In a modern concert ecosystem oversaturated with music festivals, The Fest in Gainesville is an anomaly, marked by an air of authenticity and an unparalleled spirit of collaboration.
Founder Tony Weinbender borrowed $1,000 from his parents to fund the inaugural installment in 2002, spurred by his disappointment in other festivals and his desire to stage one he’d actually want to attend. He and an army of volunteers have since cultivated that investment and spent the last decade or so dedicating their lives to curating an annual punk rock festivus that now draws thousands of people from literally every corner of the globe. Over the years, bands like Less Than Jake, Against Me! and The Bouncing Souls have all raged Fest stages, but less-famous yet equally noteworthy talents have gotten the chance to shine, too.
This year, Weinbender decided to kick off the festivities early and bring the madness south for a two-day pre-party: Big Pre-Fest in Little Ybor. More than 80 Fest-bound bands will land at Pre-Fest first, and if the idea of squeezing all of them plus volunteers and fans into four venues sounds crazy, then you’ve probably never been immersed in the splendor of Fest and all the heartfelt, streamlined cooperation that makes it possible. “Big Pre-Fest came from [regional Pabst Blue Ribbon reps] Seamus Gallagher and Matt Bennett always saying, ‘We should do something in Ybor,’” Weinbender told CL. “I always have a good time in Ybor. All it took was one meeting with the venues and seeing they were all about it.”
While it’s a significant moment for The Fest — which has grown so big its reach has extended all the way to Tampa — Pre-Fest is also an important reflection of Tampa’s own growth as a scene. Local restaurants like The Bricks signed up to feed bands, and area volunteers will be in place to help out with everything from loading equipment to working the doors. In short, a lot of people are donating time and energy, and pretty much everyone feels like they’re winning.
Organizers secure Fest acts an extra date on their Florida tours, because lord knows it’s a pain in the ass to venture down America’s wang. Ybor venues benefit from an influx of warm bodies on two back-to-back weekdays. And local bands get a gig, exposure and the chance at possible inclusion in future Fests. Most importantly, Pre-Fest brings a taste of Fest down to the folks who can’t get up to Gainesville, and starts the party early for those who can.
The beauty of it all, even with favorites like The Menzingers and Teenage Bottlerocket on the bill, is that you’re less likely to recall who played, and more likely to remember the crowds and crowd-surfing, the sing-alongs and moshing, and that distinctive sort of sweaty camaraderie you only get when you’re one of a few hundred like-minded music lovers all enjoying the same epic mid-week party — something altogether more authentic and meaningful than the Warped Tour experience.
“We take a lot of pride in what we do, we work hard,” said Weinbender as he explained why he’s not tired of planning Fest. “I told myself I’ll keep doing it as long as I enjoy it, the bands enjoy it, and the people enjoy it. It’s a passion.”