June 4, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

If a music festival can navigate through the often financially difficult initial years and hang around long enough to be successful, it often earns a higher role as a destination, or even a physical manifestation of an ideology. Carving out an entire subculture on little more than word of mouth and blind luck is hard to do; it’s even more difficult now, with the oversaturation of regional fests and samey lineups that tour the country playing them, as Clear Channel-owned radio station banners fly over nonplussed fans in boardshorts drinking $8 Budweisers. And while the allure of the big name headliner can be difficult to shake, one festival has avoided homogenization almost entirely by sticking to its guns.

The Fest, held annually in Gainesville, Fla. since 2002, is that festival. Through carefully maintained, wholly organic year-over-year growth, the event has become a yearly pilgrimage for a certain section of the punk scene. Not only that, but it’s become a year-round enterprise, for even the day the organizers announce the initial lineup (usually in April ahead of the late October/early November festival) has become something of an event, with people from all over the world converging—and in this year’s case, eventually crashing—the Fest’s website to pour over the lineup, buy tickets and book hotel rooms. These people tweet about the Fest. They form Facebook groups in order to talk about the Fest. They make zines about the Fest together. Where most festivals attract groups of established lifelong friends, the Fest is where lifelong friendships that span state lines, international borders and vast oceans are formed. The bands who play Fest year after year—and there are usually a lot of returning groups—often look at it in the same vein. These bands book tours, often in bunches, from their hometowns to Fest and back every year. Others, aware of the average Fest attendee’s sky-high enthusiasm level (and the sheer fun of playing there), fly in for one-off shows during the weekend and in all likelihood, make back their travel costs and then some in merch sales. It’s like a citywide family reunion without all the awkwardness and forced interaction.

In the latter half of the 2000s, many attempted to replicate the feel of the Fest elsewhere. They booked similar bands in similarly small towns such as Gainesville, but most of them flamed out after a year or two. Why, exactly? It’s hard to pinpoint and even harder to explain to non-attendees. During Fest weekend, there’s a sense of interminable, beer-fueled, glossy-eyed, sunburned positivity that flows through the streets of Gainesville like an invisible river. Everyone at the Fest, from the organizers and volunteers down to the attendees, takes care of each other; the anachronistic hierarchy of scenes doesn’t exist there. Experiencing that setting and ingraining oneself into that community, it’s easy to realize that this type of event could only work long-term in Gainesville, and not at a suburban fairgrounds, rural farm, arid desert or any other town, really.

Although the Fest’s lineup is not generally the main draw for veteran attendees, it’s never been better than for The Fest 13, which will happen Oct. 31-Nov. 2 (The Big Pre-Fest In Little Ybor, in Ybor City, Fla. just outside of Tampa, will return for a second year on Oct. 29-30). Headlining are the legendary Descendents, who haven’t played a show in the Sunshine State since 1997 and are one of the few recently reunited punk bands who can still elicit a “wow” from fans when they’re announced for a festival. Hot Water Music are returning for a one-off hometown show to mark their 20th anniversary as a band; as great as their latter-era material translates live, bet on their set being heavy on old favorites from their No Idea days. Chixdiggit, the venerable Calgary-based pop-punks who don’t tour much anymore (presumably because they didn’t follow their own advice), will be making the long flight from the Great White North to North Florida. One of the biggest influences of the current “emo revival,” Mineral, will make a stop at The Fest as part of their reunion tour. Marked Men, who last graced Fest in 2007 with an epically sweaty and boisterous 20-song, 40-minute marathon of a set, are back. Ditto for Lifetime, the Philadelphia/New Jersey punks who delivered a memorable closing Sunday night set at The Fest 5 in 2006 to a packed house at the now-defunct Abbey, across the street from the Florida Theater of Gainesville (which is also now closed). Even No Idea originals Radon are playing. Radon! All this in addition to the “second tier of Fest veterans—bands like Touche Amore, Banner Pilot, Iron Chic and The Flatliners—and usual up-and-comers or relative unknowns, who often end up as the real highlights of Fest weekend. As any regular Fest attendee will tell a newbie, stumbling into a venue to see a new band you’ve never heard of is generally a far more rewarding experience than waiting in line for a band you’ve seen fifteen times.

The Fest 13’s lineup is the the most impressive in the event’s history, and the first since perhaps the alumni and reunion-heavy Fest 10 in 2011 to generate this much buzz, which is ironic considering organizer Tony Weinbender and his staff more or less actively avoid traditional methods of buzz generation—in fact, their tactics, such as opening up Fest 13 ticket sales on April 20 at 4:20 p.m. ET, border more on irreverence. Veteran attendees should be prepared for an influx of first-timers and try their best to stay unjaded about it, as these no doubt awkward, unseasoned punks will be going through the same Fest growing pains we all did: Getting lost and accidentally cutting the registration line; subsisting on a diet entirely comprised of Five Star pizza and PBR tallboys; not getting enough sleep and being sick for a week or more afterward because of it. It’s all part of the discovery process, and more directly, all part of what makes The Fest so wholly unique.