Throwback Thursday: The Greatest Music Festival You’ve Never Heard Of

Gainesville, Florida, USA – October, 2009

Something in the Gainesville water produces great musicians. The city of only 120,000 has produced alternative legends Against Me, Hot Water Music, and Less Than Jake, plus outstanding punk label No Idea Records, and more amazing local bands than I can count.

Gainesville also hosts the University of Florida and its 50,000 students. The locals are obsessed with the university’s football and basketball teams. While there is no 80’s movie rivalry between the punks and the students, the college scene controls the town during the academic year. Except Halloween weekend.

Every Halloween weekend, the University of Florida and University of Georgia football teams square off in Jacksonville, ridding Gainesville of its young population. No Idea uses this weekend to hold The Fest, a three-day music festival with more than ten venues and hundreds of bands. Think South by Southwest, but with neckbeards instead of new iPhones. As if I needed more convincing to get out of Georgia for the weekend.

19359_101878706512913_1946511_nI arrived in Gainesville early Saturday afternoon, picked up my festival bracelet, and made my way downtown. My first stop was Market Street Pub. The Flatliners were playing soon, a ska-punk band from Canada who I had heard a lot of great things about. The venue was odd. It was a bar after all. The area in front of the stage was roughly 15 feet wide. There was no room for dancing or a circle pit.

The Flatliners played a short, fast, and intense set. Most of the songs were from The Great Awake, a much gruffer sounding album than their previous music. They ended up being my favorite set of the entire weekend. It was Halloween, so they had dressed up like a missionary, priest, and monk. They quickly became one of my favorite bands.

The afternoon was spent jumping in and out of other small venues, seeing a combination of bands, some unknown, others only obscure. I eventually settled into The Atlantic. It was the biggest venue for the weekend and one of the few that was actually designed for live music. The biggest highlight was seeing Rehasher, a bouncy pop-punk side project of Less Than Jake’s bassist.

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Rehasher

I stayed at The Atlantic until the evening, then headed to the University of Florida’s ballroom on the way back to the hotel. The Swellers were the final band that night and I was instantly hooked. They play impossibly catchy pop-punk, with heartfelt lyrics and just enough edge to keep teen Nickelodeon away. Their 2009 album Ups and Downsizing is undoubtedly the best Weezer offering since the blue album.

The Swellers later wrote an excellent article for Vice, titled The Life and Death of a Mid-Level Band. Read it here.

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The Swellers

On my way out of the ballroom, I heard rumor of a house show that Bomb the Music Industry would play. I had in fact seen them at a house show in Georgia two months prior. Sort of. They quit halfway through their set because a couple was throwing candles at each other and one shattered on the fireplace and cut the drummer. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

I jumped in my car with three Tennesseans and went looking for 2nd and 4th. Unfortunately we didn’t know if it was 2nd Street or 2nd Avenue. And if it was north or south. Or east. Or west. We were missing the same information on 4th. After about 30 minutes of combing quiet residential neighborhoods, we saw cars lined up down one block and drunks spilling into the street. We had found it.

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Hundreds of people stood on the front lawn and music roared from inside the house. We pushed our way inside in time to catch excellent sets by Homemade Hand Grenade and Douglas Shields & the X-Factors, both touring bands who were more than happy to pack themselves into a living room and play without a stage or barrier.

The combination of a large crowd and a small room led to several things. The first was many people being pushed into the hall and kitchen to watch. Next was the band standing nearly on top of each other and constantly having to reset their cymbals or microphone after someone inevitably stumbled into them. Lastly was that several drunk, shirtless people could not take the heat of the room and instead stumbled into the street, leaving the front door open behind them and trying to sing along.

The next logical step was for the police to show up.  Neighbors had called in due to loud music being played at 2:00 AM in a residential neighborhood and drunks stumbling into their yards. The police were quite reasonable. They wanted us to go inside, not drink in the middle of the street, and turn down the music.

Then Buzz Killington decided to up the punx.

When an officer was trying to drive to the area, Buzz stood in front of the car, drunk and dancing. He continued to block the cruiser as it tried to pull around him. After refusing to leave, the officer tried to restrain him. He resisted and the officer skipped a couple of steps from his escalation of force training and tased Buzz into submission. The crowd then screamed  police brutality and the situation quickly got out of control.

The party was clearly over so I walked back to my car with my Tennessean friends. There was a slight problem… my license plate had expired two days prior and there was a police officer parked directly behind my vehicle. So we waited. We sat on the curb for over an hour, peoplewatching as the crowd dispersed and the officers left. Two things happened quickly after that night: I renewed my vehicle registration and The Fest organizers put all their effort into stopping future house shows.

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Six months before having their show ruined, Bomb the Music Industry’s set, they prophetically recorded (Shut) Up the Punx!!!:

‘Cause you still beg for cash cause you spent your parents’ last on a Greyhound to The Fest,
and your jacket says Crass but I don’t give an ass I’m not giving you fifty cents
so that you can buy a forty and destroy a hotel party
and the man who cleans your mess up shrugs and says,
“This non-conformity looks like conformity,
like boring nice people pose threats to your authority.
This positivity is negativity
and you boys sure left me with a mess to clean.”

The rest of the weekend went by in a blur. Despite one person ruining the house party and missing some great bands due to scheduling conflicts, every memory I have of The Fest is positive. I had the pleasure to see many of my favorite bands, including A Wilhelm Scream, Bomb the Music Industry, and Rehasher. I discovered several amazing new bands who remain favorites, like Dead to Me and The Swellers. I even got to see punk legends like 7 Seconds. Despite the crowds and sheer number of bands, each venue was relatively small and maintained both a sound quality and intimacy that you can’t find at more famous music festivals (*cough* Warped Tour and Coachella). The Fest wound up being the best weekend I had in my four years living in Georgia.

Dead to Me
Dead to Me

So why am I writing this now? Because I just bought plane tickets and The Fest passes for this Halloween! College and work forced me to skip The Fest for several years, but the magnetism of this circus (and needing to take care of my rental locker, refill my prescription, and see my family on Thanksgiving) is pulling me back to Florida.

Come back in early November for a recap of Fest 14! Until then, may all your dreams come true.

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