October 16, 2014
by Jonathan Diener

For one weekend every year, a sea of bearded, flannel-clad punk rockers in jean shorts flood the streets of Gainesville, FL. Maybe you’ve heard of Gainesville before? Bands like Less Than Jake, Against Me! and Hot Water Music were birthed in this college town turned temporary Punk Rock Mecca. Every venue in a mile radius will host a full weekend of amazing underground music. Imagine if SXSW or CMJ’s drunken friend told everyone to shut up and put on a Dillinger Four record. That is The Fest in a nutshell.

I still smile thinking about pulling our van up to University Ave. and walking toward the Holiday Inn for band registration. For once, the passersby are more than likely your really good friends. High fives, hugs and heckling from even more buds driving down the street is almost overwhelming. You don’t remember the last time you’ve seen someone or what continent it was on. All you know the following few days will be the best part of your year. This probably sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. Go to The Fest two years in a row and you’ll have a whole new batch of friends. When you’re waiting in line for registration, a show or at a bar you’ll strike up a conversation with the person standing next to you. For the first time in your life, everyone around you has common interests. I waited in line for two hours to see TORCHE play and met my friend Erica who lives in Arizona. Later when we were on tour we always had a rad place to stay in Phoenix. It would’ve never happened if I was stuck in my shell. Even if you’re a total introvert just a day of exposure in this environment will bring out your inner chatterbox.

The first year my band, The Swellers, played Fest we were booked at the 1982 bar. The lineup was headlined by Bomb The Music Industry! and a bunch of bands that were cool, but not necessarily well-known. We showed up to load in before our set and there was a line of people outside of the door. Not because of us, but because that’s how badly these people wanted to see new music. We were a little weirded out playing to what seemed to be an over-capacity bar until we started the first song and people were already singing along. What the hell was happening? Why do people care? People were talking to us after the show and we had no idea that they were from all over, not just Florida. Imagine taking ten people who like your band from each major city and flying them to Gainesville. That’s one hell of a crowd. We obviously wanted to play the next year and were fortunate enough to get invited back each year.

The best part of being a regular at The Fest is the eventual rewards. The people running The Fest like Tony Weinbender and all of the No Idea Records people are keeping tabs on everything going on. If you do well, or you’re just not a shit bag, you’ll get invited and given a better time slot next year. Keep playing your cards right and you’ll get to play the big shows at the bigger venues. Each year we’d have a better crowd until we were playing the biggest spot in town, The-then Venue. We’d leave Gainesville and the rest of our tour would cower in comparison. It’s as if we just left the island on LOST and had to go back to feel something again. Punk rock wasn’t dead for a few days a year. A band that would struggle to draw twenty people in their hometown would be The Beatles for a night. Aside from being in a band or watching bands, you were able to experience Halloween with the weirdest group of punk rockers ever assembled. I have too many stories from years of watching weird drunk punks passed out on the sidewalk in full costume. My favorite is after playing The Venue with A Wilhelm Scream and Strike Anywhere, our guitarist in full Michael Jackson attire walked outside to get a breath of fresh air. He had a beer in his right hand and Bubbles, the stuffed monkey, in his left. Some guys in police costumes walked up to him and the drummer of AWS and started asking what they were drinking. Turns out they weren’t cop costumes. This lead to my favorite quote of all time, “Put down the monkey and put your hands behind your back.” Sure it sucks that they were fined for drinking outside, but how many times do you get to hear someone say that in real life?

The absolutely insane secret shows are another great part of The Fest. I finished watching Bouncing Souls and walked outside to see a crowd of people running toward a uHaul trailer. The back door opened up and Paint It Black turned on a generator and started playing in the parking lot. About 30 seconds into their first song the generator blew and the crowd just sang along to the drums. People were diving off of the trailer and each other and chaos was ensuing. About five minutes later the crowd started running frantically as police on horseback rode through with megaphones screaming at all of us. It felt dangerous. It felt like how a punk rock show should feel. Paint It Black also once played in someone’s apartment along with Fest favorites, Shook Ones. I was on the way to see it when I got a call saying the cops busted that show. Year after year, they were outdoing themselves and making a lasting impression on all of us. We almost played one of the infamous Warehouse Shows, but when we showed up the owner wasn’t there. You’d be a part of a mass text with an address and a lineup and you knew something amazing was about to happen. It was unpredictable and cool and made you feel alive.

I will always remember how amazing our last show was there. I’ll remember all of the friends I made and get to relive everything through their pictures and videos that will probably devour all of my social media feeds. I’ll remember going to Leonardo’s and eating a huge slice of pizza with four rolls and a cookie by myself because my parents weren’t there to tell me no. I’ll remember getting my first real tattoo at Anthem Tattoo. I’ll remember the weird floors I slept on, sleeping in the van and the scuzzy and memorable hotel nights with people screaming or snoring all night. I mean, I saw the Descendents documentary (Filmage) while eating breakfast next to some of my favorite people. It was the highlight of my year. If you haven’t already, I suggest you buy tickets for The Fest. It feels like summer in October.

Jonathan Diener plays drums in Braidedveins and The Swellers, the latter of whom will be touring the northeast for the final time this November.