April 27, 2015 | by Bryne Yancey

For 14 years now, Tony Weinbender has maintained a “build it and they will come” philosophy when organizing The Fest in Gainesville, Fla. The event has grown considerably each year, swelling to a now nearly weeklong celebration of the DIY punk scene and its wide swath of subgenres with hundreds of bands and thousands of attendees traveling from all over the world just to be a part of it. The Fest is important. The Fest matters.

It’s just that the headliners never have.

I started going to Fest in 2006. I was still living in my hometown of Melbourne, Fla., about an hour east of Orlando and just a short distance from the Atlantic Ocean. I’d graduated high school in 2003, and, feeling somewhat rudderless but needing a next step to actually graduate to adulthood, took a part-time job at a new ice cream shop in the northern part of town. It’s still probably the best job I’ve ever had. The hours, for an industry job, were very normal—I rarely worked nights or weekends. The pay was solid, too. The work itself—making ice cream from scratch, baking cones, serving customers, was for the most part, very fun. The owners were kind, benevolent people who grew to be my friends—they even loaned me money for a down payment on my first car. I eventually got my own apartment, beachside, and started riding my bike more. I grew my hair out. I was happy.

But Melbourne, for all its clean sand and crisp air and cheap rent, had a dearth of independent punk culture. The city, and greater Brevard County, is an area defined by the space program. Kennedy Space Center was a mere 30 minute drive away, and because of NASA’s large footprint in the region, technology companies and military contractors like Harris and Northrop Grumman and Rockwell Collins had large, arguably overbearing presences; Patrick Air Force Base, in nearby Satellite Beach, made for an imposing military presence in the area as well. That, combined with the God-fearing southerners on the mainland and retirees on the barrier islands, led to a confluence of hardened, red state values. That doesn’t mean people didn’t try to infuse the area with culture; promoters like Little Reggies Productions would rent out church spaces and VFW halls for local and sometimes touring bands—I must’ve seen Stretch Arm Strong play in Melbourne about a dozen times. One of the best shows I ever saw there or anywhere is still Audio Karate absolutely shredding a harshly lit rec center to a crowd of sparse, mostly uninterested teens not long after their masterpiece, Lady Melody, was released. The Groove Tube, which was mainly a surf shop, reserved a corner of their store for new and used vinyl—I bought my first Against Me! LP, a new copy of …As The Eternal Cowboy, there. But for the most part, that stuff didn’t last. People graduated and, if they didn’t go away to college, they either moved away to a larger city like Orlando or left that part of their life behind, considered it a funny phase even, and settled in the area, got jobs, had kids, and bought cookie-cutter houses in cookie-cutter subdivisions built on repurposed swampland. Thanks to cheap punk compilations, mail order, and the burgeoning presence of the Internet—file-sharing was still in its heyday, and labels just gave away MP3s on their websites back then, no exchange of personal information required—I did my best to immerse myself in the punk culture seemingly inherent to larger, more diverse metropolitan areas. That included No Idea Records three hours north in Gainesville, and eventually, The Fest.

Fest was still pretty small back then. (Registration, now held at the downtown Holiday Inn conference room with a line that snakes inside and outside of the entire building, that year was held at Wayward Council, a now-closed anarchist book/record store and DIY show space. There was one table, no vendors and no line). This was before social media was ubiquitous, before smartphones came equipped with the invisible handcuffs they do today. If you wanted to complain and act entitled online back then, well, there was Myspace, I guess, and things like Livejournal, but that was about it. Everything felt pretty new and exciting—there were other music festivals, for sure, but not nearly as many as there are now. The big venue that year was Abbey Road, a decrepit-looking, now-shuttered building on University Ave. across the street from what would become The Venue, then The Florida Theatre of Gainesville, then closed, too. Capacity at Abbey Road had to have been maybe a few hundred—memories are hazy. I was less than a year removed from my 21st birthday and am pretty sure I drank one PBR each day of Fest for every year I had been alive. They were $1.50 each back then—I couldn’t afford not to drink that many. Like most people that age, I felt invincible.

Abbey Road that Fest was headlined by a Sunday night bill featuring a young Dead To Me, Riverboat Gamblers, Fifth Hour Hero (who would disband shortly after), None More Black (ditto), and a newly-reunited Lifetime. I stood at the front of the stage with my friend James, who wasn’t as fervent a punk fan as I was but came to Fest anyway because he thought it’d be a really fun diversion. My memories from that weekend are fleeting for obvious reasons—the passage of time, the consumption of cheap beer—but what I do remember is rather vivid: Being at the front of that stage, blissfully drunk, and James—who’d temporarily retired to another part of the room, I think to find the restroom, texting me on my flip phone to “Drink that PBR” he’d left on the stage. I remember the weather, how it was extremely hot the first day ahead of a violent, heavy thunderstorm at night, the two of us drunkenly attempting to jump over—and landing in, of course—deep puddles as fat raindrops pelted our heads and shoulders outside what was then known as Common Grounds on our way back to our hotel room, and then the weather being beautiful and crisp and cool and blue the rest of the weekend, like walking through a perfect painting of old inland Florida that was vibrant in all the important parts but tastefully frayed and chipped around the edges. I remember playing the Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon game with a consistency and seriousness that would’ve likely annoyed a third friend, had there been one. I remember watching No Trigger sidestage at 1982 and being into it, but being really into it once they launched into a cover of Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare.” I remember cracking a wide smile when James told me after the weekend was over, “I wasn’t expecting to have as much fun as I did. That was fucking fun.”

Through the years, I’ve made more important memories during Fest than I can possibly recount here. The Tuesday before Fest 8 in 2009, for example, I was hit by a car on my bike on my way to work and broke my left knee. I went to Fest in a wheelchair but by the end of the weekend, was walking (sort of, sometimes on crutches). People—volunteers, bands, attendees, were so kind to me that weekend. It was like the positive, almost evangelical vibes of Fest willed me to walk, or walk as much as my injury would allow. Fest put me upright. Without it, that accident likely would’ve completely demoralized me.

At Fest 10 in 2011, a.k.a. The Year Everyone Played And Everyone Went, rolled extra deep and I was able to meet a bunch of friends and colleagues in person for the first time ever. That was also the first year my younger sister, Missy, and my brother-in-law, Billy, attended—I’ll never forget Billy, a short, heavily-tattooed, goofy looking redheaded dude hopping onstage at the Florida Theatre during Youth Brigade’s set, getting hit in the face by Shawn Stern’s microphone, not missing a beat and immediately stagediving. Billy is from California and was stoked to see Youth Brigade, but also walked away from that Fest a fan of bands he previously hadn’t heard, bands like Banner Pilot and Cobra Skulls. I love that.

Last year’s Fest was the first Fest I’d attended in years where I wasn’t “working” and covering it for a music site. I’ll admit a small, but grossly entitled part of me was worried about having to wait in long lines, missing sets and just generally not experiencing as much as I had in the past. But it ended up being probably the most fun Fest I’d been to. Waiting in line at registration, while long, was weirdly a blast. Missy and Billy came along again, and their unfettered, unjaded enthusiasm for punk rock was infectious and inspiring. My girlfriend Melissa, who is always enthusiastic about her favorite bands, to the point where she physically pushes herself to the front of every stage she wants to be in front of, inspires me every day, not just at Fest obviously, but at Fest she’s like a superhuman version of herself, kind and funny and dynamic and just so smart and wonderful to be around. Watching Descendents play a real set for the first time was wonderful, but even more wonderful was getting to see smaller bands play their best shows of the year, whether it was my first time seeing them or my tenth. At the end of the weekend, I’d made another round of great memories with my friends and family that yes, couldn’t have happened without music, but likely would’ve happened regardless of who was headlining.

The lineup at Fest this year appears underwhelming to many. It’s so far headlined by Lagwagon, Desaparecidos, mewithoutYou, The Menzingers and dozens of other bands that yes, perform at Fest almost annually. There’s not necessarily a “wow” band on the lineup yet. But there doesn’t need to be. Most festivals need to book big names in order to move tickets. The Fest, much to its credit, is headliner-proof. It’s never been about the headliners, nice as they look on a flyer or in a Facebook status update or in a grainy Instagram video. It’s about the friends we make there, the bonds we form, the new bands we fawn over, the thrill of discovery, the red-eyed, fugue-like state we all willingly put ourselves in trying to see as much and drink as much as possible in 72 hours. It’s about being a huge nerd amongst a few thousand other huge nerds. It’s about taking a break from being a jaded punk asshole on the Internet and just enjoying something that we should never, ever take for granted. It’s about making timeless memories, and trying your damndest to put them in a spot inside your brain where they can be recounted forever, to remind yourself of why you’re here.