The Fest isn’t quite like any other music festival. The beer is cheap, the entire lineup is top-shelf, there are a truly ridiculous amount of bands playing, and the lines aren’t even that long. There’s a punk-rock flea market. The official beer sponsor is Pabst Blue Ribbon. Most of the venues are grimy dives and dingy clubs, teeming with equal parts character and the smell of cigarettes and piss. These are all crucial components in the magnificent, debauched weekend that is The Fest in Gainesville, Florida.
The first day of Fest was (surprise surprise) absolutely stacked with bands. A common misconception would be to assume that it was front-loaded (really, the whole weekend has been ‘front-loaded’), and it’s a safe guess; the first day of Fest brought bands like Sidekicks, The Menzingers, Cayetana, and more together in a night crammed with sweat, singing, moshing, PBR, and even some broken bones (seriously).
Friday night’s shenanigans began with Sidekicks, the Epitaph-repped Ohio four-piece, at the Wooly, a spacious room with decent sound. It must be said that all venues at Fest have stellar soundmen (and women), because just about every set has exclusively had tremendous balance and, given the pace and number of bands involved, exceptional quality of sound. The ex-Red Scare Records group benefited from keen hands on the controls, as frontman Steve Ciolek’s vocals wove through their two-guitar attack. Ciolek’s Claudio Sanchez-esque yelp breathes life and character into Sidekicks’ sound. The jangly, poppy punk tunes motor along like a shoe-gaze Thin Lizzy, and at times sound positively Smiths-esque, if The Smiths binge-listened to Bouncing Souls. Ciolek’s wirey frame, draped by golden twists of hair, bounced more than danced, and the audience followed suit, strung up by bass lines and thrown about by Matt Climer’s spotless drumwork. They also covered Jim Carroll Band and Chris Farren tweeted “THE SIDEKCIKS ROCK.” Cred achieved.
Frequent Fest alumni and Pennsylvania punk saviours The Menzingers took to Lot 10, Fest’s only outdoor venue, nestled in a vacant lot and dotted with low-hanging Spanish moss-hung trees. Tour mates Title Fight wore in the stage before them with a tight set of their healthy ability to balance punk and hardcore without selling out either’s key components. Opening with the monumental “Good Things” off of their 2012 Epitaph debut, On the Impossible Past, the Menzos didn’t let off the brakes for another hour. It’s clear the band has a deep affection for the Gainesville festival, taking time to thank organizer extraordinaire Tony Weinbender and the whole Fest team, and playing deep cuts like Hold On, Dodge cut “Sunday Morning,” which hadn’t been heard at Fest in four years. It’s a tremendous thing to witness thousands of sweaty humans, packed like garbage cubes into a sea of arms and throbbing bodies, slamming into one another and screaming, “Don’t worry brother, this will blow over,” into the thick Florida night air. The Menzingers don’t just shake bodies, they shake heads, hearts, and souls, thanks in no small part to the endearing and articulate songwriting of frontmen Tom May and Greg Barnett.
Ottawa, Ontario’s Steve Adamyk Band, an outrageously fun pop-punk foursome, banged out a riotous set at The Atlantic following The Menzingers. If you were at the show, consider yourself lucky. The band played a one-off of sorts, playing their entire self-titled album, front to back, and asserted it was “the only time this will ever happen.” So if you took in the raucous bangers churned out on that dynamite debut album live, thank Tony Weinbender for booking this kick-ass Ottawa punk outfit, and thank Steve Adamyk and his crew of wiley, happy-go-lucky punkers for making that magic happen. Adamyk’s ginger-haired charm is damn undeniable; it’s hard not to rock out when he is.
Across the street at The Wooly, one of the most profound and wonderful sets of the weekend was occurring, thanks to Philly’s three-piece Cayetana. The trio, comprised of bassist Allegra Anka, drummer Kelly Olsen and frontwoman Augusta Koch, stands as one of the very few bands at Fest that might just be truly incomparable; aligning the punk group with any other similar acts might provide a reference point, but even the closest one is a mile away. For the sake of argument, lets go with Nashville’s Bully. They’re both rockers, they both feature a dynamite frontwoman, and they’re both American and gutsy as shit. But Cayetana has an edge and tenacity that isn’t duplicable nor entirely describable, and a power and presence that commands respect and demands friendly dance moves. Koch’s scratchy vocals are instantly recognizable. The muted roar of vocals played just roughly enough with her guitar work to push the bounds of normalcy without getting into too much trouble. Anka’s basswork rose above most of the night’s sets with clarity and precision, weaving a narrative of its own around Koch’s steady riffing and tortured howls.
On the heels of Cayetana came Direct Hit at Boca Fiesta. The Milwaukee punk-rockers took control of a packed patio stage behind a fairly unassuming restaurant (through which legions of shit-faced punks staggered, much to the dismay of the nice, respectable families of four dotting the restaurant). The band certainly isn’t the only that is stronger, better, and more fiery live than on record, but they’re damn well better than most. Opening with undeniable banger “Werewolf Shame,” the band tore through an adrenaline-rush of tunes before cutting a song midway. A FESTer near the front of the stage had gotten her leg caught twisted between the elevated stage and the audience, and word was that it was broken. The most golden, toasty-warm thing about this terrible ordeal was seeing the genuine concern of the band and audience members; many milled around wondering if they could help, and the rest who didn’t leave promptly parted to make way for the injured fan to be taken out. Direct Hit finished their set afterwards, and despite the misfortune, it served as a telling thesis statement for the general Fest atmosphere and mantra; fun, punk rock, and respect for all.
Off With Their Heads brought their Dropkick-Murphys-without-the-bagpipes punk to Cowboys as the night was nearing an end. The band held their own and played a lively set, and for what it’s worth, their set probably contained the most beer-tossing and drink-sprayed of the whole night, so they were clearly doing something right. But in a festival rammed with hammering distortion, shouted vocals and that snappy snare we all love to love, OWTH didn’t poke their head above the fray, rather staying safe in a sea of group vocals, chainsaw guitar riffing and uninspired song structure. Sorry fellas, but Red City Radio did it better. And with harmonies.
If you were a living human being with a brain, you would’ve ended off the night with Scranton, Pennsylvania’s Captain, We’re Sinking. Bobby Barnett, brother of Menzingers frontman Greg, fronts the quartet. The Menzingers have certainly blown up far beyond Captain, We’re Sinking, but shot-for-shot, Bobby’s band took the cake on Friday night at High Dive. Toeing the line between power-pop, easycore, punk and straight-up rock and roll, the band ripped through a 50 minute set of mosh-worthy goodness, with Barnett and co-vocalist Leo Vergnetti rising above the crop of guitar-guy bands to provide something truly inspiring and exciting: a musical experience that indeed might be derived from something, but ably escapes being contrived. It’s a hard feat to accomplish, but its what sets the band head-and-shoulders above the crowd on a bill of nearly 400 bands. The group is heading into the studio to record their next album, so keep an eye out. Cause this is ONE SHIP THAT SURE ISN’T SINKING. I’ll show myself out.
Day 2, you have a lot to live up to.
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Review by Luke Ottenhof | @LukeOttenhof