Tony Weinbender is the DIY Walt Disney for Gainesville punk-rock lovers.
Nov. 1 marks 18 years since his punk-centered festival, FEST, burst onto the Gainesville music scene and into punk-rockers’ hearts. With its hand-picked bands, comedians and yoga, the three-day festival has become a stable event for Gainesville residents and punk-rock lovers across the globe.
FEST operates as a multiple-venue, choose-your-own-show that resembles similar festivals like SXSW while still maintaining its individuality.
“We like the multiple venue format. I like it because as an attendee, you can choose your own adventure. Gainesville definitely lends to that, and it gives you a better sense of what downtown Gainesville is like. Seeing a show in different rooms and different environments lends each show to have a different experience,” Weinbender said.
This year’s lineup includes many bands celebrating a moment in their careers: Jawbreaker is back from the dead, Jawbox is recently reunited, Stiff Little Fingers is celebrating 40 years of their game-changing debut, Against Me! is playing two sets and FEST itself is celebrating its transition into adulthood.
“I feel like I don’t have to baby it anymore. We have done it many years now, and I can kind of loosen the reigns a little bit,” Weinbender said. “Not to let it be a free-for-all at FEST, but trusting more of the other people that help me do FEST. I don’t have to go around and micromanage stuff anymore. As a dad, I feel like it has come around pretty well.”
FEST creates its unique atmosphere by combining new bands with seasoned veterans.
“Everybody there is there for the same reason: the same love or passion that they’re into, and so everybody is just excited that somebody else is there,” Weinbender said. “Honestly, we’re all just a bunch of nerds that really like a very small sub-genre of music. If you’re into sub-genre punk-rock music or indie rock, FEST is a great experience for you to come and learn about new band.”
Weinbender said he wants to keep the DIY feeling of FEST even through its success. He reaches this goal by keeping attendees in the front of his mind when planning FEST each year.
“I am not some big promoter,” he said. “I don’t do shows throughout the year. We don’t utilize an outside production company. This is not a part of some big conglomerate. There are no outside investors.”
“This started up from the ground up, and it’s always gonna be from the ground up. In the end, our goal is to put on the best show and experience possible for attendees. We always put attendees even over bands in our priority list of like to take care of people. Maybe that is just me coming from a fan’s point of view, but I just want people to be happy.”
Before the existence of Facebook, FEST had a message board on its website where fans of the annual festival would go to chat throughout the year. This online community is now located on Facebook in the group “Fest Friends.”
Stephanie Falcon, program assistant at the UF Levin College of Law, is an administrator of the Fest Friends Facebook group and a former FEST volunteer. She attended her first FEST in 2004 and has attended every year since then. As the years have gone by, her friend group has increased. To her, FEST is equally, if not more, about seeing her close friends as it is about seeing cool bands.
“What is important is seeing all of your friends. All of your ‘FEST friends’ as we call them, and that is personally my highlight of FEST is seeing all of my FEST friends who live in other states. My bestie is someone I met at FEST, and they live in New York, so this is pretty much the only time we get to hang out,” Falcon said.
She said FEST provides an incredible environment for magical moments. According to Falcon, there is nothing like being with your best friends and hundreds of like-minded strangers.
“A lot of these bands are bands that normally play to a room of like 20 people. And now they are playing to three, four, five hundred people singing along. People from all over the world ― there is something really magical about that, when you realize that in the middle of a room that you’re surrounded by all of these strangers, but who are exactly the same as you, singing along to the same song,” Falcon said.
Falcon is looking forward to the upcoming FEST 18. Apart from seeing her friends and absorbing the atmosphere, she is most excited about Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace’s performance at the Civic Media Center.
“I actually bought an extra ticket to that. Just in case it got to capacity, I can still get in. The reason why is because the CMC is one of the first venues that Laura ever played at, solo or with Against Me!,” Falcon said.
“The band Against Me! and Laura’s story in general have had a really huge impact on me and getting to see her in such an intimate setting that is so historic for the band, is just like; to me I can’t miss it. If I see no other bands and just that performance, I will be okay with that.”
This year’s FEST is taking place Nov. 1 through 3. Three-day passes are sold out, but there are still tickets to individual showcases available on the FEST website.