In a blur of concert flyer-covered streets, forearms bearing collections of multicolored wristbands and inescapable medleys of live music pouring out of downtown Gainesville venues, Jenna Bassi awaited her very first FEST.
The 27-year-old traveled from her home in New York to follow her favorite band, Crime In Stereo, in their latest slew of shows across the northeast. She capped off her mini-tour in Florida, where the band was set to play Sunday.
Bassi has always wanted to come to FEST, where some of her most cherished music has been showcased over the years. But as a teacher, the festival’s timing never allowed her to — until this year. She and friend Eleni Doulos finally made it to their sought-after Gainesville stages.
“I’m just excited to spend the weekend with my best friend,” Bassi said.
Bassi’s FEST anticipation is just an example of what Gainesville’s quintessential punk-powered music and entertainment festival means to people. The 19-year-old event invites thousands of punk fans to the streets of downtown Gainesville each year for live music, independent professional wrestling and live comedy.
With the countless hurdles to live music following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community-oriented and volunteer-driven event had to diverge slightly from its typical path this year. But masks and extra safety precautions only worked to fuel the weekend, with both artists and attendees willing to do whatever it takes to experience live music again — whether it be from behind the mic or within the crowd.
FEST owner Tony Weinbender mentioned the fear felt by the music industry in the past year, as it often felt there was no end in sight for the halt placed on live shows. This year’s FEST offered an opportunity for fans and bands to dive back into not only live music, but the community FEST fosters.
Weinbender said the event owes its success to its own volunteer network.
“The bands really love the fact that they have all these eager, excited college students all the way up to retirees that volunteer for FEST every year,” he said. “We always say we’re leading by example with the positivity that FEST is.”
That positivity and stake in the community is what largely keeps the volunteer pool so strong year after year.
Longtime volunteer-turned-FEST employee Avery Bender capped off her 16th year with the event this weekend. After coming back each year for 10 FESTs in a row, they were promoted to venue overhead manager, in charge of six stages across downtown and training volunteers.
“Everyone that does it truly believes in making it,” she said. “You want it to succeed.”
The community ties FEST fosters run deep. Gainesville-born band Hot Water Music returned to FEST this year, eager to return to a hometown stage. Drummer George Rebelo said the past year was the longest he had gone without playing live music in his career of 27 years.
The band played their 2001 album, “A Flight and a Crash,” from start to finish during the weekend, marking their first time playing some of those songs live ever. Revisiting the 20-year-old album wasn’t only a way to give back to fans — it also served as a realization of the group’s artistic and professional growth, Rebelo said.
And just as the band has grown, he said he’s seen FEST evolve, too. From its earliest iterations and formative years, FEST has grown into an annual hub for a like-minded musical community — usually dressed in all black, Rebelo added.
With two weekend shows on downtown’s Bo Diddley Community Plaza, one being an all-fan-requests set, Hot Water Music dove back into a crowd of familiar fans in the same place they got their bearings, following what seemed like an end of live music.
“I feel like I have purpose in life again,” Rebelo said.
Also revisiting Gainesville stages this weekend was Los Angeles-based band Spanish Love Songs, playing their fourth FEST. The emo punk-adjacent band played two shows this weekend, one at Bo Diddley Plaza stage and another more intimate acoustic set at Loosey’s.
The variety of venues and scope of the festival is something lead vocalist and guitarist Dylan Slocum thinks makes FEST so distinctive. Shifting from performing on one stage and becoming a fan at another stage makes it feel less like a festival and more like a collection of unmissable shows, he said.
With only six shows under their belt this year, FEST served as one of Spanish Love Songs’ first big live shows back. To the band, Slocum said this meant not only being able to jump back into the essence of their whole career, but also to connect with a community where they feel most at home.
“I think a big part of our band is kind of killing our collective loneliness,” he said. “So being able to do that with a crowd of people is just the most important thing to us.”
Brittany Luna of ska punk band Catbite cited the pandemic as not only a gap in live music but also a shift in the way artists view their careers. With no one to perform for and an uncertain road ahead, much of the music industry turned to support rather than competition.
“It feels like people are wanting to boost their friends or wanting to boost music that they like,” she said. “It gives you a whole new reach to different people.”
Heading into their second FEST, Catbite was most excited to connect with social media friends and old music communities they hadn’t seen, coming together in the face of returned live music.
For returning artists and volunteers, FEST is a longtime tradition. But each year remains a new opportunity for those first making their way in.
Minneapolis-based band Gully Boys played their first FEST this year. The three piece formed in 2016 with lead vocalist and guitarist Kathy Callahan, bassist Natalie Klemond and drummer Nadi McGill. Only five years old, the group christened their first Florida show with a Saturday night set at Loosey’s.
Apart from playing a festival they’ve always wanted to, the band was most excited to be fans this weekend, too.
“That’s one of my favorite feelings and one of the things I miss most about being able to go to shows and see live music — just stumbling upon a band that takes your breath away,” McGill said.
The grunge pop-inspired trio marked their sound as melodic and emotion-oriented more than anything else. And after releasing their EP “Favorite Son,” earlier this year, getting back into performing live left them playing every show like it’s their last.
“We’re a little bit more grateful and mindful of what we have and what can be taken away,” Callahan said.
Whether at FEST as a fan, artist, volunteer or any combination of the bunch, attendees showed out in the thousands once again — with masks and no less passion for punk.
Contact Chloe at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_greenberg.