Round two of FEST 14 began groggily. Hungover FESTers clutched water bottles and iced coffees under bleary eyes and death-breath, huddled on sidewalks and bar patios in solidarity. The streets of downtown Gainesville were alive with the muted sounds of thousands of Converse clumping along lazily, and irreverent tunes blasting from corner pubs on a Saturday afternoon.
After their stellar showing the previous night, The Menzingers announced a surprise acoustic show at Loosey’s. Clearly everyone was hungry for more Menzos, as the bar was at capacity long before the gig started, and a stretching line of hopeful fans snaked their way around the block. But some realized the futility in sweating it out in a string of lineups and ducked over to High Dive for a Killers cover set by Philly’s Modern Baseball. This was that fabled moment when a hangover turns a corner and you get a burst of vibrance and life, and realize its not so bad, and that you were really just whining about a bit of dull aching, and that this music is so fucking fun that you succumb to its honey-sweet vibes and toss your booze blues aside. Bassist Ian Farmer handled vocals for a chunk of the set, tearing up the microphone with Brandon Flowers’ best shot at being Springsteen, “When You Were Young.” Greg and Tom from The Menzingers clambered onstage and took vocal duties on “Smile Like You Mean It,” with both hilariously mimicking Flowers’ sneering drawl and lazy-wrist mic grip. Drummer Sean Huber slung a guitar on and roared through closer “All These Things That I Have Done,” sending FESTers off with the comfort of knowing what The Killers would sound like if they were less stadium and more blood-and-sweat basement-show.
Meanwhile, DIY-lifers Slates were hammering a humble cluster of punks at the Palomino. Clad in classic Canadian tuxedo, frontman James Stewart was a healthy mix of Joe Strummer and Sid Vicious; Strummer’s musicianship mangled by Vicious’ nihilism and inability to care what his playing sounded like. The combination made for a unique and intense set. Stewart’s tales from tour in Cuba were just about as authentic as they come; you could probably count the bands at FEST that have toured Cuba on one hand, and Slates would be one of those proud fingers. Their snotty punk jams flirt with a melody just long enough to lure ears in, then stamp it out and hammer dissonance into you until you start to believe it’s melodic, and that’s an impressive feat.
One of the most awe-inspiring and tremendous performances of the entire weekend came when The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die took the stage at Cowboys Saloon. The greasy and by all accounts objectively shitty venue (seriously, smoking inside? What year is it?) was miraculously rendered beautiful and hallowed by the transformative powers of the more than eight musicians swaying and playing and feeling and singing in unison, in many ways a more cohesive, singular entity than any other band of the weekend. With nearly every member contributing to bombastic and cathartic vocals and each certainly layering the crush of violin and bass and drums and guitars and keys and more, it was nearly a sensory overload. But the band’s defining feature lies in bringing this chaos together into a sentiment, a simple idea or thought that can be organized into audio and shared by all. They did just that at FEST.
And then War On Women happened at the High Dive, and it was in its own way as splendid and striking as the previous set, and in the way only this band can be, it was more gutsy, fierce and aggressive than anything else at FEST 14. The four-piece consists of three females, all of whom sported bride veils for the first few songs. War On Women is punk at its essential best; raw, thrashy, screechy, sloppy, angry, and political. The band comes from a tradition that utilizes punk as an instigator of social change. The same issues that were sung about in the first wave in the ‘70s are all but absent, but new bands like War On Women are taking up and shining a light on newer, more relevant issues. Just like the polarizing nature of the Sex Pistols and Bad Brains, dissenters will no doubt try to undermine them as radical and ‘controversial’ (OH GOD FORBID). That’s because bands like War On Women threaten their hegemony (‘they’ being, ya know, the patriarchy). The world needs more bands like War On Women, and War On Women needs you to listen to them in earnest, and take up the fight with them. Oh, and their live show was absolutely electric and feral and badass.
At the Civic Media Center, a quaint, reputable independent book store and probably the most worthy venue in all of Gainesville, Tim Browne from Colorado rockers Elway played an intimate acoustic show, much to the delight of a rabid cluster of fans who joined him on each and every tune he belted out. This included a breathtaking rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” so heads up Ryan Adams. You’ve got competish on the Taylor Swift cover game. And for an independent, DIY punk festival like THE FEST, there were an awful lot of people who sang along, word for word. You know who you are. The set also included a new tune with arguably the most profound words in all of his performance: “I find absolution in the damnedest little parts of my brain,” howled Browne, surrounded by a group of people who couldn’t put into their mouths what he could. The acoustics ended with Elway’s “Passing Days,” an uplifting ripper of a punk anthem that filled the room and nestled itself in the pages of the beat-up books lining the shop.
Ottawa’s Big Dick huddled on the corner stage at Palomino for their 9:50 set, and right on cue, a heap of Canadians piled up front to take in the grungy stripped-down-DFA1979 duo. Members of other hosehead bands, like Toronto’s PUP and Dead Broke, watched with respect etched on their face as the two-piece filled the dive with fuzzed-out bass octaves, brutal drumwork, and howling, couldn’t-give-less-of-a-fuck vocals from both bassist Johnny O and drummer Dave Secretary. The band’s name is a bit of a misnomer, but just like War On Women, it’s a statement made by two guys who want to shake up the punk scene and challenge the structures that privilege certain groups, and ostracize and bully others. The band is worth checking out for that alone, and their live show is like if Death From Above didn’t care about radio play or popularity. It’s beautiful.
The maple leaf streak continued with Dundas, Ontario’s outrageous punk-rock trio The Dirty Nil. The recent Fat Wreck Chords acquisition, dressed in ponchos, beards and cowboy hats, and, with those three qualifications alone, pulling off a perfect ZZ Top costume, launched into a cover of “La Grange” by the Texas bluesy cock-rockers, before dropping the beards and tuning up their own brand of wild-eyed, monster-riffing punk. The band has enough classic rock influence to draw people in, and then slap them in the face with a gritty twist and punk attitude that is no better exemplified then in the vocal cords of both bassist Dave Nardi and frontman Luke Bentham; mangled, bellowed, screamed, and shouted, the two are downright badass and abrasive, but with melodies behind them to sweeten the mix. Bentham’s guitar playing is truly unreal, with monster bends and rampaging fretwork. He has a style that’s all his own, distilled no doubt from wide-eyed wonder watching his own heroes. Bentham ought to know those eyes are on him now.
West Virginia’s Rozwell Kid knocked out arguably the most mind-numbingly excellent set of the weekend to a well-over-capacity crowd at Boca Fiesta. The band owes as much of its sound to ‘70s hard-rock like Thin Lizzy as it does to the ‘90s grunge run (think Blue Album but with way more solos), peppered with Clash-esque punk furnishings and melodies so inexplicably hook-filled that they could only have been ripped from some book titled “How to Write Songs that Will Be Catchy As Shit.” The four-piece doesn’t really follow a definable formula for songwriting, and definitively sound like themselves; the falsetto harmonies pulled by guitarists/vocalists Jordan Hudkins and Devin Donnelly are absolute ear candy, and paired with ripping, harmonized guitar solos and obscenely delightful tone, its easy to see why L.A.-based indie super-label Side One Dummy just scooped up the band. A call and answer of “guitar-based indie rock” took the crowd past boiling point as the band tore into “Sick Jackets” and the already bottle-rocket energy blew past the danger zone, and the band actually had to plead with the crowd to tone it down to avoid injury. That didn’t stop a sea of moshers and crowd-surfers from nearly shaking down the night sky, and that sheer joy and nostalgic, classless ecstasy was mirrored in the bone-rattling, full-body-rush of gritty musical bliss blaring from dimed-out Orange amps. During “Halloween 3.5,” Hudkins’ moans of, “And after all these years, still play it all by ear,” were roared by nearly the entire crowd. Hop on the Rozwell Kid bandwagon while you can. These kids came to play the greasy, punk-kid rock ‘n’ roll game, and they play it well.
What can be said about Beach Slang that frontman James Alex, grinning wide and starry-eyed, didn’t encapsulate perfectly with his first words to a cramped show at Cowboys Saloon: “We’re here to punch you in the fuckin’ heart.” And with that the band tore into an hour’s worth of soft-hearted, thick-skinned punk rock. Its testament to Alex’s writing that even though the band hasn’t been around too long and were celebrating the release of their first full-length literally that evening, he was nearly drowned out at the end of “Filthy Luck” as the room shook with hundreds of voices bellowing, “This guitar wants to die.” Since the institution of punk has existed, its’ songs have been credited with filling hearts and saving lives. Beach Slang writes those kinds of songs, and they played those kind of songs for right around 60 minutes to a crowd of rabid fans. The kinds of people who write those songs that make people feel loved are usually ones who need that feeling most; “I fall in love to pass the time,” belted Alex, desperation behind the words. But he ought to know that hundreds of ears, minds and hearts were changed for the better thanks to him on Saturday night at FEST 14.
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Review by Luke Ottenhof | @LukeOttenhof