After finally seeing Stiff Little Fingers for the first time at Fest 18 in 2019, I turned to Rachel and said, “If I don’t see another show for the rest of my life, I’d die happy.”
Well shit. I didn’t mean it as a curse.
(You’d think I’d learn to shut up when it comes to making dark jokes like that. In college I once said to my friend, “I’d push my grandmother down a flight of stairs to see Stiff Little Fingers,” after learning SLF were only playing as far south as Atlanta, which was an eight-hour drive from Gainesville. Ten years later my grandmother died right before their next Florida tour, and I couldn’t make any of their shows. Talk about karma.)
Fest 18 was my last show before the coronavirus transformed our lives. My plans fell apart to see a few shows at the start of the year (Wolf Face and Kid You Not in Jacksonville, and then New Junk City in Gainesville), and then the pandemic set in and I went to zero.
I know losing Fest was just a drop in a sea of shit for 2020, but dammit, it still sucks. I’ve been going to Fest since Fest II, and at this point it’s so much more than a music festival to me. Fest is like a family reunion, and I miss my family.
Getting to spend Fest weekend this year watching The Fest That Never Was livestream and shitposting with friends online brought back some of those old Fest feelings and made me hopeful for Fest in 2021.
During the livestream, some of the bands shared their favorite Fest memories, and I’d like to share one of mine.
I was chasing a story about Fest house parties for The Gainesville Sun, our local daily newspaper, when I came uncomfortably close to having my night take a tragic turn, nearly becoming the subject of a far different story.
First Day of Fest 6
I was making ramen at home and getting ready for Fest 6 when I got an unexpected phone call from my coworker Bill, who was an editor for the arts and music feature sections at The Gainesville Sun.
“Hey, Will, do you still have your Fest pass?”
“Yeah, I just picked it up,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I know you’ve taken the weekend off, but would you be willing to cover Fest for the Sunday paper?” Bill said. “It turns out we never got a press pass, and we would really appreciate it if you would cover the story.”
At first I was stunned. A few months ago I had asked to cover Fest, but my pitch was turned down after another department already made plans. I couldn’t have been happier that they screwed up.
I was finally given a chance to write about DIY music in Gainesville, so of course I agreed. After getting off the phone, I scarfed down dinner and then drove to the paper to get more details on my assignment.
Even though my regular job was copy editing, I pushed hard to moonlight as a freelance writer covering local music, which had long been a sore spot for The Gainesville Sun.
On top of Gainesville lifers feeling like The Sun had ignored local bands for decades, management had recently fired a contributor for only giving coverage to shows they were benefiting from. Ouch.
Landing a job at the paper fresh out of college, I was convinced I could help steer coverage by giving recognition to local artists who all deserve it.
(My grand scheme was to stick around Gainesville so I could keep going to shows, playing in bands, writing about music, and not having to grow up at all.)
My plans backfired when working for the paper didn’t make it easier to have my stories approved. Any reporting I did was considered overtime and money was tight, plus my 4PM to 12AM copyediting shift made it hard for me to cover live events.
When I suggested we cover Fest weekend, I finally got some traction. My hook was that I’d focus on the (now banned) house parties that would pop up around Fest and use that as my way to give insight into Fest culture and Gainesville history.
But let me back up a moment. When I lived in Gainesville, most locals didn’t even know about Fest, and I imagine not much has changed. I would have to write about Fest like you would talk to your coworkers about music: assume they have no idea what you’re talking about (and that they’ll probably give you judgey looks and think you’re weird for liking music that isn’t top 40).
So instead of talking to coworkers about music, I’m having to tell an entire city that a bunch of tattooed weirdos in black shirts will take over downtown, drink every PBR in sight, and be unusually polite to everyone in the service industry.
Every Fest weekend, thousands of college students and football fanatics empty out of Gainesville to attend the Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville, Fla. No one was paying attention to Fest drawing in thousands of people and hundreds of bands that same weekend.
(And every year, some Gainesville local thinks he’s a genius and heads downtown expecting to enjoy a quiet drink, and then he’s sorely disappointed when he finds a huge party there anyway.)
Also, Fest house shows got banned after a brawl broke out with the police. Tony Weinbender, Fest founder and head honcho, now asks bands not to play house shows during Fest so Fest can stay in the city’s good graces.
But for a moment in time, Fest parties were rad as hell, and I wanted to cover them for the paper.
The Party Where We Almost Died
When I arrived at The Sun to talk about how we were going to cover the story for the Sunday paper, I heard how one of the editors called Tony Weinbender on his cell and asked for a press pass, which didn’t go well.
I’m told Tony’s response was pretty abrupt, and he said something like, “No, you had six months to figure this out,” and then hung up.
The editors weren’t even mad about it, because they knew Tony was right.
And, honestly, good for Tony for doing that. He did what was right for himself on his most important day of the year.
On top of that, Tony understood that The Gainesville Sun had neglected DIY music in town for decades, and any coverage they could provide would probably be embarrassing trash.
(I don’t mean that as a slam on anyone’s talents at The Sun, but I can’t say I’ve read too many stories about punk or metal in newspapers that didn’t make me cringe.)
After hammering out the details, I was handed a video camera, which was also used to capture the Don’t Tase Bro incident at a John Kerry event earlier that year, and was asked to write my original pitch that included bringing in house parties into my coverage.
Thanks to Daniel James in The Chinese Telephones, I got tipped off to a party where they were playing midday Saturday. The party was running alongside official Fest schedules, allowing some bands to play Gainesville twice that weekend, but I wasn’t satisfied with just covering that one.
I talked to everyone I knew at Fest, asking if they had any leads on secret shows the first night (this is what people in the news biz call shoe-leather journalism, which comes from when journalists would wear out their shoe leather walking door-to-door asking people questions).
I heard rumors that Paint It Black were playing a house party, but I couldn’t confirm it was true until bars were nearly closing.
My friend Reena from Birmingham said the show was in south Gainesville, and that she would call with the address once she got it from her friend with their ride.
South Gainesville was mostly apartments, and I was skeptical the show would be there, but I trusted Reena’s info.
I drove back to The Sun, which was also located in south Gainesville, and started typing up my notes while waiting for Reena’s call. The newsroom was empty, but people in different parts of the building were pressing newspapers for the Saturday morning edition, so I still had access.
As time started to pass, I was nervous about missing the show and decided to act on another hunch.
At Fest 5 the year before, I ended up at a pretty tame apartment party with Reena’s friends at the Bivens Cove apartment complex, which happened to be across the street from The Gainesville Sun.
I had nothing to lose by checking, so I jumped in my car, drove down to Bivens Cove, and found a bunch of cars parked outside a party.
I followed two orgcore-looking dudes upstairs to the second floor of the building.
“Alright you two, last ones in. No one else gets in,” someone from inside the apartment yelled out.
“Wait!” I yelled as I ran up the stairs. “I’m press, can you let me in?”
“Okay, you can come in, but you’re the last one,” he said before locking the front door behind me. I felt bad that Reena didn’t make it in time, but if it wasn’t for her tip, I wouldn’t have gotten in. I owed her a big thank you.
The apartment was packed like a small club. Someone had written “Welcome to the Thunderdome” on the wall. Even a punk apartment needed a cool name.
The Shook Ones started not long after I got there, saving me from trying to make small talk with people I barely knew.
This is where my story nearly took a tragic turn. During their first song, people in the circle pit started jumping, causing the apartment floor to buckle, redistributing energy like two crashing waves in the ocean.
I’ve never seen flooring act like water, and I hope I never have to again. I’m not sure how close we came to tragedy that night, but hardcore shows don’t belong in cheaply built student apartments. We easily could have died, and everyone in The Thunderdome knew it.
Everyone near the Shook Ones agreed to sit on the floor to try to do some damage control. As the set continued, someone tried to crowd surf over folks sitting down. Others clung to the back wall, afraid the floor might still collapse. I was standing on the side wall, trying to capture video for The Sun’s website (sadly the video got lost in the ether of cyberspace and is no longer attached to the story).
While we were waiting inside for Paint It Black to start, someone was negotiating with the police outside. He was able to arrange for Paint It Black to play a few songs while the cops waited for back up.
In between sets, I used my time to get quotes from people in the crowd, including one from Avery of Gainesville, Fla., who yelled out, “If we all die during The Fest, this is Fest heaven!” Like, fuck yeah, Avery. Of course that shit had to go in the paper.
I was writing notes right until Paint It Black started playing, but I wasn’t fast enough to get my pen cap back on. As soon as those first few notes struck, the crowd went nuts, causing me to jam my pen into my hand, drawing some blood.
At times I was crammed so tight against the wall I could barely free my hands to write, but I didn’t care about that. I didn’t care about my bloody hand or the floor that could have swallowed us whole. I was having a great time watching Paint It Black absolutely tear through their set, which was one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Afterward I raced over to Dan Yemin to get a quote for the paper, asking what he thought about house shows.
“This is the most insane example of it I’ve ever seen,” he said.
I couldn’t think of any more questions for him, so I ran down the back staircase, passed the police on the balcony, passed a sizeable crowd of people listening outside, passed a squad of police cars, jumped into my car, and went back to The Gainesville Sun to type up my notes while they were fresh.
Will Kenneth lives in Jacksonville, Fla. ALL > Descendents. (Facebook | Instagram | w o l f m a n w i l l [@] g m a i l)