Live Review: The Fest 15

We could be in Little Ybor enjoying Pre-Fest. Instead we’re in a downtown Gainesville dive bar getting wired with a fraternity and singing songs about Wolverhampton Wonderers.

Spirits are high as it’s the weekend of The Big Game, and some 300,000 people from Florida and Georgia will make the journey to Jacksonville for one of gridiron’s most enduring rivalries. Nicknamed The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, it leaves Gainesville ripe for an invasion of 4,000 punks, in town to see some of the best bands around.

Unsurprisingly, after an evening spent singing/murdering Weezer and Celine Dion while downing numerous Long Island Ice Teas and calling Wolves’ Kevin Muscat a wanker, Friday’s hangover feels like a brain aneurism.

Day One: Friday 28th October

But, by the time Chicago’s The Island of Misfit Toys (5/5) hit the stage, lethargy has been replaced by excitement. And the Chicagoan heroes don’t disappoint. A blur of limbs and vocal textures, they’re far less twee and much punchier live than on record. The sound at Rockey’s Piano Bar is fantastic too – a feature that continues throughout the weekend. Debuting a number of new songs – all of which sound hugely promising – the highlight of the all-too-brief set is an electrifying take on ‘Bath’ off last year’s ‘I Made You Something’, which switches tempos and styles with joyous recklessness.

Buoyed by the exciting start, it’s a quick hop to Bo Didley’s Plaza, the outdoor main stage of the Fest, to catch returning heroes Latterman (4/5). Unsurprisingly for a band considered Fest royalty, their set is a riot of sing-along, fist-in-the-air anthems and the enormous crowd responds in kind. Drawing largely off ‘No Matter Where We Go…’ tracks like ‘Zombies Are Pissed’ are huge, life-affirming moments.

Beaming, we return to Rockey’s for indie-rockers Sinai Vessel (5/5). The North Carolina trio are gearing up to released their much-anticipated second album in January next year, and give excellent new single ‘Dogs’ an early airing. They’re a mesmerising lot too; vocalist Caleb Cordes can switch through the gears at will, especially so on the emotionally draining ‘Cats’, a song so powerful it’ll give you chills.

After such an intense performance, we head to Cowboys and Red City Radio (4.5/5) to decompress. Promising big dumb fun, the Oklahoma rockers are perfect for the Fest, and easily fill a stage and venue as large as Cowboys with their crowd-pleasing punk rock anthems. ‘Show Me…’, a song so positively dumb (and dumbly positive) it leads to appropriate levels of pandemonium is undeniably great fun and testament to the strength of good songwriting and an affirmative positive mental attitude.

The Civic Media Centre is a multi-purpose space a couple of blocks away from the main Fest hubbub. It’s worth the trek down there though to catch Already Heard faves Brightr (4.5/5) though. Talking honestly and candidly about his struggles with his mental health, it’s a powerful and sobering set from Laurie Cottingham, serving as a reflective pause amid the chaos of Fest.

And talking of chaos, Spraynard’s Pat Graham (4/5), performing as a solo artist, is as loose and fun as you could imagine. Graham is an engaging singer, joking about when other people would do certain parts in songs when he’s unable to replicate them live, yet still manages to deliver a set that is a ramshackle celebration of overcoming obstacles.

Feeling refreshed, we return to Rockey’s for Annabel (5/5). The Ohio indie-rockers enjoy some World Series-based banter with the crowd, and in particular Chicago’s Lifted Bells, who played previously. It’s all good-natured fun, serving to emphasize the close-knit family feeling of the DIY scene. It makes for a rousing, feel-good finale of the first day of the Fest too, as they rip through songs off last year’s excellent ‘Having It All’ and predecessor ‘Youth in Youth’. Highlights are numerous – including a haunting take on the gorgeous ‘Our Days Were Numbered’ – yet it’s the freewheeling chaos of closer ‘Parade Rest’ that leaves us walking home elated.

Day Two: Saturday 29th October

While Iron Chic (4.5/5) played a rammed ‘secret show’ at Loosey’s the previous night, there really is no better way to start the day than with the Long Island punkers playing in the early afternoon sunlight at the Bo Diddley Plaza. They’re on fire from the off too, slashing through ‘Cutesy Monster Man’ to a bouncing throng of heads and pointing fingers. In a touching moment they dedicate ‘Every Town Has An Elm Street’ to guitarist Rob McAllister, who passed away earlier this year, while the group’s heartfelt yet existential jams, such as ‘I Always Never Said That’, go down a storm.

For the first time in the weekend we head to High Dive, grab ourselves some Fest Punch (unbelievably strong, since you asked) and settle in for a run of bands. Reforming pop-punkers Digger (4/5) are first up, playing to an appreciative crowd desperate to hear some songs from the good ol’ days. In fact, this is probably the best Digger have ever sounded, with Chris Benner and his Pennsylvanian charges blasting their way through a greatest hits set. Real oldies, like ‘I Want My Hat Back’ and the brilliantly infectious ‘Geek Love’, still sound fresh, filled with verve and heart and just enough swagger to not be saccharine sweet.

It’s a busy afternoon for iron Chic’s Phil Douglas and Mattie Jo Canino, as here they are with Tender Defender (4.5/5), playing their second set in less than three hours. There’s no sign of fatigue though as they bounce through cuts from their self-tiled mini EP with gusto. ‘Hello Dirt’ is a party from start to finish, while a raucous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is every bit as joyous as it promises.

By the time Worriers (4/5) hit the stage, High Dive is beginning to feel somewhat stuffy as bodies cram in. That said, it doesn’t deter the punters from enjoying themselves as Lauren Denitzio’s socially conscious rockers leave a lasting impression thanks to some sharply-observed lyrics and infectious hooks. Focusing largely off last year’s excellent ‘Imaginary Life’, there’s a fire to songs such as ‘Yes All Cops’ and ‘They/Them/Their’ that burns in a live setting, combining foot stomping melodies and a pointed message with deft aplomb.

With a little downtime, we head to Durty Nelly’s to catch scratchy indie-punks Nostradogmus (4/5), who mark themselves out as ones to watch with some devilishly infectious songs and lots of audience interaction, before heading to Cowboys to catch Slingshot Dakota (4.5/5). In what feels like a recurring theme of the day, Latterman/Iron Chic’s Mattie Jo Canino finds some time to get on stage, helping with backing vocals and ensuring there’s a celebratory feel to their set, while a talk about acceptance and punk rock not simply being about guys with guitars is genuinely affecting, as is a swirling and clever take on Fugazi’s ‘Argument’.

Cheap Girls (4/5) might not be the most exciting band to watch – and God, how much I’d love them if there was just a hint of backing vocals to add texture to their sound – but Ian Graham can’t half pen a great song, and this prowess is evident throughout the Michigan heroes’ set. The stripped back ‘Her and Cigarettes’ is one mass sing along, for example, while the electrifying ‘Knock Me Over’ easily fills the cavernous Cowboys.

By the time Prawn (4/5) hit the stage Cowboys is nicely busy, and the New Jersey indie rockers make the most of the excellent sound, allowing their rich textures to expand and swirl beautifully. They’re a joy to watch too, especially on a big stage, all lurching limbs and angular moves. At times it looks like they’re fighting with their instruments, but it makes for a visual spectacle to match their rawboned, off-kilter anthems.

While Prawn look like they could do themselves a mischief, it’s a small wonder Dead Bars’ (5/5) John Maiello hasn’t done his vocal chords serious damage. A dervish of a man, he spits every word he sings, straining at the leash and veins popping until his face reddens. It’s a schlep down to Palomino, but totally worth it to see the Seattle punks rip through the likes of ‘No Tattoos’ and ‘Problems’ like it could be the last time they ever play them. The punk upstarts are great fun, with their simplistic songs displaying hidden depths and plenty of heart. With a debut full-length finally coming out next year, now’s the time to get on board with one of the most fun bands around.

We quickly trek back to Cowboys to catch Signals Midwest (4/5), who keep the energy levels high, with vocalist Maxwell Stern a spectacle on stage. An exceptional songwriter, the likes of ‘West Side Summer’ come alive in the live arena, complete with a raucous response from a packed crowd.

It’s packed too for Pkew Pkew Pkew (5/5) over at the Market Street Pub; in fact, there’s actually a sense of anticipation in the air as the Canadian hopefuls hit the stage. Drawing entirely from their acclaimed self-titled release of earlier this year, Pkew Pkew Pkew play undeniably contagious – yet stupendously idiotic – punk rock, treading a fine-line between goofy feel-good punk and knockabout fratboy jock-rock. Yet there’s a heart and pathos to songs such as ‘Glory Days’ and ‘Before We Go Out Drinking’ that elevates them far above their peers. Their 30-minute set is carnage from start to finish; beer – and crowd surfers – fly through the air with gusto, while a closing blast of ‘Let’s Order A Pizza’ is an unhinged highlight.

Fest is as good as a hometown show for Orlando’s You Blew It! (4.5/5), and even the enormous Cowboys feels suitably packed for the returning heroes. Ripping straight into ‘Match & Tinder’, the place goes off, with bodies surging forward and climbing above the throng in an instant. Fan favourite ‘Award of the Year Award’ goes down a storm too, while new single ‘Autotheology’ points to a more considered and expansive direction for the indie-rockers.

Having wowed us once already, we head to the Whiskey House to see if Sinai Vessel’s Caleb Cordes (4.5/5) can repeat the trick at his solo show. In a more intimate setting, it’s equal parts frightening and inspiring just how much emotion he can pack into a song, turning a staple of the great American songbook, Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’, into a haunting tale of sorrow and regret. His own stuff’s rather good too, and in this stripped back setting it allows the more sparse and literary ‘Cuckold’ to shine.

Day Three: Sunday 30th October

While we afford ourselves a later start, Jeff Rosenstock (4/5) is on hand to energise us with his high-octane set. Rosenstock is a brilliant frontman, confident enough to change up the style of songs at will. ‘Hey Allison’ is played at breakneck speed and yanking on the leash to go for a walk around Bo Diddley Plaza, while ‘Nausea’ includes a trad-ska break that’s as winsome as it is unexpected.

Rosenstock’s winding down as we head over for Sports. (4.5/5) at Durty Nelly’s, and it seems many are of the same thought as the little Irish bar is packed by the time the Boston indie/punk/emo/math champs take the stage. For a three-piece, the sounds and textures thrown out by Sports. are astonishing, with noodling riffs making way for pop-punk choruses and spiky punk hooks. They’re great fun too, challenging the crowd to a game of Magic: The Gathering after the set.

There’s a sizeable crowd at The Wooley for fellow Boston rockers Choke Up (5/5) – and they too are more than up to the task. Relying heavily on tracks from last year’s outstanding ‘Black Coffee, Bad Habits’, the indie-punks are a hugely entertaining watch, with all four members in on the vocal act, frequently stepping away from the mic and just bellowing lyrics to the crowd. They’ve got the songs too; ‘Crosses’ is a riot while the more melodic ‘1301 Las Vegas Boulevard’ is a grin-inducing sing-along anthem. They wrap things up with a fantastically raucous cover of the Weakerthans ‘Aside’ (I won’t lie, I lost my shit…) and a powerful take on their own ‘Woke Up Drunk’, which sees all four members just shouting the refrain into the crowd. Fans of PUP won’t want to sleep on these lads…

Having missed MakeWar (4.5/5) earlier in the weekend, we make amends by catching the hotly-tipped folk-punkers play a solo acoustic set at the Whiskey House. Dressed head-to-toe in black, and with his sunglasses on, Jose Prieto’s an imposing chap, even when he’s bathed in sunlight through the Whiskey House’s ceiling high glass windows. Initially starting out in the acoustic act Sad & French, his set is culled primarily from their excellent self-titled record. Regaling us with tales of heartbreak and drink, there’s an intimacy to songs such as ‘Another Way To Let You Go’ that belie Prieto’s rough-edged vocals.

It’s been a heck of a year for Toronto’s PUP (4.5/5), and their set at the Bo Diddley Plaza feels like the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat and tears. They’re up for the challenge of a main stage appearance too, making for a chaotic early evening diversion. New songs such as ‘Familiar Patterns’ get greeted like long lost friends, while old favourites ‘Reservoir’ and ‘Mabu’ are pit-friendly anthems that get the frenzied response they deserve.

Durty Nelly’s is once again nicely busy, this time for Museum Mouth (4.5/5) who, despite joking they expected to play to five people max (or just one – Chris Farren), find themselves facing an expectant throng. When bands have a lead-singing drummer, it always makes for an interesting dynamic, yet in a place as cosy as Durty Nelly’s, it works perfectly. With the lo-fi production removed, it’s also remarkable just how clever Karl Kuehn’s songwriting is, revealing the songs to be fluid and dexterous with plenty of peaks and troughs. Opener ‘Alex Impulse’ rattles along with a goofy charm, it’s delicious guitar solo sashaying through the middle with carefree abandon, while the closing ‘Lacquer’ could fill venues 10 times the size of Durty Nelly’s and still shake it to its foundations.

Due to the overlap and walk between venues we only catch the end of Runaway Brother (4/5) but the sound in Rockey’s is once again up to the mark, doing justice to the textured sounds of the Cleveland indie-rockers. Look Mexico (4/5) sound equally amazing; their mathy arrangements swirling around Rockey’s and pulling in every direction. They’re a draw too; while Rockey’s has been busy for every band we’ve seen there, it’s heaving for the returning Tallahassee heroes.

The outdoor lot at Boca Fiesta is also rammed for Chicago’s Dowsing (4.5/5). Having delivered one of 2016’s finest albums, ‘Okay’, it feels like a real breakthrough for one of the biggest cult bands out there. They tear through ‘Wasted on Hate’, Erik Hunter Czaja beaming from ear to ear as the crowd responds. Appropriately, there’s a fiesta feel to their set, with cuts like ‘Born to Soar’ providing a suitably bouncy conclusion to our Fest 2016 experience. Same time next year?

Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)

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