I first attended The Fest in 2011, and I’ve since wondered about what that weekend means, if anything. It is billed, rightfully so, as the largest punk festival in the country, but there were only a marginal number of big names and they all, for the most part, had the shortened timeslots that plague such events (one has to wonder why Warped Tour still draws a crowd year after year, offering outdoor stages, mediocre sound quality, the blazing temperatures of summer, and 20 minute sets). Granted, bands like Magrudergrind and Comadre are well-served by short sets, and an hour certainly seems enough for your Hot Water Musics and Against Me!s.
Much of The Fest’s appeal seems to lie in the possibility of what might happen rather than what is actually scheduled to. “Secret shows” always produce heavy rumors passed around with all the fervor of notes in school. One hears that Comadre is playing an At the Drive-In cover show in a warehouse 30 minutes outside of town (didn’t happen), and that Alternative Press is hosting their own mini-festival of bands playing cover shows, such as Bomb the Music Industry! covering The Weakerthans (happened). Not everyone is in the mood to be excited about these things at two in the morning after a long and sweaty night of shows. But there are people with boundless zeal who are constantly energetic to see something they may never get to see again. It is, even in a state of exhaustion, a little charming.
And one certainly can’t complain about the lineup: Coliseum, Against Me!, Magrudergrind, Comadre, Circle Takes the Square, A Wilhelm Scream (who actually played two shows, one a regular set, the other an unscheduled one during which they played Mute Print in its entirety, a decent album that becomes much more live). A huge number of other bands were also in attendance, ones that are familiar but don’t necessarily garner huge crowds. But there is still a massive undercurrent of excitement present for even the lowliest of bands at The Fest, and one gets the impression that The Fest really is heaven to the fans for which punk is a deity.
For people who like punk but cast over it a discerning eye, Halloween weekend is anomalous in the year, a chance to see a few great shows with a few great people and conduct some of the most fruitful people-watching possible. The Fest draws a diverse crowd. There are the stalwarts who have attended every year since 2002, in their 30s or even 40s now, with fading tattoos and leathery skin. There are your typical Gainesville vegans, riding their bikes to shows. And there are, most charmingly, the first-timers, the young people who still think punk means dyeing your hair green or pink and not giving a shit about fashion sense.
And maybe that is what it means. The underlying allure of The Fest is that all of these people crowding outside of venues and frequenting tiny, understaffed Gainesville restaurants are fundamentally the same, at least for that brief weekend. In the crowd at a punk show, amidst the idiots throwing full beer cups into the crowd because a weekend away means a weekend without inhibition and the teenager rapidly wind-milling, there is always a sublime moment where balance ceases to exist, where every instinct in your body says that you’re falling, yet you never hit the ground. An entire crowd is held up by people they don’t know and will never see again, and that is a moment that never lasts long enough.