The last time I made the journey south to Fest was 2019. In the four years since then there was this thing that happened that changed the way that I looked at almost every aspect of my life. Perhaps you heard about it; it was an international pandemic, after all. Saying the pandemic changed my life is an understatement. It kept me from going to shows, which was my five night per week social hobby. That time away forced me to look at how I was living, where I was spending my time, with who, and all those other almost mid-life crisis kinda things.
In the four years since my last Fest, I stopped drinking and partying. I started intensive therapy to clear up some old af trauma. I started a podcast about sexual assault and abuse in the music industry and I almost completely stopped going to shows and basically stopped listening to punk and punk-adjacent music (partially because of the podcast; it’s just too painful). I stopped bleaching my hair white, got my eyebrows tattooed on my face, and started grad school. Ya know… not quiet yet mid-life crisis kinda things. Besides the day to day posts on here, I hadn’t seen almost any of my music friends since before the pandemic.
Not gonna lie – I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go to Fest this year. My normal Fest partner in crime was no longer in my social sphere, so I’d be covering it alone. I’ve lost track of all the DIY up-and-coming bands from stepping away from the scene during the pandemic. I didn’t want to get COVID. I didn’t want to go to Florida. I was just making excuses. Okay fine, I was going to Fest and once I decided, I started to get excited. This year would be different than all those prior, but I would make sure it was a good kind of different.
I arrived in Florida more ready than I had ever been. I had downloaded the app – a first! I had planned my schedule for all three days – a first! I walked up to the registration line in shock that I had to wait in line – a first! Back in my day, at the Holiday Inn registration line, little press babes like me usually get to cut seemingly thousands of people in line and walk right up to a folding table in the beautiful air conditioned indoors and get our press bands and lanyards in mere seconds. Not this year. As I was standing in line, trying to catch all the Vitamin D I could without catching a burn, I saw the first friends. Nick and David of Moonraker came bounding up towards me, did a smooth front cut, and were suddenly in line with me. Honestly, anyone holding and sipping from a Buzzball at 2 in the afternoon is allowed to do whatever they want. I caught up with the friends and met the guys from Burnt Tapes who were apparently standing in front of us in line. And just like that, I could feel it happening. I was shifting into Fest mode after years of being stagnant.
Got all my press shit, checked out the enough. podcast ad in the Fest guidebook (right next to Five Star Pizza, nice), and headed to the flea market to say hi to friends. I hugged Adam and Lauren at the Say-10 Records booth, saw Jason Thompson for the first time in probably 8 years despite the fact he lives in my city, FINALLY met Brian Woodall of Wolves & Wolves & Wolves & Wolves and his lovely wife, and then stopped by to chat with Andy from Sell the Heart. All of that happened in about five minutes. Fest, baybeh! I was back!
Got some lunch, got my gear ready, grabbed a parking space near Gainesville’s beautiful downtown and it was time. Feet don’t fail me now! I walked into Palomino and was granted my first wristband of the weekend. MOLD! was already onstage a song or two into their set. The Miami-based Latinx band released a new self-titled album in September which showcases their brand of melodic noise punk. They were voted Best Emerging Act of 2021 by Miami New Times and their set was the perfect way to open my jam packed three day weekend.
Then, I headed over a new-to-me venue, Heartwood. It’s huge (a plus), it’s outdoors (a plus), the lighting is great for photos (yep), and the ground was covered with hay (super into that). It was one of the venues that came into fruition after the 2020 Fest year was cancelled due to COVID. I had gotten there a bit early to get the lay of the land and was able to catch a bit of Carly Cosgrove before their set ended.
I caught the eye of Arion and Luke, the drummer and keyboardist/trumpetist of Dollar Signs respectively, as they were loading some gear backstage. They ran over, we hugged, and started catching up. It was like I had seen them a few months ago; it wasn’t nearly as awkward talking with people I hadn’t seen in forever as my pre-fest anxiety tried to tell me it would be. Suddenly Dylan and Eric (fellow Dollar Signians) and even famous Chicago Ska Lord Devon Kay were all around me laughing and hugging. As the guys headed onstage, I grabbed a Liquid Death – my first! – both to hydrate and to see what all the fuss is about. My verdict? It sucks and tastes like metal. I got back in line and got a Red Bull because if I’m going to dislike what I’m drinking, at least it can taste like it’s poisoning me while also keeping me awake.
Dollar Signs took the stage and put on a show that reminded me why I haven’t given up on music. It’s always been and still is exactly my brand of music – it’s fast, fun, bouncy, with intelligent lyrics that walk the line between self-introspection and self-degradation but in the way you do publicly at a work Christmas Party when you’re socially awkward but are trying to act like you fit in with your coworkers. I found the Moonraker dudes along with best pal ever, Albuquerque’s resident Thor look-a-like Luke, in the crowd (fun fact: the day that I met Luke years ago, we got drunk in a Chicago grocery store together) and we sang along together. I’m sure there’s medical evidence somewhere out there that gang vocals cure what ails us all. And, let me tell you, singing along to “TEARS / BEERS / FEARS” now a few years shy of 40 hits WAY different.
Although Dollar Signs released their new album, Legend Tripping, that same day they only played two singles off the new release and riddled the rest of the set list with fan favorites. But the new songs were received positively, so much so that a cute little toddler named Ramona did her first crowd surf to one (calm down, look at the photo in the gallery, it wasn’t child abuse or anything). Ramona is more punk than us all. They, of course, closed the set with “Holiday Inn” and I had flashbacks to when they played the song acoustic in the lobby of the Holiday Inn at like 3AM back in 2015? 2016? A long ass time ago.
I ran into Laura, Jes, and JV and caught up before I scampered off to visit with another blast from my past, your favorite squash aficionado and mine, The Eradicator. Since I had last seen the pink shirt wearing sportsman, The Eradicator relocated from the Midwest to the South, mostly likely because he was looking for fresh competitors to beat as he climbs up the D-Squash Ladder. The backing band looked a bit different than the normal dudes. But, thankfully, not much else had changed. He’s still a squash man. You’re still a pusshead. And there’s a cab waiting somewhere out there. Perfect.
Now… if you’re following along in the gallery, here’s where things go a little off the rails. I bounced around from American Thrills to Broken Record to The Punk Cellist and Dead Bars. And during all this bouncing, my camera decided to have a little breakdown. As I said, it’s been years since either it or I worked our asses off covering a festival as jam packed as Fest. I needed to sit down a few times throughout the weekend and apparently so did my camera, at this moment. So the photos are few and far between and they’re crappy, but the bands are NOT. I knew about American Thrills from when they released their debut album last year on Wiretap Records. They were so fun and I immediately put them on my mental list of bands to go out to see whenever they come through Chicago. Yeah, I have one of those now!
I snuck into How Bazaar just in time to catch the last song from Broken Record. I didn’t get to hear enough to give you much more than this, but they did come highly recommended from a handful of Fest friends. Over to the Punk Cellist. I’ve been following Ian online for a few years. I actually remember the first year I heard about him playing Fest. I heard that some dude with a cello was playing punk songs at Hippodrome. But I didn’t make the set because I ran into someone on the street and we went and grabbed drinks. NOT THIS YEAR! He opened with Hot Water Music’s “Trusty Chords,” the perfect Gainesville set list starter. It was strange yet interesting to have Ian playing the vocal melodies of the songs, to have his backing band flesh out the rest of the songs, and ALSO have a whole crowd of Fest goers screaming the lyrics to tried and true punk staples. It was strange… but it worked. I loved it! If you EVER get the chance to see The Punk Cellist, do it. He’s super fun, talented, and jus a sweet human being to boot. He also played songs with about 20 other bands all Fest weekend long, so I’m pretty sure that he wins some sort of Guinness World Record for most sets played at a Gainesville, FL music festival or something.
I made it over to catch Dead Bars while they were mid-set. Singer John Maiello started their song “I’m A Regular” and there was a rush of bodies towards the stage. My god. I remember the first year that Dead Bars played Fest. They had been on my radar for a few years prior and I always though that they belonged as an annual Fest staple. From playing to a handful of friends their first year a Durty Nelly’s (now Vencino’s) to this year, filling up Vivid Music Hall (previously Knockin’ Boots, previously 8 Seconds; my god I’ve been going to Fest too long. I remember too much!). Proud of these dudes for all they’ve accomplished over the last few years.
I walked my aching feet back over to Heartwood for Audio Karate, another band I know through the Wiretap roster but had never gotten a chance to see live. They were so great – just a solid, fun af rock band. While I was making my way to grab some water and another Red Bull, I saw someone that I recognized from years ago and I mean YEARS. “Hey? Mark? MARK?” He turned. The last time Mark Oshiro and I were within feet of each other, it was 2009-2010 when we’d show up hours early to AFI shows in Southern California so we could make it to the barricade when the doors opened. I had followed his career as an author throughout the years via Facebook updates. I was in awe. We caught up a bit and shared schedules and band recommendations. It was Mark’s first Fest and he was already positively overwhelmed. I love that. These connections are why I came to Fest!
After Mark and I parted, I walked over to catch Mercy Union. I had never seen the Jersey-based band before, but I had seen lead singer Jared hart play down in Blue Island, IL a few years ago for Punk Rock Pig Roast and Javi (the king of Pig Roast, show booker extraordinaire, and one of my favorite people) talked up the full band so much that I knew I couldn’t miss it. They released a new album, White Tiger, last year and its so good.
While there were still bands I wanted to see on my schedule, I was running on empty and needed to fuel up before my next “must not miss” set of the night. My forever Fest staple, Flaco’s, changed their whole set up since last time I’d been there drunkenly ordering a million tacos late at night. I was able to order outside (cool!) but my normal staples were no longer on the menu (sad!). I tried the veggie nachos and they came out in a pizza shaped to go tin that felt like it was 45 lbs. I found a little corner tucked away from everyone and devoured them like I hadn’t eaten in months. So delicious. And then… it was time.
I walked back over to The Wooly, made my way through the crowd, and got a spot front and center for The Iron Roses. Fronted by BoySetsFire’s Nathan Gray, the band has gone through a bit of rebranding this last year and has released their new (and someone debut) album. And it is phenomenal. I should probably disclose that I met Nathan formally when they were a guest on my podcast last year. And then a few months later, Becky Fontaine, co-lead singer of the band, was also a guest. After that, I started to forge relationships with them both and with the band. They were all SO supportive of my co-host, myself, and the survivors during a very powerful episode which came out in July which rocked the community. In fact, once their album dropped, I received messages from friends about how a number of the songs seem to almost be written as non-official anthems of the movement. If you want me to unskillfully sing the first verse of “Soldier of Fortune” to you as an example, I would be happy to do so.
As I positioned myself directly in the middle of the stage, I stared at Becky as she unwound mic chords, preparing for the set. Look at me. Look at me. She looked up and reacted the exact way I was hoping. Her eyes lit up, she stepped off the stage, and gave me the biggest hug. Then she ran backstage and got Nathan who came out and did the same. THIS is why I came to Fest.
My friends Will, his wife, and Bek were all in the front row with me when the band took the stage. There was dancing. There was singing. There was a lot of contemplating if I could pull off Nathan’s onstage look as well as they did (answer – probably not). The band played the whole new album; it was easily one of the most powerful sets of the weekend for me. After, Bek and I stood in line so she could meet Becky, as they had become fast internet friends over the last few months as well. The Iron Roses are not only amazing people who have released a deeply powerful album, they are also endless supporters of survivors and have backed that with their actions, calling out the bullshit as they see it.
This band, Bek and her crew of Grand Rapids pals, and a handful of other people were the reason that I decided to go to Fest this year after contemplating my safety after an episode released in 2021 along with the July episode and all that came with both. Let me tell you, a girl’s DMs can be a scary looking place when she has a hand in the lead singer of a 30 year old political punk stepping down after numerous rape allegations. But these people made me realize that I still want to be part of this community and they made me feel safe and supported all weekend. I’m not crying, you’re crying!
After all that emotion, I decided that I needed to head to my car and just decompress. On my way, I ran into Dylan and Arion of Dollar Signs. Dylan asked if I had time to hang out and chat and let me know that he had a short list of people he wanted to catch up with this Fest and I was on that list. How could I say no? So I walked with them back to Heartwood and hung out at their merch table as we talked about the last few years. We talked their last two albums, the podcast, our lives, sobriety, how music is bullshit, how music is everything. It was one of those conversations that was all over the place but perfect at the same time. THIS is why I came to Fest. I kept having those moments all day and this was a big one. It was another affirmation that many of the people I loved pre-pandemic are still people I love post and we’re all growing up and still growing together.
The next few hours were a blur. I got to finally see Shehehe after years of pining. They are so fabulous; I spent their whole set dancing and bouncing up and down. I can’t wait to see them again, hopefully in Chicago (hey Shehehe please come to Chicago. I can help you with a show!). Of course I had to catch my new UK buds in Burnt Tapes after I got to chat with them in line earlier at registration. I also was somehow magically able to cut through a packed High Dive and made my way to the front for Tsunami Bomb. While the whole set was energy-packed, my favorite part was when Shauners from Middle-Aged Queers came onstage to sing “Lemonade.” There was dancing, there was laughing, there were band members bumping into each other because there were so many people on the stage. There was also a sighting of tour manager extraordinaire, Charlie Price! Perfect.
My feet were grateful that my final two bands were at the same venue. I got to cross Answering Machine off my bucket list of bands to see. They were SO fun. I’ve been lowkey obsessed with them since they released Bad Luck a month into the pandemic.
And right after them was another Craig Shay band, Cold Wrecks. I learned a few years ago that it’s not Fest unless you see Cold Wrecks. I love them so much and they are so fun. As I sang along through their set, I could feel my voice going out. I hadn’t talked to so many people let alone sang this much in *checks calendar* four years. I made it to the end of their set and scuttled back to my car. After a quick snack stop at the nearby gas station and long shower to wash the Florida off my body, I crawled into bed with a giant bag of Ruffles, a chilled Pedialyte, and a whole lot of Law and Order on TV. Day 1 – done!
Check out the below photos of the day and stay tuned for Day 2 out tomorrow!