Live Review: Fest 12

By Jordan Reisman

Photo by CRUSTINA!.

Every late October since 2002, the swampy college town of Gainesville, Fla. has been taken over by punks from all across the globe to experience what the modern punk scene has to offer, in the form of Fest. Though they are not the safety-pinned street punkers of yesteryear, patrons of the Fest are more of the bearded, PBR type. The Fest spans what was typically three days, though now four, all along the main drag of Gainesville, University Avenue, with some exceptions.

As a blanket statement, Fest is a punk festival, but it encapsulates every niche genre within that genre such as hardcore, grind, ska-punk, melodic pop-punk, folk-punk, and “twinkle daddy” emo. It’s really all about what you’re into that determines what kind of Fest experience you have.

This being the twelfth year running (and my third go-around), I took to the streets to create my own time and truly know what it is to be part of Fest Culture.

Running on little to no sleep (it was hard to tell, I “woke up” at 4 a.m.), I arrived in Gainesville at around 2 p.m. with my Fest crew. We had spent the entire duration of the flight gabbing about what was to be expected: scheduling conflicts with bands, past memories, and who we anticipated to be the best set of the weekend. We were all plugged in to the Fest 12 app, which conveniently displayed the entire weekend’s schedule and band bios.

The first day is always a doozy. It’s really not the day that typically goes down as the “best day”, due to everyone being fatigued from their travels as well as upwards of two and a half hours on the registration line to receive the official Fest wristband.

Long Island Fest-goer, Neill Cawley, says about the first day, “This is my third Fest but I know where everything is. Even though I’m only here for three days, this year four, I know exactly where everything is. It’s so familiar but you’re only there for such a short time. It’s awesome because you get to see some people you don’t always get to see.”

He describes these people as “not exactly like you, but they’re all coming from the same place”, as in everyone has one thing in common.

He touched upon an important point in Fest culture. For the days that you’re in Gainesville if you’re from out of town, a one-and-a-half mile strip is basically your entire world. With Gator burritos and stage dives though, who really needs more?

In just the first day my tired ass got to see a new Brooklyn band called Chumped, Nona from West Chester, Pa., The Draft (with members from the legendary GNV band Hot Water Music), and newer “orgcore” favorites, The Menzingers.

Though it was mine and Neill’s third year attending Fest, we were trying to remember what our first experience was like. For years before that, the weekend had been greatly mythologized thanks to the Internet. But what exactly does that myth look like to a first-time goer in the digital-saturated landscape of 2013?

Sharon Hillman of Bethel, Conn. commented on what gave her the motivation to make the trip. “I think just the opportunity to be able to go down to Florida with a bunch of my friends and just see bands that I like in one place, it was really enticing. There’s a bunch of seasoned Fest veterans, I don’t know many times I’m going to be going but it’s just a really great experience to have at least once.”

She noted her most favorite parts being the sheer volume of talent she witnessed, such as Philly hardcore vets Paint It Black. Her least being, of course, the scheduling conflicts between sets and also what tends to happen with venue capacity if you arrive later. One thing she learned the hard way at Fest 12 is that more than once you’ll have to make what seems like a life-or-death decision at the time of which band to choose.

That former kind of misfortune (let’s just call it a ‘Fest bummer’ even though the principle is applicable across live music events like these) is the reason I missed Ceremony from Rohnert Park, Ca. on Friday night. I flew too close to the sun on wings of tardiness and missed the mosh. Though it gave me time to speak to former Discovery Artist and drummer of Chicago mathy-hardcore band Itto, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya.

He described his second Fest experience as “Smelly and awesome. Well, smelly is awesome and awesome is smelly.”

Though he asserts he would not have come to Fest had he not been playing due to being “broke as shit,” he’s happy to “just hang out and wander the streets.”

With Nnamdi from Chicago and Sharon/Neill from the tri-state area, it’s easy to assume that all Festers were born on American soil. However, if you kept your ears open on the lines waiting to get into the Florida Theater, you’d hear a bevy of native tongues from German to French Canadian to Japanese. I was able to meet and speak to a Japanese Fester from a city called Nagoya, who told me to call him Nori.

With a bit of a language barrier abiding, Nori told me that, while in Japan, he was interested in “underground punk rock in America such as Hot Water Music, Against Me!, and Dillinger Four.”

He explained that “underground punk listeners are a minority in Japan,” which is why he chose to travel so far to get to see some of his favorite acts. Offhandedly, Nori touched upon a point which clearly describes why all of us nerds and weirdos descend upon Gainesville for the weekend, “I can’t have such an awesome experience back in Japan, I’ve never felt as awesome in Japan in my life before.”

What touched me about Nori’s answer was that it was mangled by a language barrier, but I understood it so clearly: for four days out of the year, we get to be completely and utterly normal. This is a complete cliché, yes, but Fest is all about emotion anyway. Waiting on lines to see bands you can make friendships you would never be able to anywhere else in your life, but on one street in the Southeast, speaking a language from a context that most don’t get and never will.

We’re all trying to be understood from the music we listen to and we all implicitly understand that Fest is where that is possible. It’s a shame that it can only last four days but those 96 hours make up years of worth of memories in the long run.

Now that it’s over, it’s back to pretending to know what normal is.