Punk rock can mean a lot of things—a delivery method for progressive politics; deconstructivist rock ‘n roll; a space for self-expression. It represents itself through a multi-colored palette—street, hardcore, psychobilly, skate, pop, folk, crust, melodic, post, and more. What connects it is our most sacred tenet, one that stretches from our goofiest pop punk to our most somber hardcore, our number one deity: DIY.
In the quest to define what punk is, or what it’s become, DIY becomes the key, simply because: whatever this is—and this can be a a lot to unload—we did it ourselves. Punk rock is a necessarily nebulous catch-all for a slew of different outsiders with different wants and needs. But wherever they end up on punk’s spectrum, it’s assumed that they’re there to do something. Punk rock is as much music as it is a community—a place for people to come together.
For me, my brand of outsider status brings me to the corner of punk that features open-wound lyricism and singalongs. This is the stuff that makes you feel like an intruder on another’s thoughts. It’s like mainlining a connection. So, for a guy like me, who loves Hot Water Music, The Menzingers, Off With Their Heads, Leatherface, The Lawrence Arms, and Paint It Black—there’s a lot of labels you can throw at the wall and chances are a lot of them would stick. Orgcore, melodic punk, post-hardcore; but really, if there was one unifying label, the sort of catch-all you could drop in conversation, it’d be Fest.
The Fest in Florida is perhaps the most notorious, and most popular punk rock festival in the world. Every year, thousands of devotees make their yearly trip to Gainesville to see sets from hundreds of bands, meet old friends, and drink gallons of PBR. For many, Fest is punk rock. And this year, for the first time, I joined the many. For me, Fest was a sort of waking dream. There’s too much detail to capture it all accurately, and the minute you’re out of it, all but the broadest strokes remain. It was a blur, a beautiful, intense blur—but I’ll do my best to deliver the moments of clarity, all in the name of documenting my first, and maybe to convince a couple new acolytes.
I came in on a red eye flight, took a nap, then, for the rest of the first day, kept going like my life depended on it. Fest’s appeal is the sheer multitude of quality acts—all three days of the festival had a handful of bands I’d declare personal favorites. There is no waiting out openers for the band you came to see (but plenty of new to discover!). If worst comes to worst, and the venue you want to be in is at full capacity, well, there’s a lot more venues: and a Fest wristband and ID gets you into all of them. I started my maiden voyage at Bo Diddley Plaza, the large outdoor venue that houses a lot of Fest’s biggest names. Direct Hit! was the first heavy-hitter of the day, and the played a mix of new and old (including the Halloween-appropriate “Werewolf Shame”) in the pinks and oranges of sunset. They sounded great, they were clearly happy to be playing, and the new material was refreshingly different from their past catalog, while not feeling out of place in the setlist.
Lemuria was next, a band I stuck around for despite not knowing very well. They played well and had a pretty exuberant audience, one that with a little research I might join in the future. Piebald was another band I didn’t know, but they impressed me with their music and I could see a clear kinship between what they were doing and what I liked in my current lineup of favorites. It sounded like heartfelt pop punk with a hint of emo, and it won me over fast. But the band I had come to see at Bo Diddley was, of course, The Menzingers—quickly becoming my most seen band, as well as my default favorite. They were great, as always, and as per usual: I found myself in the hugging arms of new friends, screaming along to every word.
Next was to the High Dive—the venue, based on their killer lineups, most aligned with my tastes—here, there were two must-sees, one of which pushed the scale enough for me to fly from the opposite corner of the country to Florida. First, I had Dead Bars. I can’t say enough about the Seattle homeboys, but through reviews and interviews, I have certainly tried. Dead Bars is a gravel-voiced melodic punk band with rock ‘n roll aspirations; they sing about big things in the span of simple refrains and matter-of-fact storytelling. Their live show is like living out a daydream, complete with guitar melodies and singalongs. In Gainesville, they pulled the largest crowd I’ve seen for them, and there wasn’t a non-dreamer in the house.
Crusades is another band that has become a passion project of sorts for me. They’re intellectual and melancholy, oblique and heavy—all the while being both visceral and highly musical. Their songs are marked with crusty chord riffs dueling with ghostly vocal melodies. This Fest marked their end as a band, their last two shows, ever. The first show was all rock, no talk—an explosive display of all that they’ve built together. Live, Crusades’ heavy roots appear in full affect. The second night was a more heartfelt affair, with tearful goodbyes and a touching speech from frontman Dave Williams on what Crusades represents at its core. When the last chords were played, the band members embraced each other center stage, as the crowd cheered one final time. There were a lot of great sets at Fest this year, but Crusades’ farewell was the most emotional.
The second day ended with Crusades, but it started just as strong with a ridiculously packed High Dive set from Spanish Love Songs. Judging from the fan response, I am not the only one who loved Schmaltz. These guys are poised to be huge, and they kicked off a run of bands that deserve mention for exceptional sets. France’s Guerilla Poubelle are volcanic onstage—their venom communicated clear as day despite the language barrier. They engaged in charming and eloquent banter in between playing songs from their latest album (and Red Scare debut) La Nausee, ending with a duet featuring Arms Aloft. Worlds Scariest Police Chases also wowed me, having fallen in love with their last full-length, they were a band I had been dying to see for years. As expected, they were as funny, ridiculous, and hardcore as their albums suggest.
MakeWar played one of the most memorable sets of the weekend, releasing a fleet of inflatable killer whales into the pit. Soon, these PBR soaked monstrosities were bouncing off the ceilings, knocking out fixtures in their wake. It was, simply put, incredible. The songs were great as well, but anyone who’s listened to Developing a Theory of Integrity can tell you that.
I caught Wolf-Face (who one Fest-goer said, in an overheard conversation, were a must-see), whose gimmick was fun and weird (a Teen Wolf… band?), with good music to boot. They had us perplexed, laughing, and rocking out in equal measure. We popped over to Bo Diddley and saw part of the Lawrence Arms set, with a gravellier (or less than sober) performance from Brendan Kelly.
Being thwarted by an at-capacity Mom Jeans show (another band who is, apparently, huge), I leaned on my old reliable, the High Dive, and decided that if I didn’t know any of the bands playing right then, odds are that at least one was pretty good. The punk gods were smiling on me, and I managed to walk in right before Spells began to play. My memory jogged itself and I recalled this was one of Anxious and Angry’s latest signings.
I was about to find out why.
Spells were the hardest slap in the face I received all weekend. This was a band almost entirely off my radar, and here they were blowing my mind. They were uniformed in polos, one member on tambourine duties, all the while their frenzied lead singer spent the set’s entirety in the pit—grabbing, rubbing, antagonizing, and just generally messing with (me included) audience members. It was a sight to see. Hardcore, punk, pop punk, or some amalgam of—they played and screamed and fucked around with a sense of urgency only matched by their sense of fun.
Bong Mountain, Pkew Pkew Pkew, and Red City Radio formed the heavy-hitters lineup for the next day. The latter, in particular, sounding better than I’ve ever heard them before, with studio-quality vocal harmonies delivered live to a mid-day audience of true believers. It was a cathartic set, made all the more poignant for being the Fest’s final day. This was the end of a perfect weekend for a lot of people, and it was the final chance to go all out.
We took a break from bands to check out Fest Wrestling—an artform I had little to no acquaintance with, but was entirely intrigued by—and I am pleased to say it didn’t disappoint. I’d never watched wrestling in my life, but I was in awe of its unbridled insanity. Fest Wrestling is pure camp spectacle delivered via a stable of super-talented performers. It didn’t take long, even for a novice like myself, to get swept up by its energy. As some punk rock bonuses, we got cameos from Masked Intruder (who would play a fantastic set later in the evening) and the one and only Officer Bradford. For me, Fest Wrestling was a definite highlight of the weekend.
As Fest came to a close, I made it my mission to jump as many venues as I could, to do one last mad-dash to see as many bands as possible, keeping in mind that only one could serve as a proper ending to my first Fest. I jumped from The Get-Up Kids to Question the Mark; from Typesetter to Swiss Army; finally landing on the most Gainesville of Gainesville bands: Radon. For me, there was no more appropriate way to end my time at Fest. It was a sentiment shared by many of my fellow fest-goers, as I walked away from the Palomino, after finally hearing “Radon” live, complete with crowd-surfing and shouted “ba-da-da-das,” I overheard another punk explain Radon succinctly—“They’re Florida’s Jawbreaker… If Jawbreaker were from the south, they’d be Radon.”
The Fest is a monster of a festival. It removes the lines and borders we draw within the boundaries of punk rock and replace them with a singularity—Fest. It’s DIY, scrappy, and heartfelt and it includes a diverse group of both bands and audience members. The community becomes a spectacle in itself—punks make room for extras in each other’s Lyfts; veterans helps first-timers find venues; we all talk and hug and sing along, together. Despite this unity, the pleasure of Fest is that it is such a personal experience. My Fest highlights included The Menzingers, MakeWar, and Spells—yours very well could’ve been Mom Jeans, Lagwagon, and Hospital Job. At Fest, there’s room for a wide breadth of experience, but still, in the end, it’s all Fest.
So, If you haven’t made up your mind yet: go.
And if you’re already a true believer: see ‘ya next year.