Photos by Joshua Maranhas
Every year, while most of Florida heads to Jacksonville to face off against Georgia in a college football game, music takes over Gainesville.
The city has birthed a lot of great bands: Hot Water Music, their lead vocalist Chuck Ragan, and Less Than Jake, to name a few. It also plays host to one of the country’s greatest and longer-running punk festivals, The Fest. Gainesville is always a place that musicians enjoy playing, but they seem to really enjoy playing FEST. Having a little extra space to stretch your legs in the streets, see live music, and hang with old friends is cool too, and this year marks the 17th occurrence of the notorious October weekend.
FEST 17, according to many, was the best FEST yet. The event is immersive. It brings fans face to face with the music they love. Music becomes a shared language, and everyone takes the time to listen to each other speak.
Jon Snodgrass—of Scorpios, Armchair Martian, and perhaps best known as the songwriter and guitarist of Fort Collins, Colorado’s Drag The River alongside Chad Price of ALL and A Vulture Wake—says, “It’s the same people who work all the time, so you know them all. They’re actual friends of yours—friends when you’re playing Gainesville not during The Fest.” Snodgrass has a great perspective given he’s played FEST more than a half dozen times. He summarizes, “It’s sort of like when you go to Six Flags and someone gets lost and you just stay in the place where they think you are—if you want to find your people. It’s kind of like that kind of thing.”
FEST offers music lovers of all kinds the chance to walk the streets, organically mingling with fans, musicians, and the occasional unsuspecting local. Reality is, FEST 17 was a well-oiled machine. By now, everyone knows what to expect, and the vibe is well-worn and familiar. “It’s what you’re used to,” Snodgrass says.“I don’t even have to bother [FEST founder] Tony [Weinbender] about the travel. I text Spinache my flight info & he picks me up, like i already know he’s gonna do. And my guitar was left on the plane, so I had to go back for it. I just decided I’m going to have to go back in an hour, so I said, ‘I’ll just ride with you as you’re picking people up.’ The first person he picks up is Tim Barry. I get out, I give him a hug, and it just goes down the road from there, back to the airport to get my guitar & reunite with Mr. Neil Hennessy. Funny thing is, I flew in w/ Chris McCaughan.”
For newcomers, the best approach to FEST may be no approach at all. Be open-minded to the idea that your plans will change. Download the app, be ready to use your ears to find your next stop, and wherever you are, keep in mind that you’re here to have fun. Tons of venues played host to the three-day festival, from Eight Seconds, Bo Diddley Plaza, Big Lou’s Pizzeria, Boca Fiesta, Palomino Pool Hall, Civic Media Center, Durty Nelly’s, Hardback Cafe, High Dive, Loosey’s, Rockeys Dueling Piano Bar, The Atlantic Nightspot, Boxcar at Depot Park, The Hippodrome Theatre, all the way to The Wooly. If it sounds like a lot, it is. It’s impossible to be everyplace, and decisions need to be made. Sometimes, the best decision is to walk in, stand, and listen to whoever is closest and loudest.
Back to an artist’s point of view, Snodgrass’ FEST approach sounds like a great time too. “It’s a family and friends,” Snodgrass says. “I went there to play on my birthday. Tony [Weinbender] suggested that I play. My daughter was born on Halloween. That’s one of the reasons I missed a lot of them. It’s the way Halloween lands. The way Halloween landed this year, and he knew it, that made me feel good. He asked would this be a year you’d want to play Fest? Halloween is going to be on a Wednesday and we won’t even be doing it then. I looked and I was like, ‘oh perfect. My birthday is Saturday. Let’s do it Saturday.’”
In addition to Drag The River, who played Rockeys Dueling Piano Bar Saturday night after Lagwagon’s set at Bo Diddley Plaza, a sampling of highlights—at least, as many as one person could cram into their grab bag—goes like this:
Bad Cop / Bad Cop’s acoustic set included Linh Le doing a fantastic Chuck Ragan cover for which she sang through a knitted beard.
Piebald’s mystery set at The Wooly crushed. Lots of great music from 2002’s We Are the Only Friends We Have was played.
The Flatliners frontman Chris Cresswell’s veins popped out of his neck as he belted every note without missing a step. They played Bo Diddley, and it was captivating.
Deanna Belos’ Sincere Engineer shows—both with a full band and Sunday’s acoustic set—were outstanding. Lots of singalongs and a great cover of “My Friend Peter” by Alkaline Trio.
Comeback Kid at Eight Seconds was as old-school, climb-over-your-friends-in-the-pit, search-for-the-mic, grab-your-shoes-from-the-floor-at-the-end-of-the-set, and get-rid-of-your-sweat-soaked-hoodie as one could imagine.
Spells hit the stage—though vocalist Ben Roy spent all his time off the stage and in the pit—at High Dive on Saturday. It was amazing. He’s funny on the mic, and Spells played, arguably, one of the most entertaining shows of the weekend. The Denver band put music and comedy in a blender, and what comes out is healthier for the heart than a kale smoothie. Pure party fun with lots of laughs and dancing. Their matching shirts and unadulterated energy really hit all the right notes to make you smile.
Joey Cape and Lagwagon performed 1998’s Let’s Talk About Feelings, but the moment that hangs in time, frozen in mind, is Cape’s tribute to the late Tony Sly—not just the lovely performance and tribute to his fallen friend but the personal context he offered before the song. Cape reinforced that FEST really is a special place for music.
Drag The River closed out the long Saturday night at Rockeys. When you break away the rock—or “country rock” or “alt country,” you choose—from Drag The River by subtracting drums and pedal steel, you’re left with a diamond. Snodgrass and Price’s singing can make you stop and put your hat over your heart. They’re an American treasure. Each performance is one of a kind, and it makes you want to see every single one. Requests are taken from the crowd, chances are taken from the stage, and the playing is the best they’ve ever done—until the next time.
A “Jon and Chad set,” as some call it, showcases the core duo’s ability to write beautiful music. “He came and practiced with me at the hotel last weekend,” Snodgrass says of Price. “It was like slipping on a glove. It was like, ‘OK.’ We were hoping that we knew how to play some of these songs, and we did. I don’t remember our set, though. It was a long couple of days. I was just enjoying it.”
Drag The River haven’t played in a while, but they’ve got some more shows coming up this year. “It’s the first gig of the year for us,” Snodgrass says of FEST 17. “We have three more, and then, that’s it. We’re playing a show in Fort Collins, and then we’re playing a show in Denver. The main thing that we’re doing is Stephen [Egerton] called up and asked if we’d play a show with ALL in Tulsa [on Nov. 18], the day after the last Descendents show of the year.”
Heading into Sunday, FEST weekend continued with great show after great show. The Lawrence Arms, Rozwell Kid, PKEW PKEW PKEW, The Stereo, Mustard Plug, Red City Radio, and Iron Chic all killed at Bo Diddley Plaza.
It may go without saying that FEST 17 was the best FEST ever, except there are people saying it from the stage to the streets. They say it a lot, and they say it out loud: from the fans overheard as they pass from venue to venue to Joey Cape onstage praising Gainesville and this hallowed event.
Snodgrass joins that chorus too. “I would always go and play in Orlando and Tampa, then normally play FEST on Sundays. Many times, I wasn’t there more than one night,” he concludes. “This time, I was there three nights, and it was the best FEST. I loved it. It was awesome.”