These days, what happens in Vegas, slays in Vegas when it comes to the harder side of music.
It might have seemed unthinkable a decade ago, but as Fat Mike of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords has been putting out there for a while now, Sin City is basically "the most punk city in the U.S." at the moment. Some might find this statement debatable, but Vegas has long attracted subculture-driven gatherings, from Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekend to the all-metal Psycho Las Vegas to the mixed bag that was Las Rageous. The latest slate of huge punk and punk-adjacent music events (from Punk Rock Bowling and When We Were Young to the just-announced new lineup of Sick New World 2024) back his claim even further.
Mike’s own Punk Rock Museum, which opened in April of this year, has cemented the city’s alternative music cred — even as it’s still best known for gambling, clubbing, and gorging at buffets.
In fact, A lot of the audacious new activity is centered away from the big casinos and in the downtown area and arts district of what is known as "old Vegas." Just outside of the tourist-trappy, Times Square-like Fremont Experience, there’s a vibrant live music scene anchored by a few key clubs, and an ever-growing slate of fests.
Attendees at 2022's When We Were Young Festival┃Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/FilmMagic
Live Nation’s second annual When We Were Young Festival brought out a largely Millennial crowd to see headliners Green Day and blink-182 this past weekend, alongside over two dozen more recognizable openers from emo/pop-punk's heyday. Tickets sold so well when it was first announced, that a second day was added to the schedule.
Green Day didn’t stop with their fest gigs; the band played a "not-so-secret" pop-up show last Thursday night at one of the most popular venues in town for punk, alternative and heavy music: Fremont Country Club, just blocks from festival grounds. The show served as a warm-up gig as well as an announcement by Billie Joe Armstrong: His band will join Smashing Pumpkins, Rancid, and others for a 2024 stadium tour. The band also debuted a timely new track, "The American Dream Is Killing Me."
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"People who like punk and other heavy music want to be in a club environment like ours, not a big casino," says Carlos "Big Daddy" Adley, owner of Fremont Country Club and its adjacent music space Backstage Bar & Grill. Both have become live music hotspots not unlike the ones Adley and his wife/partner Ava Berman ran in Los Angeles before they moved to Vegas over a decade ago.
"Fremont East," as the neighborhood is called, will soon see a boutique hotel from the pair. Like everything they do, it will have a rock n’ roll edge that hopes to draw both visitors and locals.
Outside Fremont Country Club┃Photo: Fred Morledge
The duo told GRAMMY.com that a visit to Double Down Saloon, Sin City’s widely-recognized original punk bar and music dive was what first inspired them to come to Vegas and get into the nightlife business there. Double Down has been slinging booze (like Bacon Martinis and "Ass Juice" served in a ceramic toilet bowl mug) and booking live punk sounds since it opened back in 1992.
"It's kind of a stepping stone for a lot of bands," says Cameron Morat, a punk musician and photographer, who also works with the Punk Rock Museum as curator of its rockstar-led tour guide program. "People always assume that Vegas is just the strip, but that's only like four miles long. There's a lot more of the ‘‘other city.’ There are people who are just into music and into going to local shows who don't ever go to the main strip."
In addition to the Double Down, Morat says Vegas has always had a history of throwing local punk shows at spaces like the Huntridge Theater, which is currently being remodeled and set to re-open soon for local live music. He also points to The Usual Place as a venue popular with local punk and rock bands now, and The Dive Bar — a favorite with the mohawk, patched-up battle vest scene, featuring heavy music seven nights a week, including a night promoted by his partner Masuimi Max called Vegas Chaos.
Cameron Morat┃Photo: Kristina Markovich
While glitzy stage shows from legacy artists and mega-pop hit makers like Usher, Elton John, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood, Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga still get the most media attention, raucous local shows are starting to factor into a new generation’s vacation planning, too.
"There’s a really good scene here," Morat proclaims. "It's funny because a lot of people, the sort of gatekeepers of punk, ask ‘why is the punk museum in Vegas?’ But it is a punk city, and not just because you've got all the local bands and the venues."
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Morat, whose own band Soldiers of Destruction, plays around town on occasion, also notes other acts such as Gob Patrol, Suburban Resistance, and Inframundo as having fierce local followings. He says there’s a certain voracious vibe in Vegas that lends itself to punk rock creation, performance and attitude. "A lot of the anger from punk rock — like the disparity of wealth, for instance, is here," he says. "Five minutes down the road, you've got people throwing away a million on the roll of a dice. But you've also got people who are doing like three jobs just trying to pay their rent."
Over at the Punk Rock Museum, Morat, who moved from Los Angeles to Vegas about seven years ago, is keeping busy booking big-name guests to share inspirations and war stories, both weekly, and specifically timed with whatever big festival or event happens to be in town. He says he wants to feature artists that might not be thought of as traditional punk rock, but who have relevant backgrounds and stories to share.
"A lot of these people have punk history the public doesn’t know about," he says. "I think if we just stick to a very small well of people, it's going to get pretty boring. So I'm trying to open it up for a bigger cross-section."
Imagery from "Black Punk Now" | Ed Marshall
The museum is already showing the breadth of punk rock’s influence on music in general. During WWWY, the museum held events tied to its new exhibit "Black Punk Now," curated by James Spooner, director of the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk. As Spooner spoke about the film’s 20th anniversary and his new book of Black punk authors, musicians playing the weekend’s festivities from Sum 41, MxPx, Bayside, Less Than Jake came through to talk too. Warped Tour’s Kevin Lyman and Fat Mike himself also took part in the museum’s new after-dark guided tour series.
Bringing in a wider audience and a new generation of rebellious kids who seek to channel their angst and energy into music is part of what the museum — and, it seems, the myriad of events in Las Vegas these days — is all about. Despite what some punk rock purists and gatekeepers might say, the inclusion of tangent bands and scenes is in the original punk spirit. He’ll be booking guests tied to next year’s Sick New World, the Viva Las Vegas rockabilly bash and even EDC in the future (electronic bangers are not unlike hardcore ones and even Moby was a punk before he became a DJ).
"I think that the museum is great for the punk scene here," he adds. "People will literally come to town just to see the museum, and then if there's a band playing in town in the evening, they'll go. So it's broadening the support for all the bands, local and touring. Some punk bands used to skip Vegas completely on their tours, but not anymore."
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