As The Fest enters its 16th year of punk rock mayhem, it’s safe to say the little festival in Gainesville, Florida has become the biggest weekend in our punk rock community. Oh yes, there’s a lot out there that are close. Pouzza Fest is steadily growing, Punk Rock Bowling just expanded to also have a weekend in New Jersey now, Punk Rock Holiday overtakes Eastern Europe every year for five days or so and – hell – Riot Fest just pulled the Holy Grail out of their ass and had Jawbreaker reunite for them.

Fest16 LogoYet, none of them have that undeniable spark that comes with The Fest and Big Pre-Fest in Little Ybor (entering its fifth year). There’s a charm and excitement unlike anywhere else down in Florida over the Halloween weekend and it brings people from all over the world each and every year.

More than that, it brings them back year after year. Walk down the street and you hear “oh, this is my third Fest. My ninth Fest. My sixth Fest. My fifteenth.” There has to be something more than just the massive list of 300+ bands that make people travel for 12+ hours every October – although the bands are pretty damn good reason to do it anyway.

There are many elements that make The Fest so great. There are the instant friendships you make waiting in line at registration (Hi Mina and Adam!) that then seem to show up at every second venue you walk into.  Those same friends become life-long friends so that future Fest trips see your hotel roommates coming from Vancouver, Australia, Chicago, Cleveland and Portland. There’s Five Star Pizza and The Hot Dog Guy, not to mention The Reggae Shack and Boca Fiesta which serves as both a hung-over lunch heaven and a non-stop venue of great bands.

It’s the fact that unlike most festivals, the standard venue only fits less than a thousand people. This creates a sense of intimacy that the bigger festivals lack, because there’s something unifying when hundreds of people are squashed shoulder to shoulder, sweaty and singing along to The Copyrights or The Dopamines or Beach Slang. On top of that, all those venues are so close together so that at Prefest you could watch Jabber absolutely slay it in a state of sheer happiness at Tequila’s, run across to the street to The Crowbar to watch the drum-filled Underground Railroad to Candyland pummel the percussions for twenty minutes and jump right back to Tequila’s for Prince Daddy & The Hyena without missing a beat.

Honestly, who needs downtime when so many bands are playing all around?

This year I took it easy; I started my days later than normal, I hung out at venues drinking beers with friends and I wasn’t running around like a chaotic mad man as I normally do. Yet, I still saw close to 65 bands during the five days.  Sixty-five bands is a lot of bands, and a lot of music to have blasting through your ear drums and it is that same volume of bands that allow the sets to be so wild and memorable.

With so many bands descending on the city, you’re able to explore and try new bands you wouldn’t have the chance to see otherwise.  Of course you see the big bands on your list. Off With Their Heads, Nothington, Red City Radio, The Lillingtons, Hot Water Music in their hometown – those are the bands you don’t wanna miss and will definitely squeeze into your schedule. Sometimes those must see bands are smaller – like Pkew Pkew Pkew, Rational Anthem or Wolf-Face – and you know from the start that you just have to see their sets. Somehow though, those must-see sets only make up a small percentage of who you actually saw.

Instead you’ll randomly run into a venue after hearing a three chord melody seeping through the window. I may have been heading to see The Slow Death for the third Fest in a row, but hearing France’s Intenable playing at Loosey’s took me off course and introduced me to a wicked three piece band instead.

Fest 16You’ll discover new bands that your friends recommend. For me, that was Los Angeles’ Spanish Loves Songs who were my friends’ must-see band of the weekend. Their excitement led me to watch them at The Dirty Shame and Loosey’s and instantly understand their love affair with the five piece.

The up-and-coming bands make up the bread and butter of the schedule – those bands who are riding strong in support of a new album (MakeWar and Kamikazee Girls I’m looking at you), or positive word of mouth (NightmarathonsMeat Wave and Pet Symmtery) always seemed to be playing in one venue or another, waiting to be watched so that you can finally catch up on what all the fuss is about.

Fest 16 and Big Prefest In Little Ybor 5 is built for new discoveries, with bands waiting to capture your ears, hearts and imaginations; and the bands know that there’s something special in the air. That’s why so many bands do weird, one-off sets.

Atom and His Package played for the first time in forever and  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Bigwig live, yet this was the first time I’ve heard them play Girl In The Green Jacket live. Direct Hit! never really did a real set, but used one slot to do random songs from Domesplitter and their secret set at Dirty Shame to play their new split with Pears front to back (including the three Pears songs as covers) before doing a full audience request set. Mustard Plug played Evildoers Beware! front to back for what they claimed would be the last time.  Dan Adriano joined Hot Water Music for a cover of Alkaline Trio‘s Bleeder. A Wilhelm Scream did a small surprise show at High Dive followed quickly by The Flatliners who celebrated the ten year anniversary of The Great Awake.

Numerous bands did acoustic sets, none of which could ever be more memorable than Red City Radio‘s Garrett Dale’s at The Bricks in Ybor. It was a thirty minute set where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Dale took it in stride, playing unplugged and energetically. Doing a Moana cover at request, singing the same song three times and just being a showman unlike any other.

On Saturday, Tall Paul’s was home to a day full of cover sets starting with Rebuilder doing Blink 182‘s Take Off Your Pants and Jackets and ending with Red City Radio doing The Clash. I only caught Rebuilder but it was a perfect cover set, invigorating the crowd in non-stop sing alongs and made it so I had to go and see their real set at Loosey’s later that night.

Pre Fest 5And, of course, there was Against Me!.

Quite possibly the biggest draw of the weekend, the Gainesville quartet were scheduled to play their iconic Reinventing Axl Rose in its entirety on Saturday night. Leading up to the album, the band played two songs from each album in reverse chronological order; constantly building the anticipation and spinning the crowd into a frenzy. The set, which saw a packed crowd at Bo-Diddley Plaza, was their fourth set in as many days and each one was unique, memorable, passionate and just fucking fantastic.

No set list was the same as they pulled songs from their entire catalogue and were often joined by Jessica Mills on saxophone for the latter half of their sets. On Friday, they started the day with a mystery band set at The Wooly and was joined by original bassist Dustin Fridkin. With Dustin on board, the band stayed solidly to their old material – playing The Acoustic EP, Reinventing Axl Rose and The Disco Before The Breakdown all together. This was a one-off set that’ll most likely never happen again and that’s what The Fest is built on.

It’s build on magical moments that come sailing pass at breakneck speeds. It’s a collection of emotions and bursts of energy that come from nowhere, explode and vanish. They’re bleeps in the radars of time, unforeseeable events that are only capable of being developed due to this unique combination of people, bands, venues and energy.

In the long run, it won’t mean much for the world; but for those thousands of strangers singing arm in arm – it means the world.

And that’s why they come back year after year after year.