If you’ve heard of Gainesville, Florida it’s likely due to the Florida Gators. And there’s a good reason for that. The Gators aren’t merely a college football team, they’re a perennial contender that plays in the college conference with the most rabidly devoted fans in the heart of Florida’s most traditionally Southern (Read: college-football-lovin’) region.
It would be hard for anything in Gainesville to draw attention from the Gators, but there are nearly 10,000 die-hard fans of a different type who make the trek to this small city of 127,000 every year, and they don’t give two bits about who won the game on Saturday. These fans have been invading this sleepy, swampy town for the last decade and a half to take in a swarm of punk, indie, and alt-country bands while drinking their weight in Pabst Blue Ribbon during a three-day-long carnival of sound known simply as, The Fest. The Fest is celebrating its 15th year of soaking Gainesville in drinks and D-beat this weekend, with thousands of enthusiastic punks expected to take part in the carnival that’s part celebration of all things underground and part family reunion.
But even Fest, an event so massive that it has spawned companion music festivals in other Floridian cities, can’t escape the influence of the Gators. A tiny little quirk in the schedule of the football team — and The Fest’s smart decision to exploit it — led to a seismic shift in the size and influence of the event. After its first few years, the festival now occupies the one weekend when football diehards travel up the coast, so there’s plenty of room for punks to pour in. The music fans and football fans seemingly swap places, giving the town over to the influence of punk.
In the void created by the Gators absence, bands from all of Florida — and a massive amount of outsiders and foreign acts — have created this anti-Festival; the bands and organizers point to Fest as more of a party than a payday, a celebration of all the things that punk bands typically catch flak for. If it held seminars, the first one might be called “You Live In A Van, And That’s OK.”
“The Fest has given a home (and a giant house party) to the punk scene,” said Jennifer Vito, who has played all 15 Fests across several bands. “It has created a place where we can come from all over the world to meet up and have this shared experience.”
This year is Fest 15, and while the current iteration might be big enough to bring in reunions from legendary punk bands like Latterman and Gunmoll, it wasn’t always that way. The story of Fest and its thousands of punk rock revelers runs through locally beloved acts like The Careeners, Dikembe on up to Hall of Famers like Descendents and Naked Raygun. And even for bands it who haven’t made a name for themselves yet, the event also provides a showcase for up-and-comers and a meeting place for road friends. Along the way, it’s remained a primo example of how to create and grow an event without losing your grip on the ethos that formed it in the first place. And to understand how, you have to go way back — six years before the first Fest was even conceived in 2002 and talk to one man: Fest organizer and punk-lifer Tony Weinbender.