The Fest 14
Gainesville, FL • October 30- November 1, 2015
by Jen Cray
You may not expect it from a 3 day punk rock festival in a college town over Halloween weekend, but attending The Fest feels like a gigantic hug.
There’s a homecoming kind of feeling that permeates the PBR-soaked air as fans, bands, and friends from around the globe descend on Gainesville, Florida to get lost inside of the impossible task of seeing 400 bands spread across 21 venues. Every corner you turn is a familiar face, whether it’s an old friend who lives on the other side of the country whom you’ve only ever known online, or the singer of a band you’ve been a fan of for years and with whom today you can share a beer and a conversation, because – at Fest – there is no separation between band and fan. We’re all just people.
If that all paints a rather hippy dippy picture, throw a little dirt and grime on that image, soundtrack it with brain rattling hardcore or boot stomping street punk, and throw a dozen bodies somersaulting atop it all. This ain’t your parents’ music festival. Begun on a small scale in 2002, the annual event showcases bands that fall under the vast independent/underground/punk umbrella. This means that while on one stage a brain rattling hardcore act may be blowing out a neck vein, a neighboring stage may house a shoegazing collective where fans sway instead of stomp. It shouldn’t work – colliding these seemingly opposite worlds – but it does. And the cross pollination of sounds and cultures – the availability of so many clashing musical experiences – makes Fest not just a music festival, but a communal experience.
Just as there is too much to see, there is also too much to report. It’s an overwhelming experience – especially for a photographer who feels compelled to capture IT ALL! So rather than touch upon each of the 40 or so sets I managed to jump in on, I’ll highlight a handful of personal favorites, but first let me just raise my phantom glass of Swamp Head pale ale and toast the powers-that-be who kept every one of the hundreds of sets running on time, sounding amazing, and feeling like it was run by the fans instead of the establishment. Signs were posted everywhere that essentially proclaimed “mosh, stage dive, crowd surf… at your own risk” and “be good to one another.” I never saw one fight, or injury, so take note corporate venues with overzealous rules and regulations.
Before diving into the weekend highlights as chosen by yours truly, first here’s a lightning round wrap-up of some notables. Bad Cop Bad Cop lit up the big stage dressed up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and showering the crowd not just with their delicious pop punk hooks but with actual candy. Wet Nurse proved that their twin vocal harmony pop punk isn’t just an Orlando favorite, but also a winner outside of their hometown. Heartsounds were a speedy punk act with co-ed vocals whose set I could not be pulled away from.
Success was straight up Fat Wreck Chords style pop punk out of Seattle, with Ty Vaughn of Broadway Calls hiding in the shadows on guitar. They were a pleasant surprise I happened upon thanks to the recommendation of a friend. As was Astpai, an Austrian punk band that drew a sizable crowd in what turned out to be my favorite venue, High Dive. Night Birds may spew out a surf punk sound, but the pale punk rockers felt a little out of place on the large afternoon, sun drenched stage – the up close and personal, late night, dark club set they capped off Friday night with was probably the one I should have caught. Still, they destroyed.
There was so much happening at any given moment, and I feel as though I only caught a fraction of it, but here are the sets that sit the highest in my mind.
Seeing Pujol in Orlando the night before didn’t keep me from being front and center at his debut Fest set. The Nashville garage punk poet was an inspired addition to the lineup and – truth be told – a major factor in my decision to finally take the Fest plunge. The band’s Friday night set had the familiarity of seeing your favorite local band at the corner bar, but the confident strut of a band who knows they’re something special without feeling the need to prove it. The avant-garde lyrics, the comedic banter, the sharpie that Daniel Pujol accessorizes with – you either get it, or you don’t. This crowd most definitely did.
Riverboat Gamblers are the pinch hitter that the coach puts in when he wants to gurantee a hit. The Austin, Texas boys, quite frankly, are the best melodic punk band band of the last decade and their live show is a grand slam every single time. They’ve got the chant-able choruses and melodies that make you wanna pogo your way through the roof of the club, but the band’s secret weapon is daredevil front man Mike Weibe and his ringmaster charm. Weibe, whose stand-up set he did Saturday afternoon had me nearly choking with laughter, attacks each show like it’s his last. He spends more time in the crowd, on top of the crowd, or perched above the crowd than on the actual stage. He’s a tornado of movement that you’ll probably get swept up in at some point, if you’re standing close. You don’t see this band, you become part of the show. GFFG!
War on Women
I knew to expect a spectacle, I knew to expect intensity, I knew to expect front woman Shawna Potter to be raging against the machine harder than any other band I’d see over the weekend. What I didn’t expect was for the band to turn their whole Halloween night set into performance art. With Shawna taking on the role of bride and guitarist Brooks Harlan posing as the stripper, the stage was set for a “Bachelorette Party in Progress.” The party, and the dress and veil, gradually got torn and tossed as the Baltimore feminist punk band exploded all expectations and easily put on one of the most raw yet unifying sets I’ve yet to see. The fans down front were near tears with emotion as they screamed along to every emotional word and when Potter stage dived, they didn’t just pass her around they held her up high in adoration.
James Alex (Beach Slang)
Of all the things I saw and heard over the magical weekend, nothing compares to the heart breaking beauty of Beach Slang frontman James Alex’s acoustic set in a small, out of the way bookstore in the middle of the afternoon. I was a Beach Slang fan before entering the Civic Media Center, but within seconds I felt like I’d been revived from a deep sleep. The hold that Alex held over the room was angelic and I, quite literally, saw grown ass men with tears in their eyes as they sang along with all their might to the Pennsylvania poet’s words: “I’ve got some friends who want to die/ but, really, they’re dead/ They snuffed their hearts and lost their minds for banks and courts/ And we grew guts and gnawed on the roar of life/ We got young and, baby, we did it right/ We are nothing like them.” This show was not only the most memorable moment of The Fest for me, it was one of the most gorgeous performances I’ve ever witnessed. Most appropriately, it was also the only time I saw an encore demanded, and given, over the time-crunch weekend.
For years I’ve heard people talk about the “Post Fest Blues,” well, now I get it. I miss the community, the shared party atmosphere, the unconditional love, THE MUSIC everywhere – I miss just being there. I feel such love for every last person who got to experience the same thing that I did – even you, mystery dude who I saw with his finger down his throat trying to vomit out his drunk (thanks to my girlfriend for steering me clear of that potential puddle disaster)! And maybe that, too, is a little hippy dippy, but I don’t give a damn!
Check out galleries of The Fest: jencray.com.
The Fest: http://thefestfl.com/