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Punk Rock Bowling, 5.25.13: Are we not punks?

Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo (PHOTO: STEPHANIE GONZALES)
Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo (PHOTO: STEPHANIE GONZALES)

When you get right down to it, punk is — theoretically speaking — no different than any other music genre, and its festivals follow the same template as the other multi-band gatherings.

During yesterday's kickoff for Punk Rock Bowling's three-day outdoor festival, we spotted punks eating funnel cake, punks filming performances with their iPads, punks in VIP fenced off from the hoi polloi, and punks queuing at the merch booth to buy band shirts they know goddamn well they can get for half as much elsewhere. Hey, if their favorite bands are falling in line with the rest of their non-punk peers — cue the dude watching The Damned and wearing the tee that read "The Damned: Farewell Tour 1989" — why can't they?

Punk Rock Bowling is the festival for punks who have grown up — the median age of the roughly 6,000 attendees seemed well north of 30 — and thank heavens for that, because, iPad obstructions and chucked drinks aside, its well-mannered crowd makes it easy to focus on the performances. (Unlike a certain other punk festival overrun by asshole teenagers wearing designer jeans that could substitute for diabetic compression stockings.) We were actually able to enjoy The Damned, itself well north of 30 and possessing the chops to prove it.

The veteran English quintet is hardly a traditional punk band. For one, it's led by singer Dave Vanian, who could out-goth Peter Murphy in the wardbrobe department, and likely outcroon him as well. And it's much more atmospheric, and inclined to flirt with other rock genres, than its American peers — thought it wasn't without its breakneck numbers, like "New Rose," as well as its cheeky cover of The Beatles' "Help!" ("Who's worse, Lennon or McCartney?" asked guitarist Captain Senisble. "They're both wankers!") Opener "Love Song" revealed more blues influence than any punk song I can remember. And as if to summarize its sonic range, the band closed with both parts of "Smash It Up," which Lennon and McCartney themselves ought to have dug upon its release, and all but debunked the idea that punk was already dying — or had pretty much evolved into New Wave and hardcore — in 1979. Younger attendees should have walked away from the performance downloading The Damned's Machine Gun Etiquette — from which most of the band's setlist was culled — onto their iPhones. 

Another expander of punk boundaries, Devo, had the honor of closing yesterday's festivities. I have to say: I came into the quintet's performance with low expectations, given its ho-hum performance I took in at the 2010 Coachella. That may have made its PRB set feel all the more thrilling. Or, perhaps it was the particularly robust mix of punk riffage and New Wave synthesizers, with an invigorating foundation of drumbeats hurtling the songs along. Or, it could have been the entire stage spectacle and presentation; the other performing bands sure as hell didn't have a huge LED screen or costume changes. Or, it could have been what assuredly is a well-honed recreation of the band's satircal skronk rock, which showed no obvious signs of age, not even in frontman Mark Mothersbaugh's vocals, or the choreographed dance (with instruments!) during "Uncontrollable Urge." It played with partcular gusto during "Jocko Homo," which came with the requisite call-and -response of "are we not men?" (band) and "we Are Devo!" (crowd). 

Mothersbaugh and utility player Jerry Casale threw out plenty of commentary, mocking President Obama's use of drone aircraft and, ahem, punk rock festivals. ("Punks don't stand in line!" bellowed Casale, to which various revelers shouted back their waiting times for beer.) Devo's hour was nearly perfect — any less would have been a gyp, and any more would have been overkill. It underscored punk's unique sense of economy, which meant Punk Rock Bowling, fortunately, was just as good as defining the genre by what it is and should be as it was reminding us what it isn't or shouldn't be.