Mass-appeal mega music festivals have become a feature of the Las Vegas landscape, from EDC and Life Is Beautiful to the newbie, Rock in Rio. However, two festivals have been drawing fans from around the world since the 20th century. The Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend (April 2-5) is in its 18th year, while Punk Rock Bowling is celebrating its 17th birthday (May 22-25).
Both festivals are built on an old model: Find a subculture and corral its aficionados for a weekend of music, mingling and wallowing in the thing(s) they love best. “Punk Rock Bowling originally started at a bowling alley in Santa Monica and was only open to punk bands, labels, fanzines and college radio,” recalls Mark Stern, founder of Punk Rock Bowling. As the event grew, “We decided to move the party to Vegas and turn it into an annual weekend.”
When Tom Ingram, founder of Viva Las Vegas, was planning his rockabilly shindig, he also felt the lure of our neon city. “I looked at a lot of cities and decided Vegas was by far the best location,” he says, “The freedom of restrictions in Vegas makes the difference, such as 24-hour bars.”
Both Ingram and Stern see their events as a way to gather the tribes, draw new fans and pay tribute to legends. “Chuck Berry was my most memorable, because he was the first of the big acts that I booked,” Ingram says. “I would like to book Fats Domino, but I don’t think he is playing any more.”
“We try to put a lot of younger up-and-coming bands on the lineups as well as older bands that have reformed for special appearances,” Stern says. Bringing the younger and older crowds together is part of what makes Punk Rock Bowling a special event. “A few years ago we had Devo play at PRB, and a lot of people were trying to tell me that Devo wasn’t a punk band,” he says. “But they hit the stage and I looked out at all these different factions of punk rock fans—kids with Mohawks, older punks with their kids, girls with blue hair, the whole gamut—and everyone was wearing Devo hats and dancing up and down and smiling ear to ear!”
Viva Las Vegas regularly sells out, but Ingram still remains a little amazed at the festival’s appeal, admitting that he “never expected” it to be such a huge success. “I try not to expect anything, then that way I am never disappointed. I just put on an event I hope people will enjoy and let the rest happen on its own,” he says. “The personal satisfaction is enormous, as I am a big fan of the music and have been involved in the rockabilly scene for so long.”
Stern also appreciates how large Punk Rock Bowling has gotten, even as he tries to keep an eye on the little things. “It’s gotten pretty big and sells out every year, but we intentionally keep the capacity low at the festival, so it’s still an intimate show. We strive to have a great atmosphere, good sight lines, great sound and cheap drinks and food.” He adds, “We try to take all the things that we don’t like about big festivals and do the opposite.”
As Vegas is increasingly a location for broad-based, major-budget, we’re-here-for-the-selfies festivals, it’s nice to know that we’ve still got our smaller-scale, old-school cultural congregations. And they’re not going anywhere. “We have been asked to do PRB in other cities,” Stern says. “But what better place is there for 20,000 punk rockers to gather than the City of Sin?”