Las Vegas is a hot city, torrid and burning hot in the middle of summer, but already very warm at the end of May. On Memorial Day weekend, everyone looks drunk and wasted, and Downtown LV’s Fremont street gathers the most curious and insane amalgam of humanity, with fearless attractions and giant music stages, naked people busking between two casinos and bartenders in high heels dancing on the top of bars… You can cross Prince (I did last year) or Clint Eastwood (I did this year), or at least their best current mortal incarnations, between your usual Chewbacca and Deadpool, and the street is so busy that it makes your head explodes: there are layers of music at the top of other layers of music, and the place is so eclectic and so all-senses stimulating that you feel in the middle of the apocalypse where the poorest and the richest meet in a giant final party. But, as if it was not enough, you have Punk Rock Bowling located just one block away from the madness, offering even more stimulation to a crowd of music fanatics (I include myself), who are all sticky and smelly after this 3-day extravaganza.
Monday was the hottest day but bands that played there didn’t care, they gave us everything they had regardless of the heat. Russian-exiled Svetlanas were a shocking terror fronted by a fearless petite woman named Olga who acted like the Tasmanian devil. Saying she had a tough attitude and was confrontational would underestimate her performance, she was giving the finger, haranguing the crowd at the first song with a ‘motherfucker motherfucker’, and making the ferocious grin of a psych ward escapee. While the band was playing some pure icy hardcore with fast and aggressive guitars, sounding like direct vodka injections in the bloodstream, she looked like a maniac, ready to eat the entire crowd. Described as the most dangerous band in the world, banned from their country (just like their music), they certainly didn’t look like some people to mess up with, and this is probably what these long Siberian winters can do to you.
After these Russian maniacs, I recognized familiar faces, as LA’s own heavy riffers, the Birth Defects, managed to follow this twister from the cold. With their heavy blend of hard rock, trash punk and metal, the quartet slayed the stage despite the Las Vegas heat at this early hour, proving they are a true rock ‘n’ roll force. With Jason Finazzo’s hard-to-the-core vocals, Tim Dawson’s distorted guitar, Anthony Drinkwater’s hard hitting drumming and Phil Neilsen’s aerial flights and fights with his bass, they are the embodiment of heavy rock, and they played a ferocious set fueled with a sonic ecstasy.
Buster Shuffle was a complete change of pace, as this piano-centered band from London had a rather retro sound led by infectious beats. With their upright old-fashioned bass, the quartet was often playing around a ska tempo with some original twists, infected by Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano riffs, while mixing retro and modern into a very upbeat result. Like an old mad rockstar, their frontman on piano even managed to play with his foot, for the crowd’s greatest delight.
UK duo Slaves were also truly excellent, playing a stripped-down aggressive set with Laurie Vincent trashing his guitar on stage while Isaac Holman was on race to be the best punk drummer ever. Standing behind his drumset, he repeatedly destroyed the place with in-your-face screams over a succession of outbursts of raw age, installing a terrifying chaos. He looked like the leader, asking everyone in the crowd to hug the next person, security guards included, screaming or morosely half rapping his lyrics while the bluesy guitar riffs were tearing the place in toughness and distortion. They were so badass, and I hadn’t seen such rage and tension on stage since a Rage Against the Machine number.
As it was the case for every day, the festival was juxtaposing young bands like these early afternoon acts with older ones, such as Angelic Upstarts, an UK skinhead band of the ‘70s with a politically charged material and a desire to unite the working class. I never thought I could ever use the term heartfelt to describe punk songs, but these old schoolers had no problem to move the crowd (in all senses of the term) with their fuck-racism songs. Frontman and singer Mensi told us he would stand up to the song ‘Anti-Nazi’ till the day he dies, while dedicating it to his ‘Mexican comrades’. He had the cold precision of a reptile when he was distinctively singing his lyrics, but he also had the warm embrace of a guy decided to unite humanity with one big punk anthem, such as ‘If the Kids are united’ which made everyone sing along.
Crass’ Steve Ignorant was certainly in this same category and since his act was announced as ‘Steve Ignorant and Paranoid Visions present: Crass Songs ’77-’84′, the adventure sounded like a super-production. It was in fact a celebration of Anarcho classics and Steve Ignorant’s 40 years in the music business. To be honest I didn’t know much about Crass and even less about the ‘80s-era Irish punks Paranoid Visions, but their set sounded like a unified punk assault with multi voices and a strange dichotomy between Steve Ignorant’s plain polo guy look and the furiously political and angry songs of Crass…Anarchy was well alive at this moment.
X were also representing the older generation while injecting some rockabilly in punk, and it made complete sense to see John and Exene harmonize at this festival, where all branches of punk were represented. They even got very mellow mid set with a few languid songs and Billy Zoom on saxo, and for the first time in 3 days, I saw couples dancing, a very rare moment of intimacy instead of the usual mayhem. But soon the energy shifted back to punk rock and the regular crowd-surfing with a few of X’s classics ‘Los Angeles’, ‘Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not’.
The night also belonged to the new generation with Against Me, who played sandwiched between Steve Ignorant and X. Suddenly, it was all about their anthems and their fearless frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, while they wanted to burst the sky with the energy deployed in their music. Laura Jane Grace, all hair in the face, was screaming at the top of her lungs and standing at the tip of her toes. They had just done ‘I Was A Teenager Anarchist’, and she explained that the first tattoo she ever got was a Crass tattoo, ‘so this is surreal’, she said. There was no breathing between the songs, and the entire set was long screams, tough fights and enormous sing-alongs, the type that make you believe there are no tomorrows.
And I was precisely already thinking about tomorrow when the last band and Monday’s headliner took the stage, in front of a young crowd aggressively pushing against the rail to get to the front. What I got to see of At the Drive In’s set was pure madness and insane violence, with frontman Cedric Bixler immediately starting a riot as I have rarely seen one, climbing everywhere and incarnating chaos with some dangerous handlings of the mic stand and a manic behavior. Crowd surfers were landing in the pit at an impressive speed and a smell of danger was floating during the four songs I was able to see…
For one weekend, Las Vegas believes punk is not dead, and this feeling lasts for three full and intense days. In a city where dreams are born and killed each hour, it is a beautiful thing.
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