Life

How Fest’s Underground Punk Scene Takes Over A Florida Football Town Every Year

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.

Fest’s “Humble” Beginnings:

Surprisingly, the man who single-handedly changed the shape of the Florida punk scene didn’t come from anywhere near the Sunshine State. Weinbender grew up and cut his fest-organizing teeth in Virginia where he helped found the annual independent music conference MacRock in 1996, mostly spurred by a disappointing trip to New York for the CMJ Music Marathon.

“We came back disenfranchised by the whole thing and how little the bands we actually cared about were playing CMJ,” he said. “There was no Promise Ring, no Rainer Maria, no Hot Water Music. So, we said ‘let’s do our own music festival.'”

Though MacRock continues to this day, Weinbender has long moved on to other projects, departing Virginia for Gainesville in 2000 after spending his summers as a roadie for ska-punk standouts Less Than Jake. While lugging gear and hanging around the band, Weinbender forged a friendship with the band’s drummer, Vinnie Fiorello, who needed someone to run his fledgling label, Fueled By Ramen.

Ever a purist, Weinbender’s enthusiasm for punk soon lead him to leave the label when the sound of the bands they were releasing began to shift. He picked up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet, working as a waiter and a furniture mover, and while that kind of listless existence might qualify as good enough for other 25-year-olds, he wanted to pursue more. Considering he’d already helped to launch a successful music conference and kickstarted a record label, it’s no surprise he quickly began another music-related venture.

With his ambition pushing down on the gas pedal, Weinbender went from booking the occasional show in between his mundane service industry gigs, to plotting another MacRock-scale festival in his adopted hometown. The only trouble was, there were a ton of people in town who didn’t think he could pull it off.

“That first Fest was all Tony,” said Dave Drobach, a former No Idea Records employee and current Careeners bandmember who has been involved with the Fest from its inception. “I was on record as saying that I thought it was a bad idea. I couldn’t understand why anyone would invite bands to town to play against each other.”

Drobach comes from a world of coordinating tiny shows in dingy bars and basements, expecting about 50 people on a good night, so his concerns made quite a bit of sense. Though the first Fest way back in May of 2002 was by no means small — 60 bands played five venues over a weekend that spring — there was no indication that it would one day blossom into a 400-plus band blowout and town-wide event it is today. Hell, they didn’t even plan on making Fest into a yearly affair, but after the first one, it seemed like too good a time, and too good an idea, not do it all over again the next year. And the next. And the next.

The Marriage Between Punk Rock And The Establishment

The overbearing presence of Gators football on downtown Gainesville leaves that black hole on the calendar at the end of every October. When the Gators travel up to Jacksonville, Florida for their annual game against the Georgia Bulldogs (a game unofficially known as “The World’s Largest Cocktail Party”), they bring a sizable chunk of the city with them. During that one weekend — when the long shadow of football was lifted, and the city’s main attraction was nowhere to be found — there was a clear vacuum that could be filled with anything at all. Weinbender decided to fill it with punk.

“Tony decided that the Fest should coincide with that game,” said Russ Van Cleave, who has played all 15 Fests with his bands The Tim Version and Vaginasore Jr. “It’s the one time that Gainesville isn’t full of football fans.”

“It leaves a giant vacuum and we get to come in and take over,” Drobach agrees.

“We just didn’t want a bunch of frat boys coming in and messing things up,” Weinbender said. “Back then, that was still a problem.”

While the first Fest had been held at a time that most of the students were gone, the decision to move it to the Florida-Georgia game weekend gave the Fest a set date every year and a healthy dose of contrarian ethos. After all, if the Gators are the most-beloved thing in Gainesville, what’s more punk than throwing a party when the jocks and the pigskin worshipers leave the town unprotected?

Despite the optics of a punk invasion, however, local business owners didn’t seem to mind Fest thanks in large part to the fact that it fills a commercial hole left by the departing football hordes.

“Local businesses love Fest for that reason, when they otherwise probably wouldn’t be too happy about thousands of punk kids coming into town,” said Randy Reddell, who has volunteered, played at or worked as an employee of Fest every year since Fest 7 in 2008.

With a set date, a community of fans who love to spread the word on music that they’re passionate about, and local businesses happy to hear their cash registers ringing, the Fest grew steadily.

Van Cleave noted how subtly Fest grew throughout its middle years.

“I still couldn’t walk three feet without running into someone I knew, but it became a full-on bonafide festival,” he said. “It was like ‘Naked Raygun is playing? Oh my God! The Descendents are here? You gotta be kidding me!’”

With all this growth going on right under their noses, it wasn’t long before the city of Gainesville realized that they needed to do more than passively benefit from the influx of tourists.

Around Fest 10 in 2011, the city of Gainesville caught on to the influx of money that was coming from all these kids in black.

“This is one of my favorite things to talk about,” said Drobach, who also handles waste management permits for the festival. “I come from that world putting on shows and events in my late teens and early 20s where I was always hiding from the authorities and neighbors. But then you settle down. You become a property owner and enough of your friends and peers start doing the same and opening businesses. There comes this moment where you realize ‘Wait, I don’t need to hide in the shadows anymore.’”

Drobach added that the city’s small size and the dearth of activity on that weekend put the locals on Fest’s side and led to a much smoother relationship with Gainesville than might have happened otherwise.

In fact, the city even allowed the Fest to expand from its traditional venues to the city-owned outdoor concert space at Bo Diddley Plaza.

“We had been using this crappy theater that we decided we didn’t want to be involved with anymore.” Weinbender said. “The owners switched every year. So we asked the city to let us use Bo Diddley Plaza. They’d been using it for like Free Fridays with Moody Blues cover bands. We said ‘Let us put $10,000 dollars worth of sound and lights in there.'”

The expansion into the city’s outdoor venue allowed for one of the biggest sets Fest has ever pulled off, a Descendents headlining show at Fest 13 in 2014.

“I wanted Descendents for a long time but I had to wait until we had a venue large enough,” Weinbender said. “My conscience couldn’t put them in a 1,000-capacity venue knowing every single person at Fest was going to want to see them.”

Though pulling in an act on the scale of the Milo Goes To College snark-rockers might convince other organizers to rapidly expand, bringing in bigger and bigger names in the name of larger dollar amounts, Weinbender has been unwavering in keeping the communal, small-world vibe of Fest alive. In an age of branded festivals and standardized lineups that are nearly identical across every region, there’s no other music festival quite like Fest.

“Fest Is Just Fest”

Weinbender’s fingerprints are all over The Fest’s lineup. He says that the entire bill is a reflection of his tastes, as opposed to what bands he think will sell.

“There are bands that could play Fest that are better-known or a little bigger but I’d rather book the bands I care about, the bands that I like now,” he said.

And he admitted that he’s stuck to his guns on this point, creating the sort of gigs he’d like to see at his own expense.

“Fest could be more successful,” he admitted. “We could book more paint-by-numbers bands who play every festival. But if I’m going to spend $20,000 booking a band, it’s going to be a band that I love and not just some band that Pollstar says will bring in more people. We’ll never have a Danzig or a Blink at Fest and that’s okay because we’re not a festival. Fest is just Fest.”

In spite of the keep-it-small ethos, Fest has a grander legacy. Outside of saving a few businesses from a dry spell, away from a relationship with the city, far from Descendents sets and even a few steps removed from building a respectable event from the ground up, Fest deserves praise because it showcases the Florida punk scene in a way that nothing else can or will, and part of that is owed to the fact that it has never lost sight of its DIY roots.

“Fest brings the whole world down to Florida,” said Dave Drobach. “It’s a global stage in a tiny town.”

If you bring enough punks into one place and they’re going to find a way to color outside the lines a bit. Despite Weinbender’s tight control on who he books to officially play, Fest is surrounded by unofficial house shows, parking lot jams and warehouse showcases. Asking a band how many Fests they’ve played is usually splitting hairs between how many times they’ve been invited and how many times they’ve just shown up.

Tanner Jones of Orlando emo standouts You Blew It! played his first Fest when the festival turned 10 in 2011.

“I didn’t get wrapped up in it until then. It was just kind of this renegade show in a parking lot,” he said.

Weinbender clearly isn’t threatened by the overflow, though. This is a festival run by punks, for punks. So, when they find a group doing something that works outside the margins of the official Fest, they just expand the margins.

“Tony heard about our show and put us on the Fest the next year,” Jones said.

Even Pre-Fest — a four-years-running warm up show in Tampa — started as an unofficial offering before Weinbender and his crew saw merit in it.

“That started out because people don’t typically fly into Gainesville and it’s not a major hub for transportation,” said Van Cleave of The Tim Version. “Lots of times these bands would come into Tampa, and we’d host these unofficial pre-fest shows at the skate park, with like 15 bands on the bill.”

Like everything Fest puts its stamp on, those pre-Fest shows have grown from scraped together mini-festivals to a full-on bash across four venues.

Despite that openness to shows that are tacked-on to the main event, Weinbender’s opinion of house shows isn’t as warm as it once was thanks to a bad experience with an overcrowded Bomb The Music Industry! house show that became violent a few years ago. He still thinks there’s a space for the shows, he just wants to make sure that they’re done right.

“I think if you’re going to throw a house show, do it for the right reasons,” he said. “Do it for the bands who didn’t get on the bill at Fest. Don’t invite this extremely popular band, where too many people are going to show up and make it unsafe all because you want to be the cool f*cking kid who can say ‘they played in my living room.'”

For Weinbender, who has been organizing shows since his teens, being slack in the way you put a show together is a cardinal sin.

“Pay the 30 dollars to get a noise permit. Talk to your neighbors,” he said. “Do it to help and not just to look cool.”

“Like Going On Tour In One Night”

When asked to talk about why they love the fifteen-year-old Florida event, every single person involved with Fest stressed the same thing: It has an ability to bring in more fans of your band than you would ever see out on the road.

“I like to think of it as a kind of Punk Rock Summer Camp,” said Jones of You Blew It!. “Or even a sort of family reunion with all the people you’ve met on the road.”

“You ride around cutting your teeth on these basement shows,” he said. “These terrible living room shows, and smelly basements and then you get to come to a city that’s really praising that. Everywhere else, you’re not only under-appreciated but stereotyped as dirty, bad people. And then all that, all those troubles you go through are being celebrated during Fest.”

“You get to play for people from all over the world who wouldn’t get to see you otherwise,” said Reddell, who also plays in the Gainesville band Dikembe. “The Fest is what everybody in the punk community looks forward to.”

The grouping of local acts and legendary headliners leads to some surreal moments for the lesser-known performers. Drobach of The Careeners recalled seeing one of his heroes rocking out to his band at Fest 7 in 2008.

“I look down in front and there’s Dickie Hammond [late guitarist from UK punks Leatherface],” he said. “I’m like ‘Is there something cool going on behind me right now?!’”

Jones, who comes out of the nearby Orlando music scene, admits that the pull of Fest and the spotlight it provides is vitally important for his own hometown.

“Florida is a trap to touring bands,” he said. “It’s a hindrance. Bands don’t come through because, once you’re in Florida, you’re in it. Fest is a stepping stone not only to the national scene but to fans around the world as well.”

Weinbender also marveled at the unique showcase that Fest has become, the way that it allows punk-rock heavyweights, foreign fans, promoters and even some record label folks to see bands that simply don’t have the ability to tour too far afield the swamp.

“An old friend of mine called it ‘playing the world stage’ and it really is,” he said. “You meet someone in the crowd who is like ‘I’m from Germany and I book shows’ or ‘I’m in this band’ and you make that connection. We don’t make Fest about that. There’s not a bunch of industry schmoes walking around, but there are people like Var [Thelin, owner of No Idea Records] who might say ‘Holy sh*t, you’re awesome!”

The Fest’s ability to focus the entire underground on one spot leads to reunions and shows that could never happen anywhere else. 12 Hour Turn played the first Fest and broke up shortly thereafter, but they’ve reunited twice for Fest (including an upcoming set at Fest 15) because Weinbender is such a huge fan and the Florida punk community is there for it.

“Tony was always trying to get us to play again,” Rich Diem of 12 Hour Turn said the band’s first reunion at Fest 10 in 2011. “He always wanted us to get back together. He would just blow smoke and tell us that people were excited about seeing us again.”

Diem said that 12 Hour Turn had more people in the room than they would see in an entire year on their initial run as a band.

“I had the time of my life playing with those guys again,” Diem said. “We didn’t need much convincing to play again this year.”

Given that vibe and community spirit, it’s no surprise that, for many band members, their favorite moments in their career have come during an October weekend in Gainesville.

“The very first year I went, Spanish Gamble [his former band] played an aftershow with Paint It Black on the second floor of this building,” Randy Reddell said. “The floor started to buckle from the sheer weight of all the people who came to see and it was shut down when the downstairs neighbor called it in.”

Houses nearly collapsing due to gutter punk enthusiasm is a surprisingly common refrain from Fest bands.

“Fest 5 [in 2006] was magical for me,” said Dave Drobach. “Grabass was touring a lot. We were tour-tight, we couldn’t have a bad show. So we went to a friend’s house a half a mile away from the Fest and played in their living room.

“We had to duct tape a baseball bat to a regular mic stand so that our drummer could use it as a boom mic to sing,” he recalled. “Even so, we drew in more people than the house could hold and it was shaking like it was going to fall apart. I remember thinking ‘this house is going to tumble over from the rock that I am creating.’ That’s the dream.”

On top of giving bands a chance to make memories and play for fans who could never catch them anywhere else, Fest and the congregation of the entire punk community leads to some cathartic and heartwarming experiences, even in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

Russ Van Cleave explained how Fest was a spot of brightness in one of the darkest chapters of his life.

“Vaginasore Jr. were playing this show at [Tampa punk venue] New World Brewery when this guy decided he had a new knife and he was going to use it,” Van Cleave said. “He stabbed several people including one of my bandmates [guitarist Dave Decker] and ended up killing one of our friends.”

After a tragic event of such senseless violence continuing to play music was impossible for him, but seeing music was the thing that saved him from succumbing to the current of grief swelling.

“Tony asked us if we could still play and said he had a band ready to go if we couldn’t,” Van Cleave continued. “We knew Dave was in no condition to play so we had to back out. But I went to that show and it was actually the first time I saw [punked-up Americana greats] Ninja Gun. I met [Ninja Gun vocalist Johnathan] Coody and Jeff [Haineault] — and I’m still friends with those guys.”

It’s no surprise then that bands who play Fest can’t wait to come back. It provides an opportunity to catch up with old friends and make countless new ones, all while seeing their own favorite bands whenever they aren’t on stage. Even after 15 years, Van Cleave is excited to get back to Gainesville and spend a few days with his fans, friends, and favorites.

“I think I’m fully vested in the 401K after this year,” he said, laughing. “It’s kind of one of those things, when it’s that much a part of your life, you make a serious effort to keep it going.”

And with the event only growing with each passing year, the support of the city it calls home, and the bedrock solid schedule of the Florida Gators, it looks like Van Cleave and others like him will have Fest to look forward to for years to come. Weinbender and company have taken an ephemeral genre, one that lives in fuzzy memories of house shows and garage spaces, and created a celebration that’s indelible and built to last. No matter what else happens in the great, weird state of Florida, or the chaotic punk scene nationwide, Fest is just Fest.

Fest takes place every year in Gainesville, FL over the Florida-Georgia weekend. This year’s iteration runs from October 28-30. Tickets and line-up info are available here.

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