Festival Review: The Queer Punks of FEST 21 in Gainesville, FL

For the uninitiated, FEST might seem like your average punk rock festival—the smaller sibling to larger and more established events like Riot Fest or Punk Rock Bowling. A few large band staples like the Descendents or Jawbreaker adorn the top of the poster, followed by a cascade of smaller bands in much smaller font below.

But to those of us indoctrinated into the magic that is FEST, those tiny type bands make up a galaxy of smaller punk rock subcultures. From self-aware ska nerds, Hot Water Music worshiping dads who love a good IPA, the poke and stick tattoo collecting oogles, and our favorites: the queerdo punks who let their freak flags defiantly fly high in the Florida sun.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Both Niki Pretti and myself play in Middle-Aged Queers, a punk band from Oakland, CA. This year’s FEST marked the second year for Middle-Aged Queers, with last year being our what felt like an inaugural homecoming. Despite the atrocious and dehumanizing rhetoric and legislation directed at trans and queer people coming out of the state, we were quickly greeted by other queer and trans musicians who made it clear to us that FEST was an act of defiance in the sunshine state. As a band, we returned with that mission in our hearts and minds.

Every FEST journey begins at the registration line, where people happily identify their subgenre contemporaries with gifts of stickers, homemade jewelry, or beer koozies. A gaggle of East Coast gays gave me this year’s “FEST Queer Kids Club sticker, and then it was off to see our first queer band of the festival!

Fox Teeth describe themselves as emo. And while I can see that fitting for them, in the year 2023, I find that term has very little meaning from years of erosion that began years before members of this band were born. I’ve heard the term “bummer pop” being thrown around over the last few years, and I think that might better suit them. Despite the melancholy grooves and croons, Fox Teeth still maintains a level of bravado and joy.

Last year, The Iron Roses played a smaller venue in direct conflict with skramz legends City of Caterpillar. Despite that, the small crowd packed tightly and sang their hearts out. This year, they played their brand new self-titled album to a tightly packed audience.

On a bigger stage, vocalists Becky Fontaine and Nathan Gray took full control of the stage, lovingly interacting with each other in a celebratory feminine energy. Driving the beautiful harmonies, the music to every song felt like a protest anthem, defiantly pummeling on top of each other with an underlying theme of survival.

Bitch Seat are the greatest thing to ever happen to punks who loved Meredith Brooks and Lisa Loeb in the 90s and have been waiting for something to scratch that itch. And as soon as the thought of Meredith Brooks came to mind for this review, the band immediately launched into a cover of one of her songs! A perfect nightcap to the first day of FEST.

We started Saturday early at Loosey’s for The Dreaded Laramie. Matching outfits? Synchronized dances? The Dreaded Laramie is the queer-tinged power pop punk band you don’t deserve but the band you need. Their latest EP is long out of print, and it’s incredible, but it does not do their live show justice. Keep your eyes peeled for when they’re coming to a town near you.

Then it was off to Queer The Fest, the annual LGBTQ+ offshoot to The main FEST. The daylong showcase also serves as a fundraiser for multiple local non-profits, along with mutual aid efforts like Narcan training before the music starts.

We walked into Civic Media Center to the ethereal Obliviana, a local Gainesville resident and solo performer. The low-fi synth pop was a welcome palate cleanser after two days of power chords and blast beats.

Following Obliviana, we were treated by fellow Gainesville musicians Rugh, who kept the crowd on their toes with their brand of “Bummer Pop,” with twists and turns both musically and lyrically.

By the time Middle-Aged Queers took the stage, the mood had significantly shifted. Band members and volunteers swapped the combo amps off the stage for much larger cabinets as the sun went down and stage lights went on. I worried that we might be too abrupt of a change. But within the first few minutes, the crowd pogoing and singing along. It was clear that people were in attendance to support queer music, regardless of genre.

As Antagonizer took the stage, the crowd began swelling in size. Clearly, these Gainesville punk-metal crossover queerdos had plenty of local appeal. Cans of PBR were raised for choruses and quickly spilled as the trio crushed through 20 minutes of songs that could easily be mistaken for a lost Motorhead album.

Austin Lucas took the stage next, appearing in a Dolly Parton costume to accompany their solo acoustic set. The majority of their set was Against Me! covers to promote their latest release, “Reinventing Laura Jane Grace.” Making things more interesting, Laura Jane Grace showed up to hear these new interpretations live. She took it all in stride while standing in the back, grinning ear-to-ear.

Back to the official FEST for a bonkers set from GEL, who manage to twist and turn hardcore to their own desires without coming off as contrived or overly shtick.

On Sunday, we dragged ourselves out of bed late to wake up to a rousing set from Jabber, a delightful queercore quintet from Oakland. Now, I may be slightly biased (see my full disclosure at the top), but queercore from Oakland is the very best sub-sub-genre that rock and roll currently has to offer, and Jabber offers it with a delightful DIY, pop punk ribbon.

Immediately following Jabber, Baltimore queeroes Braceface took command of the stage with their signature platform shoes, booty shorts, and overly caffeinated punk. Not to be confined by their cavity-causing sweetness, they ended their set with a rousing rendition of “My Rules” by Void.

After a brisk walk to How Bazar, we walked into the first song by Plastic Flamingos. I don’t expect you to think that a band inspired by Pauly Shore and Jimmy Buffett would be incredible, especially with occasional ska riffing sprinkled in for no discernable reason. But it works. Heck, almost anything works in the context of FEST.

Some bands are not covered due to time constraints or set overlaps. Our biggest regret was being unable to attend the Bad Idols show that directly conflicted with Middle-Aged Queers’ load-in time. Bad Idols are probably the most East Bay punk band currently in existence, and they don’t even live in the East Bay. Go cop their new album!

Once Middle-Aged Queers were almost ready to play, the stage manager for the show asked if we had names to give them of folks we wanted inside during our set, as How Bazar was about to hit maximum capacity. Everything after that is a blur. I vaguely remember an ocean of people singing along to songs we have just released in the past few months and a guy in a hog dog costume crowd surfing.

While I tried in vain to dry off my sweat-drenched clothes, Gutless took us through a set of trans and queer intersectional anthems. The band of friends, all located in several cities across the East Coast, looked utterly blissed out in performing with and for a wide breadth of friends. Suddenly, I felt like a welcomed guest in a basement show and not one of the largest punk rock festivals in the country.

As the rest of Middle-Aged Queers hurried off to catch Laura Jane Grace close out FEST for the year, I stayed behind to tend to our merch table. FEST usually only allows bands 30 minutes to sling shirts after a set. Still, it became apparent the line would mean missing that cutoff and Grace.

As I finally packed merch and braced myself for the walk back to my hotel, a cascade of queerdos poured out of both Vivid Music Hall and How Bazar. The streets became alive again for one last time, with dozens of farewell hugs on every corner.

Until next year, Gainesville!

Photos by Niki Pretti. Words by Shaun Osburn

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