynamite performer. At the show, the slashed at the audience, crawled across the stage, and quite dramatically, wore dark sunglasses for the first half of the performance only to remove them to review two eyes coated in black, black, black paint. Theatre is a big part of punk and somehow Posers have mastered both that along with a certain sense of introspection and profundity. This band is ace.

A little later, the Pietasters brought their easy skanking ska and rock steady to the crowd. This band is solid as a rock and the audience was ready for a little easy grooving action, which the band supplied. The Pietatsers revel in appreciation of earlier genres, but unlike oher artists, they are able to conjure that same magic found in those scratchy, ink-stamped labeled 45s.

Ever the rabble rousers, Leftover Crack took the stage next, and frankly, they came out swinging as only they can do. For the most, the bands at PRB this year were polished. LoC was not. Wonderfully so. They opened heir set with crusty cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” perhaps paying homage, perhaps mocking, the Boss on his own Holy Ground. I was won over right there. The band was loud and nasty and raw sounding. This is what punk sounds like.

Meanwhile, a modern criticism of LoC is that they’ve settled into AC/DC mode- that is, roughly the same set night after night after night, tour after tour. Their PRB show smashed that criticism right up. The band played a hefty chunk of their latest album Constructs of the State and it was a real treat to hear those newer songs in the live setting. They also played their biggest hits and a few Choking Victim songs, which exemplified just how unpredictable and exciting this band is again. While most bands at the event where trying to exhibit their most professional side, LoC were more intent on raising a little chaos and everyone was the better for it.

Lifetime took the stage next to a literal hometown crowd- at least one member lives in Asbury Park. For the audience, this was all about getting to see a band that rarely plays and many attendees rushed to the front to sing along to every word. Despite their “legacy” status, Lifetime sounded enthused and excited to be playing again.

And speaking of legacy bands, the Buzzcocks played the fest’s penultimate set. Buzzcocks have hot after hit after hit, and they brought them all out at PRB, zipping from “What do I get” to “Ever fallen in love” to “Boredom” to everything else in between. Like the Specials, Buzzcocks sounded fresh and vibrant. With a relatively shorten fest set, the band did little talking and a lot of playing. You would think that after 40 years, the manic energy of this trio would wear out- but to the contrary, the band was faster and sharper than their studio recordings. The band came to prove why they are in the punk rock Rushmore and they did just that.

Finally, PRB closed off with one of the few bands that bridges the gap between old school and new school: NOFX. And more than any other band, NOFX was a suitable cap for the fest, acting as polar opposites of the Dwarves.

The band took the stage to some fanfare only to, kind of hang out for a while. After a few minutes of yuks, they started their first song “Seeing double at triple rock.” This ethos remained throughout the gig: A song or two here or there, followed by some seemingly improvised stand up. Mike ragged on Smelly. Smelly ragged on Melvin. Melvin ragged on Jefe, and it wall went back and forth.

Despite their routine, the band did manage to crank out an impressive 22 songs. New songs “Six Years on Dope” and “I don’t like me anymore” were brought out which only made clear how the latest NOFX album is among their best. A few more new tunes would have been nice. Yet, despite the band’s on stage debauchery… or just on stage drinking… when playing, they were surprisingly sharp and forceful. While it would be easy for this band to just go through the motions, while they were playing, it really did seem like they meant it.

Which brings us back to the original point of this whole thing. The Dwarves came to destroy and they destroyed by going at it 110% with a purpose- they were practiced, focused, and confident. But in contrast, NOFX, perhaps believing that punk rock should not be so calculated, seemed to wing it and in this winging it, they were at their best when the unexpected happened.

Form or chaos? Practice or ad lib? What is punk rock? Well, we all knew the answer already but PRB answered it again for us. It’s whatever you want it to be, but whatever it is, it’s not a set of rules.