Old Man and the Fest

Finally, at long last, I was back in Florida. Sweating bullets and worrying over configurations of various manners of problems that might waylay my efforts to get from Orlando to Gainesville for the first time in more than 10 years. These are the kinds of things that happen to you when you have crippling social anxiety but this was something I felt I needed to do. For the better part of a decade returning to The Fest, punk music’s (arguably) greatest annual gathering, had been a goal of mine. I wanted to introduce the friends I’d made over those years to the magic that happens in this idiosyncratic bubble in the middle of deepest Florida. That I had to do this one alone was what it was but there would be no damn way I was missing Jawbreaker.

Gainesville had awkwardly given birth to some of the most iconic modern punk music whose bands went on to foster relationships with like-minded (and sounding) bands all over the U.S. and eventually out into the wider world. In the late ‘90s and early 2000’s that emerging “sound” from this town was as much about yelps mistaken for melodies and driving guitar riffs that often seemed to head in opposite directions at the same time while the bass player just kind of did their own thing. More or less. Everything felt loosely improvised within the taut structures of two and three minute songs. That sound largely became defined to the outside world by Hot Water Music‘s early offerings. But there were many contemporaries of that influential band operating throughout Gainesville’s murky underground. 

That some of those bands made their way on-stage once more at Fest 18 proves what those of us who have been here before already know. Radon, Asshole Parade, Dikembe and several others that all sound decidedly different but also rooted in the mire that makes this place what it is for so many bands and fans. The Gainesville “sound” is really much more about an attitude, the vibe with which a band carries themselves, which is why there have been many groups who have been “adopted” over the years. Avail from Richmond, VA and Dillinger Four from Minneapolis, MN are just two that come to mind even though both are from vibrant scenes in their own hometowns. 

Suddenly there was a voucher system of sorts. New bands would spring up all over the country emulating the sounds that they loved, over and over again, until we arrive here. We are barely in the wake of Fest 18 and discussion about next year’s edition has already begun. It’s no wonder. This year’s edition of punk rock summer camp sold out and, as ever, sent everyone home happy, if exhausted. Long days turned into longer nights with the briefest of interludes for sleep… for some, anyway. But by the third day… well, we’ll get to that.

Late Night in daylight. Photo: Drew Kaufman – IG: @diet_hellboy

On day 1 in town my cab drove by the hotel where registration was going on. The handy app that the Fest had employed told me that the line was 2 hours long and you could tell that quite easily by the many people snaking down the stairs and out the front of the hotel. For someone with my set of circumstances it was quite intimidating so I had the driver take me to my hotel clear on the other side of town. I nearly sent myself into a panic. The same anxiety that used to grip me before I would clamber onto stages in my own band days was there. That same fear of being judged, deemed not “punk enough”, fearing rejection from a scene that I have such a strong affinity for had my alarm bells ringing. 

Photo courtesy of Drew Kaufman – IG: @diet_hellboy

After about an hour of this nonsense and monitoring the app to see if the line had shrank I finally decided that this was just something I had to do. I came here to see the Fest. To get stopped at the first hurdle of registration would simply be absurd. So I left that crummy, humble hotel on the edge of town and headed for Fest central. 

What I saw when I got there was astounding. It wasn’t the flock of people still milling about nor the small army of volunteers running everything like clockwork. It was the “flea market” that stunned me the most. I was, as I described to one person working the Fest’s merchandise booth selling t-shirts from previous editions, “slightly whelmed”. It was because this process and the whole setup was something I never would have imagined and it made my heart swell. It would be the first of many moments over the course of the weekend where the personal magnitude of all of “this” nearly dragged me to tears. 

You see, I’m a far, far different human being than I was the last time I had set foot in Gainesville. Clearly, the Fest had become quite another organism entirely over that time frame as well. What Tony Weinbender and the organizers have done with their army of volunteers is nothing short of amazing and, frankly, beyond my own wildest dreams for what this could become. Even as I have mythologized it in my own head and memory, this was something more.

This was band on top of band for hours on end. For 72 hours attendees would be given the option of attending upwards of 40 hours of live shows but even that number is inaccurate. With the collective time on-stage of various acts in a variety of venues, people had to choose from over 300 hours of programming and that’s before discussing the wrestling or stand-up comedy that took over 8 Seconds and Downtown Fat’s at different intervals. 

For me, the first stop was the High Dive for Wolves & Wolves & Wolves & Wolves. I had done a lot of homework thanks to the Fest app and linked Spotify playlist. This was one of the bands I had not heard of or listened to before I was headed to Gainesville. Shame on me, really, as they proved to be the perfect starting point even if I was a couple of hours late on my agenda by this point. Quickly, the carousel spun as one band wrapped up and I headed off to see a live taping of Two Minutes to Late Night, then a scramble to catch Debt Neglector, A Vulture Wake, Iron Reagan, Nightmarathons performing a Weakerthans set that I couldn’t get into in time, before backtracking to Planes Mistaken for Stars, Torche, War on Women, and a surprise set by A Wilhelm Scream, which I barely made it into. 

War on Women. Photo: Drew Kaufman – IG: @diet_hellboy

In the process I had to eschew opportunities to see DFMK, Teenage Bottlerocket, Less Than Jake, Against Me, Squirtgun, Big Nothing, and The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die. All of them bands that I love. But that also is part of the moral of the Fest. One person can’t see everything and, due to the proclivity now of social media at something like this, you absolutely will leave with some “fear of missing out” and regrets. The trick is to make peace with the decisions you make and to absolutely have fun with it. 

Getting meta(l). Photo: Drew Kaufman – IG: @diet_hellboy

By the time the first night ended for me I was already scanning my schedule for Saturday. This meant an absolutely rollicking set from Billy Liar, full band in tow, Cold Wrecks, Able Baker Fox, Nightmarathons, Tim Barry, A Wilhelm Scream (yes, again), Devon Kay and the Solutions, a failed attempt to see Makewar because the High Dive had hit capacity, Wolf-Face, Tiltwheel, Dead Bars, Pity Party, the Dodges, Se Vende, Rehasher, and a bit of Spanish Love Songs before finally calling it a night. Somewhere in the mix I had the opportunity to remember an old friend, Lance Hahn, thanks to a J Church cover by Tiltwheel; being absolutely floored at the live presence of Dead Bars, and being utterly humbled by the heart and integrity of Pity Party. 

Sunday proved to be a bit of a reprieve by giving attendees the option of taking in any number of amazing acoustic acts to start the day. I opted for Chloe Hawes, local musician, Danny Hughes, and Walt Hamburger before wading back into the full blown chaos. That all began with No Trigger’s phenomenal set that even featured some of the singer’s family on-stage to help out with a song, Gillian Carter absolutely going off to start a day of the heaviest music at the Fest at the Wooly, followed by State Faults before I took a necessary lunch break as I prepared to wade into the growing crowd at Bo Diddley Plaza for Stiff Little Fingers and the Fest’s ostensible headliner, Jawbreaker. To cap off my last night of Fest-ing, I waded into the eager crowd awaiting Brendan Kelly’s performance. By that point my 42 year old bones were screaming and I opted to pass on undoubtedly great performances from Zeta, Asshole Parade, Pohgoh, The Avengers, and, my biggest regret, Radon

Gillian Carter. Photo: Drew Kaufman – IG: @diet_hellboy

Even though I only really took in about a tenth of the bands on offer at Fest 18, I certainly didn’t come away feeling short-changed. If anything, dear reader, I feel I have left you a bit shy of the mark because there are just so many amazing bands that truly deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the acts I did get to see. So I hope that you’ll grant me the leeway to mention a few of them here: Stanis, Reconciler, Sorry! We Are Silly, Death of a Nation, Hit Like a Girl, the Worriers, Western Settings, Sunshine State, Post Teens, Gilt, Protagonist, Nomore, Canadian Rifle, and gah, just so many more. And there are some sets that I know are moments that I missed out on participating in like Laura Jane Grace performing at the Community Media Center, with its strong personal ties for the musician and her supporters, or the punks-moved-to-tears performance of Jawbreaker on Cello and for me, another opportunity to take in a Will Varley performance.

As of today, that Fest 18 playlist is still up on Spotify and if you’re someone who was there who wants to relive some of the moments or catch up on what you missed, seek this one out. If you didn’t manage to get to Gainesville, crank this one up, buy a bunch of PBR or the closest approximation you can find, and invite all your friends over. Then, make plans for how you’re going to get to Fest 19. It’s guaranteed to be a great time, much as it has been over the better part of two decades now and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Thanks to all those volunteers, the venues and the tireless staff this will remain a must-do on the punk calendar into 2020. 

Part of the magic of the Fest is in its truly anarchic nature. While many festivals rely on something of a linear approach, the Fest decidedly does not. Bands and showtimes overlap leading to a feeling immediately afterward that can only be described as “what the hell did I just witness?” In the final hours of the last day you’ll run across people eagerly discussing which was their favorite show or the venue where they had the most fun. But, as I talked with a man who is originally from New York City but now has lived in Florida long enough to consider himself to be local, it’s about the feeling that these bands evoke. The way a certain song or album by one or several of the performers marks a time in the listener’s life which serves as a stronger indicator of importance than merely the half hour, more or less, that they spent onstage.

That this music has become a home for so many people from so many far away places that we keep coming back year after year is what makes the Fest so poignantly special to attendees. It was a great conversation that helped shed light on my own attachments to the bands that I saw. More is the pity that I didn’t learn that gentleman’s name but I guess that’s what next year is for.

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