Most photos by Denise Orton, some photos by Gabe Rock. The Fest website can be viewed here.
I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked into the Sioux Falls airport on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 27. I had, moments before, decided to drop jerk-off College Algebra, and was now bound for Gainesville, Florida, my home until recently when I decided to move back to South Dakota, become a responsible adult, and finally return to school.
After three months of that crap, I was more than ready to get away. After all, it was nearing the one weekend of the year when Gainesville is, more than usual, full of debauchery and unadulterated punk rock splendor. It was Fest time. Quite simply, it is the most wonderful time of the year.
Due to flight delays and such, a slightly less enthusiastic me arrived at Gainesville Regional Airport twenty-six hours later. Stepping out of the plane, however, and taking my first breath of balmy Florida air, I felt revitalized and ready for anything. My former roommates Jessie Bruné and Laura Davis picked me up and a short time later we found ourselves at The Top, a local haunt frequented by Gainesville’s punk rock community.
Being the eve of the Fest, the air crackled with unmistakable electricity. Out-of-towners had already started arriving, and everyone’s eyes sparkled with a little something aside from sheer drunkenness. It was an evening of hugs and hellos, laced with a distinct undertone of restraint, for the next few days were to be a test for all involved. Vocal chords were about to be strained, mystery bruises about to appear, immune systems ravaged, livers all but destroyed.
Last year’s two days would pale in comparison to what lay ahead. This year would encompass three full days, with the final day falling on the greatest of all holidays: Halloween. So here’s how it all went down for me.
Having heard that getting to Wayward Council early on Friday morning to pick up our bracelets (which served as our passes), would increase chances of receiving Pabst merchandise, we hurried over as soon as we awoke. Being noonish, which is very early Gainesville time, we happily collected our hats and coolies.
The day wore on and the circle of lawn chairs where Laura, Jessie, Aaron Kahn, and I spent the bulk of our afternoon drinking mimosas and Sparks grew larger as friends from out of town trickled into the front yard.
This is probably a good time to explain Sparks, since it will be mentioned a lot throughout this piece. It is a caffeinated alcoholic beverage that tastes like orange Sweet Tarts and comes in a tall, orange can that resembles a battery. There has been something of a Sparks revolution that has taken place in Gainesville over the past six months or so. Aside from being a nice pick-me-up during your evening, it is a great hangover cure. Apparently, it is available almost everywhere except for the Midwest. Figures.
As members of Tiltwheel, Altaira, Tim Version, Dukes of Hillsboro, and others filled the yard, I felt my stomach knot up, realizing that this was like a family reunion of sorts, and that, likewise, we would be lucky if we all made it out alive again. As seven o’clock neared and the Fest was starting across downtown, the crowd dispersed a bit.
Laura and I decided to bike to The Atlantic first to see Gainesville’s J. Page. By the time we arrived, they were halfway through their twenty minute set. This is a fairly new band with a few kinks to work out. This is also a band with ridiculous amounts of potential that gets better and better every time I see them. Featuring members of As Friends Rust, The Scaries, and Army of Ponch, everyone involved knows how to rock it. With dual vocals that mix poppy punk in with guttural melodies, this will be a band to keep the corner of your eye on.
Next at The Atlantic, New Wave Blasphemy started to play. Laura and I weren’t feeling it. We went across the street to The Top to get a drink and relax for a bit. We ran into Jen Davis and Ashley Jonas, the craziest girls in the world, who told us to be sure to catch the Enablers at the Sidebar, as two of our friends were pinch-hitting for absent members. We finished our beers and walked the three blocks. Jen and Ashley were right. Todd Rockhill, formerly of Black Cougar Shock Unit and Kumite, and Troy Pearlman also of BCSU and Valdosta’s Lucky Stranger were rounding out that night’s incarnation of The Enablers. It was virtually unnoticeable that, aside from front man Rob Coe, the lineup of this band rotates quite a bit. It was energetic down-home rock that seemed heavily influenced by Bruce Springsteen at his very best.
A couple beers later, Whiskey and Company took The Sidebar’s stage. They can best be described as country music that punk rock kids can feel good about loving. Or anyone can feel good about loving, for that matter. I don’t know anyone who can’t relate to the gut wrenching lyrics about heartache, drinkin’, and the like as Kim Helm’s understated but poignant voice carries them across the room. They tore through most of the songs on their No Idea release, with plenty of vocal help from the dancing audience.
The Tim Version was up next at The Sidebar. Like so many other times over the course of the weekend, I found myself packed like a sardine near the stage, when only a few feet behind, people stood with space to spare. They rocked as always: catchy-catchy without a hint of redundancy or poppy-pop bullshit. Good, solid music, and a drunky-drunk performance.
I am pretty sure I did a whiskey shot right about here, and retired to the Sidebar’s patio area for more beers and conversation. We were starting to lag and the night was still young, so Laura and I headed to the Atlantic for a Sparks. We walked in just as a band that we did not know and had never heard of was setting up.
This turned out to be Greensboro’s Kudzu Wish. Damn. Those boys were awesome. Out of all of the bands that I had never seen before that weekend, I would tie them for the best of the Fest. The music was infectious. It was rock that made you dance whether you wanted to or not. Notable drumming, lots of energy, and well-constructed harmonies to boot. I hope that I get to see those guys again someday.
Back to the Sidebar I went, and walked in toward the end of Toys That Kill. This is a band that I have seen a hundred times over several years and always really enjoyed, but never gave much notice to. What I saw of their set was awesome, and the audience was really into it, but I spent the next little while outside with Tampa fuckers and such, prepping (through drinks) for the awesomeness that would be The Grabass Charlestons.
So Grabass took the stage a little after midnight, which made it now my twenty-second birthday. What better way to kick off a new year of existence than with my very favorite Gainesville band? They tore it up with their characteristic tightness and exuberance. When some bands play drunk, they tend to switch on to autopilot. Not Grabass, though. They kicked out the rock with the vigor and stage antics of twenty sober and musically inclined acrobats, rather than a mere three drunken men. It was a great set altogether, and I was thrilled when midway through their set, they played my favorite song, “Sports.”
After Grabass finished, I walked over to The Atlantic to see Army of Ponch, my final band of the evening. They had already begun by the time I arrived. I was pretty drunk, and remember little of their set, except for having a great time and smiling a lot at the fact that they had re-formed for the Fest.
Jess, Laura, and I decided to take it easy that evening and not go to any after- parties. After the short bike ride back to the house, we resumed our positions in the lawn chair circle. Our night off turned into anything but, as people began showing up group by group. Californians, Floridians, and a colorful sprinkling of Canadians filled the yard. By the time Gainesville Lodge, the motel down the street, was cleared of the Festing by The GPD, the mood in the yard was “the more the merrier.” Pizza was ordered, beer flowed freely, and next thing I knew, it was six a.m. and time for bed.
Saturday morning, I awoke at ten and the millions of people scattered throughout the house were still deep in their drunken slumber. When I went into the bathroom to put in my contacts, I found to my horror that the right one had somehow been torn the night before and I would have to wear my glasses for the rest of the weekend. It felt like an ironic punishment. I had left the cold, gray north for hot, sunny Florida and would not even be able to wear sunglasses. Clearly, this was the greatest tragedy ever on planet Earth, so I decided to spend the next two hours of my birthday back in bed and drinking tons of water while watching Maid to Order, starring Ally Sheedy. I learned a few important lessons about not being a dick to people, especially if that crafty Beverly D’Angelo is around.
Hours later, when everyone else eventually stirred and arose, a small and very hung-over army embarked by foot and bike on the nine-block journey from the house to Common Grounds where The Roots Rock show and barbecue had already started. Common Grounds’ new location was complete with a large patio area and parking lot, so it seemed the natural place to host the afternoon acoustic show. Nigel Hamm, Will Thomas, Mike Salle, and a couple other guys were in charge of the food, and it was delicious. Burgers and ribs with a variety of side dishes does wonders to make the weird stomach action – which often accompanies a hangover – subside. Davey Tiltwheel, Jessie, Laura, Canadian Jenny, and I ate our lunch in the parking lot on the hood of someone’s car before entering the show.
Thick as Thieves started to play after we arrived. Their soulful, hip-swaying brand of countrified acoustic rock served as a great distraction from the fact that it took over half an hour to order a drink. Next year, maybe two bartenders? We’ll see. Anyhow, I was a bit distraught over the fact that they did not have mimosas, as advertised. Also, it was really hot out and pretty crowded, so I rode my bike back to the house, stopping momentarily at a gas station to pick up a bottle of cheap champagne and orange juice.
At that moment, I was feeling very glad that I had moved away with only the things that could fit in my car. That’s because after locking my bike up and going into the house, I spent the rest of the afternoon napping and getting a champagne buzz on in my favorite blue chair. I wasn’t alone, either. Jeff and Phil Dukes, along with a few other Tampa gentlemen, spread out on the futon and joined in the napping, as the longest film ever, entitled Kate & Leopold, played on the television.
It was not until eight that night that I finally re-entered a venue with any intention of watching the band onstage. The first band of the evening was California’s Altaira. It could be the vocals that are just a bit too rough to be described as pop punk, and just a bit too melodic to deem unpolished. Or it could be guitars that scoop you up and carry you right along with every song until suddenly it’s all done. Whatever it is, it’s clear that this band is having as great a time playing as they are to watch. Davey Tiltwheel joined them onstage for their last song, which caused the crowd – which was already torrent with Fest fury – to erupt a bit more.
Laura and I left Sidebar then bound for The Atlantic to watch Dove. I had never seen Dove before, but I figured that even if they sucked, the Atlantic sells Sparks and I could definitely go for one of those tangy orange motherfuckers right about then. As they started, don’t ask me why, but I was ready to be unimpressed. Within the span of two songs, I was sucked in. Dove gets my other vote for best of the Fest. They were simply engaging. Structurally, their songs appeared airtight. Fast, hard, melodious, gut-grabbing music. It was one of those times where I found myself closing my eyes and hoping that their set would never end, as my head bobbed and my legs moved according to their own will.
When Dove’s set did inevitably end, Laura and I left The Atlantic for Common Grounds. Outside the venue, however, fate threw a monkey wrench into my evening. We ran into couple of friends and a conversation ensued which ended in my eating a few mushrooms.
On the walk to the other show, I began to worry a bit and hit Laura with a barrage of questions such as, “So I’ve been drinking a lot and will probably drink more and I just swallowed some mushrooms. Is that bad? Do you think it will make my trip better or worse?” She assured me that I would be fine. After all, the damage had been done and we could only wait thirty minutes or so to see the outcome.
Upon arriving at Common Grounds, we were startled to see a very long line that wound from the front door and around the building. Apparently, the venue was at capacity and would only be admitting people as others left. Laura and I were bummed, since the next five bands slotted to play were all ones that we had looked forward to seeing. Then suddenly, a miracle occurred. One of the guys working the door came out and said that anyone with a pink bracelet would be admitted. The bracelets were split into two colors – pink for anyone in a band or on a guest list, and green for everyone else. Laura and I looked at the fluorescent pink bands encircling our wrist, then at each other, and with out a word we jumped out of line and up to the door. As we arrived, one of the club owners was already refuting this comment by noting the number of pink bracelets about town at the time and the fact that the venue was already pretty packed. One of the other owners, who was standing there looked at us, said that since we were already up there, we could be admitted. Without a word (and if you’re reading this, THANKS), we ran inside and reveled in our good fortune. Fifth Hour Hero was onstage nearing the end of their set. It’s always a pleasure to see a performance by this Quebecois foursome, and this time was no different.
When they were finished, I stepped out onto the patio for some air before Lucero’s set. That is when I ran into Chuck Ragan and his wife Jill. Remembering that Chuck and I have the same birthday, it seemed like a fantastic time for a whiskey shot to happen. I stepped up to the bar and ordered the shots (thanks Nigel), and after a birthday cheers and a hug, it was time to go back inside. I found Jessie, who had mysteriously gotten in long after us, and Laura and settled in next to them against the wall to watch Lucero. Just as Lucero began, it felt like the whiskey shot took hold, but after a moment I realized that it was more than just whiskey that was overtaking my senses.
It was my first time seeing Lucero live. By this point in the evening, most bands that played were visibly intoxicated and Lucero was no exception. Though the music was still beautiful and the performance was above average, it seemed as though they were a band that had switched onto autopilot.
I had to step outside after that one, and regrettably missed True North. I did make it back inside, however, to catch a good portion of Blood Brothers. They are a band that I almost don’t want to like, but it is made very difficult. The spastic dueling vocalists just have it, whatever it is – charisma, stage presence, whatever. Despite my best efforts, I always find myself dancing and clapping along with their infectious songs. Especially on that night.
Against Me! came on next. I have never seen a bad performance by this band, and living in Gainesville for two years, I was able to see them many times. They are one of those bands that I am perpetually in awe of and hold the utmost respect for. They are not afraid to wear their beliefs on their sleeves, but they also manage to get their points across without alienating anyone. Political statements are always swallowed more easily by the masses through music, and Against Me! has certainly mastered this technique. It doesn’t hurt either that they can fucking rock like no one’s business and do so on a consistent basis. The crowd was amped up by the Blood Brothers, but as Against Me! took the stage, it reached a new level of madness. They played a good blend of older songs and newer. Every single person in the room appeared to know every word to every song, and demonstrated this at the top of their lungs. There is something oddly comforting, no matter where you are in your level of sobriety, about a room of people singing together.
Tiltwheel was slotted to play over at the Sidebar immediately following the completion of Against Me!’s set. As I walked into the Sidebar, I could hear Davey onstage asking where I was. Being my birthday, he had promised to play me the songs that I wanted to hear, and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world. I wove my way to the front and soon they began. Looking back, most of the set is a blur of dancing, sweating, screaming, and singing with fists in the air. At the end of the set, Paul Tiltwheel looked over at me and asked what I wanted to hear. I screamed that I wanted to hear a song called “Lullaby,” which I had been trying to get Davey to play for me for about four years now. Paul yelled back that it was going to be shitty, to which I replied that I didn’t care. They busted it out, and though they later told me all of the ways that they had fucked it up, I thought it was perfect. Nothing could have made my birthday any better, and after that, it could not be ruined.
As it was two o’clock, a number of us made our way on foot to the Whiskey & Company house. By the time we arrived, the party was in full swing and the keg was almost empty. Like most parties at that residence, people clustered drinking on the large front porch and in the various communal areas. Bedroom doors were shut, as usual, to allow privacy to those who chose to partake in other party-affiliated activities.
Jessie and I stayed at the party until the beer ran out, and then walked the seven blocks back to the house, where we found an even better party waiting for us. It was comprised of a few Gainesville friends and our many houseguests. Pizza was ordered again, and as though from some divine source, pina coladas appeared in the hands of many. The night seemed to slip away from us, just as the previous one had, and before I knew it, light was starting to appear on the horizon. I announced that it was my cue to retire, and received a barrage of verbal harassment from the other three people still awake. Apparently, you’re not tough unless you stay up through the sunrise into the full light of day. So, apparently, I’m weak. I guess there are worse things to be.
Sunday morning, I forced myself to sleep until after noon when I heard movement in the house. It was a very exciting day, indeed. Halloween is, in my opinion, the greatest of holidays. I immediately put on my Halloween costume, which was simply my old karate uniform, and ran out into the living room to see what was going on. Bodies were everywhere, some with their eyes open, some moaning, some with their eyes closed and mouths hanging open. It looked as though I had stumbled upon the aftermath of a battle. I smiled, though, because a scene like this in a sunny living room at one p.m. is a sure sign that a good time was had by all the night before.
Once everyone was awake, the day took on temporarily sad tone. Everyone from Tampa – Dukes of Hillsborough and Tim Version – and everyone from California – Tiltwheel and Altaira – were leaving to play in Tampa that evening and would miss the final day of the Fest.
Amongst their efforts to collect their things and get ready to go, Laura, Jen, Ashley, and I were getting ready for Halloween. Laura had dyed a white Armani Exchange jumpsuit that she had found on eBay bright orange, sported a fake ponytail, carried around a stuffed dolphin, and wore aqua socks to become Debbie from SeaLab 2021. Jen and Ashley got a bit more elaborate by creating five-foot Sparks cans precisely to scale out of four-ply matte board and lots of paint, and wore them over leotards. During this time, I was discovering why the tube of fake blood says not to get it in your eyes or mouth. Guess what? It makes your mouth go numb for a time. I didn’t try it in my eyes. I was already pissed enough about having to be a karate fighter with glasses; I didn’t need to go blind also. Getting it in your ear is fine, though. No loss of sensation there.
By this point in the weekend, everyone was in zombie mode, and goodbyes were exchanged with little emotion. The vans rolled away, and we piled into Laura’s tiny car, which seemed even smaller with five people and two gigantic Sparks cans. Off to Common Grounds for the final day of the Fest.
Upon arrival, I was very disappointed in the fact that practically no one else wore costumes. What the hell was that? Even at home, anywhere I’ve lived, people wear costumes to shows on Halloween. I felt let down by humanity, and nauseated by the hot midday sun.
After entering the venue, I spent most of the day sitting in the shade drinking double Red Bull and vodkas. They were out of Sparks, which upset many, but none more than Jen and Ashley, who were dressed as such and felt that drinking anything else would be wrong. They obtained permission from the club’s management to bring in outside Sparks and all was well for now. Later in the evening, however, their personal supply ran out. Jen bought the display can, and drank it on the rocks with vodka.
I arrived at the show around three thirty, and was not able to harness enough rock’n’roll fortitude to enter the building until six thirty when Gunmoll started. Gunmoll is a Gainesville band that broke up a year or so ago, much to my disappointment, and from what I have heard, the disappointment of many others. They played that day as though they had never been apart. Those of us up front sang along with Mike Hale’s gritty vocals and rocked out with everything we had left.
The rest of the show was a lot of fun. Planes Mistaken for Stars played next. Their energetic, shirtless set was very captivating. Like Dove, it was a set that took me a minute to warm up to, but my upper torso was bobbing along with everyone else’s in no time. What I saw of Engine Down’s set was solid as a rock and thoroughly enjoyable.
Last up was Gainesville’s own Hot Water Music, four of the handful dressed up in costumes. They had a clergy theme going on. Jason Black was a cardinal, Chuck Ragan was some sort of kinky priest, Chris Wollard was a horny monk, and George Rebelo was a rabbi. The best part of their set, which was full of new songs and a few old favorites, was the religious banter that flew back and forth between the gentlemen onstage. They never broke once, with “bless you, my sons” and mention of St. Francis and such. Good stuff. During the last song of the set, Jen made a bold decision and ran to the side of the stage. Within moments, she leapt off (in the Sparks can, it was more like plopping forward) and was carried across the upreached fingertips of the crowd for nearly the rest of the song, which is quite a long time in the crowd surfing sense. It was a great end to a very long weekend.
After the show ended, I went to a house party with Jessie. Toys That Kill played to a packed living room. It was just as sweaty and just as lively as any show had been that weekend. Looking out at the crowd from where I stood on the couch, seeing Replay Dave rocking out in his caveman outfit squished between dozens of friends and visitors, I felt so happy and vindicated. This was, right here, right now, the very essence of Gainesville. Every single person in that room was at the end of a thirty-six hour bender. We had been bloodied and sleep-deprived.
At the end of the day, though, it was all about the music. The music is the lifeblood of Gainesville. It’s what brings everyone together, locally and otherwise. It bonds us, it cleanses us, and when we close our eyes and let everything else go, it becomes us. The energy that we all mustered during that last house show of the weekend came from somewhere else. If there was rock to be had, we were bound and determined to have it, no matter what. People asked me why I moved to Gainesville, and I can clearly say that is why. I don’t know if I will ever live there again, but the rock and the people who feel it in the pits of their stomachs are what will always, always bring me back.