In 2007, I went to The Fest 6. It quickly became tradition. Each April I book my hotel, each October I fly to Gainesville. In attending every festival from 2007-2014, The Fest grew. More bands play each year, more venues pop up across downtown Gainesville. Many of the same bands play, and many of the same people attend each year. The Fest changed and so did my reasons for coming. I still want to see as many bands as possible crammed into a three-day weekend, but it mostly became about seeing the friends I’ve made at the event each year.
Life happened the week after Fest 13—on my first day back at work, actually, which is when I was laid off. I had to take a couple years off from my favorite getaway, but with Fest 16 on the horizon and peace of mind about personal matters, October was pilgrimage time once again. I didn’t have the same lead time this year and family obligations changed the experience once again.
Everyone else will tell you what happened in Gainesville. And, because something like 400 bands hit the town, everyone will have a unique story. I’m going to talk Big Pre-Fest in Little Ybor 5 instead, the Oct. 25-26 mini-festival of “just” 80 bands at five venues spread over roughly eight blocks of Ybor City, FL.
The most important thing to note about Pre-Fest is that I made this trip with a friend I met in Gainesville. We may have met at Fest 12, but was probably earlier. It’s hard to keep track, because we’ve caught many of these same bands time and time again, every year.
Wednesday October 25
Flying into Tampa is easier than Gainesville. Flights are cheaper and the city has easy access to mass transit, cabs, ridesharing services and the like. After a quick check-in near downtown, we hit Ybor City on foot to get the lay of the land. This was my first Pre-Fest, but downtown Ybor City is easy to navigate and primarily grid in layout. The streets are numbered sequentially, are well lit, and generally pedestrian friendly. The downtown is lined with a unique mix of pubs, restaurants and hookah bars. Sometimes a chicken will block your walk down the sidewalk.
Of the five music venues for Pre-Fest, most seem to be regular venues. This means the sound is good and sightlines are (mostly) adequate. It’s something that is occasionally lacking in some of Gainesville’s venue-for-a-weekend establishments.
Registration was a breeze. Then we got some Greek food and I had a couple Jai Alai IPAs before true Pre-Fest began. Wednesday’s line-up featured a lot of unknowns and curiosities (for me), while Thursday was set to be some of my annual favorites.
If my count is accurate (and it probably isn’t), I saw nine bands on my first day. It was exhausting, in truth. For The Fest, I’ve always flown to town the night before. I did a same-day flight for Pre-Fest and I encourage Festers to arrive early and sleep off the airport fatigue if it’s an option. This definitely affected my feelings about day one—which is all on me.
City Mouse was the first band to make a real impression, with roaring r’n’r rock and a great stage presence that brought the intimate nature of The Crowbar home. If it weren’t for flying light (meaning no merch purchases), I’d have more to say about their work. The short story is they made a strong impression and I’ll be seeking out more material.
I’d seen The Murderburgers before, I think in an all-European lineup at Loosey’s at Fest 13. This time I knew what to expect and it delivered catchy, chord-driven punk with some serious punch and an ear for melody. The three-piece are high energy, mixing a strong Ramones base with nuanced variety in their song structures. All the forward-pushing snares kicked the energy up a notch at a time it was most needed.
Against Me! closed out the night at The Orpheum, the biggest venue at Pre-Fest. While it’s a decent-sized room, there still weren’t any lines to get in—even with a packed house for the first of many Against Me! sets over the next five nights. The band had been preparing for their Reinventing Axl Rose set at the upcoming Fest, so Wednesday night’s selections pulled heavily from the band’s early work and mixed in less regular playlist hits like “Miami.” The show was dominated by Laura Jane Grace’s enthusiasm. The energy of the crowd and playing to a Florida crowd clearly energized her and she balanced mic-shouting emotional vocals while dancing across the stage. The band added a saxophone for a few songs midway through the set.
Thursday October 26
Wednesday suffered from exhaustion, but with a full night’s sleep and an understanding of Ybor streets, Thursday was a big day—21 bands over roughly 12 hours. The press pass helps to jump from venue to venue, but I honestly didn’t see any venues keeping people out for capacity reasons. The venues and crowds were just the right size where it felt intimate but never sparse.
I could fill a notebook with takeaways and highlights, but in a day of 21 bands, let’s give spotlight to the best of the best.
Ray Rocket played an early afternoon acoustic set, pulling from Teenage Bottlerocket’s playbook, but mixing it up with cover tunes, some impressive 1-2-3-4 Ramones-style lead-ins, and a touching speech about his late brother. Fest 16 marked his first Fest without his brother and he shared memories about how The Fest was a time he and his brother would connect and relax during their busing touring lives. While the subject matter was heavy, the music and energy were enthusiastic, emphasizing how everyone at The Fest comes together for similar reasons, putting the rest of the world behind them for a few days. The feeling bleeds across audience and stage and it’s infectious.
Dead Bars are a band I discovered at an earlier Fest, back when they had released something like one or two 7”s. They put out the enjoyable full-length Dream Gig earlier this year. While the band has some deeper and dark meaning behind their songs of revelry, it’s that live-for-the-moment atmosphere that is ultimately fitting of The Fest’s environment. When vocalist John Maiello flails about with a can of PBR in the air, it captures that embrace-the-moment-because-we’re-all-in-this-together vibe that dominates every band on every stage in every venue.
While the party was after 1am when The Lillingtons wrapped up Pre-Fest, Toys That Kill hit the peak of the energy much earlier. Playing an early evening set, the San Pedro band delivered their trademark off-kilter pop punk with a number of hits off Sentimental Ward and stretching back through their whole catalogue. It was the second set of the night for most of the members, who also played The Crowbar stage as Clown Sounds four hours earlier (with a setlist of mostly Underground Railroad to Candyland songs).
80+ bands graced five stages across downtown Ybor in two days. Yours truly caught parts of 30 of them. While comparisons aren’t really the point of the arts, it’s inevitable to ask how Pre-Fest compares to The Fest. The short answer is that the vibe is very similar, but in a smaller, compact setting with more intimacy and fewer lines. There are no stage barriers at the five venues, the different stages are just a few doors down from each other, and bands tend to be out eating a slice of pizza on the street when they aren’t playing. Considering that everything is on a tight schedule, the vibe is extremely relaxed and enjoyable. Comparing crowds, Pre-Fest is a bit tamer, with more local Tampa area residents and other travelers who are saving their energy for the big three-day weekend to come.
The Lillingtons wrapped up at 1:20, just about eight hours before The Porkchop Express departed for Gainesville. Most Pre-Fest attendees went north on I-75 for The Fest 16. Reluctantly—and already disappointed to miss dozens of great bands at Fest proper—my friend and I scheduled a rideshare to the airport and returned to the real world three days too early.
- Off With Their Heads acoustic show made an impression, notably how John Polydoros made the trip after a recent health scare.
- Clown Sounds set included three perfectly synced drummers, sharing the same kit between - them.
- Against Me! with a Tom Petty cover
- Lots of open discussion by bands about mental health and its challenges
- Western Addiction made one of the strongest impressions, converting me from casual fan to the next level
- While acoustic shows work well to start the day, it was nice to see a limited lineup of this style
- An enthusiast room and an Arms Aloft set is a perfect pairing
- Pkew Pkew Pkew had the biggest crowd I saw at Tequila’s, filling the room to the back door
Bands experienced (the complete list): Daydream, City Mouse, Red City Radio, Tartar Control, Direct Hit, The Murderburgers, Apologies I Have None, Against Me!, Arms Aloft, Garrett Dale (Red City Radio acoustic), Ray Rocket, Off With Their Heads (acoustic), Western Addiction, Dead Bars, A Wilhelm Scream, Jabber, Clown Sounds, Tiltwheel, Pkew Pkew Pkew, Too Many Daves, The Tim Version, Tim Barry, Beach Slang, Toys That Kill, Signals Midwest, Astpai, Against Me!, Debt Neglector, 88 Fingers Louie, The Lillingtons