Every year for the past 13, Gainesville, Florida has undergone a transformation. Sometime around Halloween weekend, the city sheds its college-town trappings and becomes the playground for a few thousand punk kids who make the trek to the world’s most appropriately named music festival: The Fest, a.k.a. Fest. What makes Fest so different from other punk-affiliated festivals such as Riot Fest or Pouzza Fest is that it serves as a barometer of where the punk scene is while remaining impervious to outside trends. Instead of trying to keep pace with the outside world, Fest has its own focus, giving the bands that play a stamp of approval they can’t get anywhere else.
What started as a celebration of Gainesville punk label No Idea Records quickly became something that crossed genre (and sub-genre!) lines, uniting pop-punk, hardcore, metal, folk-punk, alt-country, and more under one generic-sounding banner. By adopting South By Southwest’s model of taking over already-existing venues and allowing attendees to move among them, it allows fans a chance to see bands in intimate environments, while bands are able to play to packed rooms full of enthusiastic, passionate people. In other words, it’s nothing like seeing a tightly scheduled lineup play in a field, amphitheater, or park.
Though Fest has always gone out of its way to book bands that will attract big numbers (Descendents being the most notable this year), it’s never attempted to stray from its own path. While big-name festivals seem to book from the same talent pool, Fest has remained an outlier. It is, for the most part, genre-specific, and though it occasionally welcomes acts from other worlds (P.O.S., The Emotron), they share share similar roots. Even as bands it has booked for years have gone on to receive critical acclaim (The Hotelier, United Nations, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die), they still return to the Fest, which feels a bit like a homecoming. Though these bands may be playing prime spots at bigger venues, the intimacy and off-the-cuff nature of the Fest remains, as evidenced by bands such The World Is… doing an At The Drive-In cover set on Saturday night, or The Hotelier taking to one of Fest’s smallest venues and playing all of Home, Like No Place Is There in full for a small, rabid crowd, or Canada’s PUP doing a surprise all-request set at High Dive on Saturday afternoon.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen at other big festivals, whose primary purpose is for bands to play to as many people as possible, ideally converting some newcomers in the process. At Fest, punk music’s idealistic naïveté is embraced, allowing bands to break form and do something that could only happen in this world, where the largest venue (Fest’s first outdoor stage, a necessity after the massive Florida Theater closed) can house every single attendee. It’s what allowed for Descendents’ set on Saturday night to become a joyous culmination—with Fest’s nearly 6,000 attendees all packed in and singing along—of what the scene has built as opposed to a watered-down version of punk ideals.
For three days every year, Fest works as a reminder of why fans came to it in the first place. It’s a community that is at times socially conscious (Paint It Black’s Dan Yemin called for increased diversity and equality in punk, RVIVR held a moment of silence in solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri) and at other times a beer-swilling celebration (Every Iron Chic devolved into a glorified beer bath), and that works as a reminder that these separate ideologies have a home together.
Fest is a place where the theory of a great music festival—in which bands and fans can be comfortable and commune—actually works in practice. It offers a look at punk’s past and present, reminding both bands and fans what got them into the scene in the first place and what keeps them coming back, year after year. It’s a festival whose slogan—“I Love To Fest”—feels more like truth than marketing. Fest serves as a reminder that punk isn’t something that you have to age out of. It’s instead a kind of PBR-filled fountain of youth, allowing people to bask in the pleasures of punk without outside concerns for one glorious weekend every year.