The raucous sounds of punk rock. An atmosphere of youthful hubris.
For the past eight years, the FEST has filled a mile-long strip of downtown Gainesville, Florida with both.
“It feels like Gainesville has been taken over by this punk community for three days,” says Nate Gangelhoff, bass player for Banner Pilot.
Gangelhoff and the additional three members of his band have been playing The FEST for the past five years. He says that while the FEST has grown to attract thousands of people from all over the world it still feels familiar.
“They’ve done a really good job of getting bigger without getting stupid,” he says. “I think some other [festivals] have probably done both of those things.”
The annual punk-rock gala has received comparisons to both Warped Tour and SXSW, but the FEST lacks the polish and sheen of its sister festivals.
As usual, corporate sponsorship (save for Pabst Blue Ribbon) was absent, and Top-40 bands didn’t appear on the roster.
FEST attendees, a predominantly broke and unwashed group of twenty-somethings, not only preferred it that way, some demanded it.
Lauren Measure, whose New Jersey punk band The Measure [sa] played to an anxious and sweaty audience Saturday night, thinks even PBR’s support may cross a line.
“I’m willing to overlook a bigger company like that for the fact that it’s appropriate for the crowd,” she says.
Measure is referring to FEST patrons’ genuine preference for cheap beer. While two-dollar brews and anti-corporate sentiments permeated the experience, this year’s FEST was best understood through its focus on camaraderie.
“The FEST is about community and about family,” says Paint It Black’s Dan Yemin.
During a stage-dive filled set at a venue (cleverly named The Venue) the six-foot-something hardcore singer addressed an attentive audience.
Yemin, who is also a psychologist, threatened to hurt anyone who started a fight or didn’t help an injured fellow stage-diver. He later pointed out the irony and laughed. However, his words were received with applause and, like all shows this year, the concert ended safely.
Injuries and confrontations associated with he FEST are rare; just ask Shawn Durden, affectionately known to FEST goers as “The Hot-Dog Guy.”
“A lot of people stereotype the punk-rock crowd,” Durden says. “These people don’t fight. They don’t want confrontation. I’ve watched two dudes yell and bitch at each other and then share a beer together.”
Durden has watched the FEST grow from its infancy in 2002, the same year he purchased a license to sell hot dogs in the heart of FEST territory. Over the years, Durden has sold FEST fans hundreds of hot dogs topped with anything from shoe-string potatoes, canned Easy Cheese, or even a mysterious condiment called Tiger Sauce.
In that time, he’s also forged relationships with many Gainesville police. If the cops bust a FEST attendee, it’s typically for violating the town’s open-container law, and Durden says problems simply don’t arise.
“They’re so humble, they apologize to the police officer,” he says. “They take their $100 ticket and they put it in their back pocket. They shake the cop’s hand and they walk off.”
Durden says he and other local businesses are glad to have the FEST in their town, not only because of the boon to the economy, but because FEST patrons are easy to deal with.
“Business owners will even have port-a-potties out here,” he says. “They used to frown upon that, but now they let the kids use their bathrooms because they might come in and buy a drink.”
Besides all of the fans who traveled great distances, many of the bands came to Florida from overseas.
Worthwhile Way made its way from Japan to play a characteristically American style of folk punk, and Calvinball, an emo-quartet from the UK, showed up for its second year in a row.
However, most stages were filled with good-old American bands playing everything from floor-punch hardcore to synth-pop.
Hard-yet-pop-sensible rockers like Chicago’s The Bomb routinely followed acoustic sets like Paul Baribeau’s. The Soviettes, a pop-punk band from Minneapolis, even came out of semi-retirement just to catch up with the community.
“They’re like family,” says Susy Sharp, bassist for The Soviettes. “Playing music with someone that’s your best friend is pretty amazing,”
For a lot people, the FEST is not only a chance to reconnect with distant friends, it offers a way to stay current with punk rock.
“You find out about the bands that people are really excited about,” Yemin said outside of The Venue. “You’re like ‘Yo, why’s there a huge line outside that little place? Oh, because Iron Chic is playing.'”
As we talked after his show, Yemin and I walked across the street to get some food.
On the way, he stopped and made time for anyone who recognized him or had a kind word. Though his band was arguably one of the most popular to play this year, Yemin reacted to his fans more like an older brother than a celebrity.
He would listen if a stranger asked if he remembered them from a recent show. If he didn’t, he would thank them for remembering him. Luckily, Yemin’s affable personality is not an exclusive trait.
At the FEST, you feel welcome and safe because you are surrounded by a group of music-loving nerds who want nothing more than to share a good time.
That’s the FEST. It fosters familiarity among strangers through music.