Charlotte goes to The Fest: in search of community, friendship and a build-your-own Florida adventure story


After 1999’s disastrous Woodstock rehash, I thought it meant the end of music festivals. I was only a teenager at the time, but watching the coverage on MTV spelled it out for me in no uncertain terms, or so I thought. Press coverage of Woodstock zeroed in on the corporate greed surrounding the event, and as the weekend progressed, things only got dismally worse.

But while the second wave of Woodstock came to a resounding halt that year, as it turns out, it was not the end of music festivals by any means. Perhaps more so than anything else it simply became a lesson in how not to run a music festival. In just a short few years following the violent conclusion to Woodstock ‘99, several music festivals had their inaugural year, including Coachella, Bonnaroo and Moogfest, as well as a revival of Lollapalooza. These events are surely executed better, insomuch that they have at least curtailed total catastrophe, and I’ve had a great time myself at a couple of them.

Arguably the most polar opposite of the overblown spectacle that was Woodstock, though, is a punk festival held in Gainesville, Florida, matter-of-factly called The Fest (or Fest, for short). Now in its 14th year, Fest has amassed a cult following of faithful attendees, and it has done so solely on its own merit. “Fest is unique in that it began as completely DIY, utilizing several local bars and restaurants without major press coverage,” says Dylan Wachman, bassist for Charlotte folk punk band Dollar Signs. “Most of the sponsors are community-based record labels, screen printing shops and small businesses.” Wachman will be heading down to Gainesville for his sixth year in a row this week. “I made friends six years ago that I still talk to on social media and meet up with every year. It’s become a mandatory vacation.”

Dollar Signs is one of a handful of bands I recently chatted with who will be representing Charlotte at this year’s Fest, which begins today and wraps up late Sunday night. The locally operated Self Aware Records will be sending its own fuzz pop trio Alright down to Florida. (They were also slated to send alt-indie rockers Late Bloomer, but a last-minute illness has unfortunately forced them to cancel their performance). Josh Robbins, who plays bass and serves as a second vocalist in both bands, echoes Wachman’s sentiments. “It’s as much about the hangs as it is about the bands. It’s a community; you get to see friends that you haven’t seen since maybe the last Fest.”

“It’s the last sliver of my youth,” Robbins adds.

It becomes apparent after speaking to my musician friends that Community seems to be the key ingredient for what makes Fest such a special weekend and what keeps attendees coming back year after year. Sarah Blumenthal, guitarist and principal vocalist for Alright, will be heading to Fest for her seventh year in a row, and her first time as a performer. She is able to put things in real terms for me. “The first year I went, I ran from show to show and didn’t take any breaks.”

Yep. This is my standard plan of action for most festivals I’ve attended.

“[But] last year I spent as much time just hanging out with people I don’t get to see often or at all as I did watching bands. One of those years in between, I spent half a day at a nature preserve hanging out with a bunch of alligators. It’s definitely a choose-your-own-adventure experience.”

I’ve been to a number of festivals, and had the time of my life recently at Hopscotch in Raleigh, but I’ve never felt a particularly warm and inviting sense of community at these events, at least not the kind that is being described to me. When I went to Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington a few years ago, I saw lots of my favorite bands but mostly wandered around with my eyes glued to a map. When I ran out of weed, tried to ask my campsite neighbors if they had any on them that I could buy, to no avail. Friends, I did not make.

Sinai Vessel, self-described as “punk for sissies” and partly based out of Charlotte, will be performing an acoustic set this year. Frontman Caleb Cortes says “Just by virtue of being an attendee, you’re always invited to whatever is going on, which is lovely. I hardly knew anyone and wasn’t even 21 my first year, but I felt like every effort was made to accommodate me.”

Naturally, as a musician and part-time show promoter in Charlotte, my mind begins to wander and wonder how we can get more of this kind of attitude. I don’t know if I can quantify exactly how important it is to have all-ages venues, but with the closure of Tremont Music Hall looming in the near future, I know things could be better. Charlotte’s ongoing love affair with beer, as evidenced by the 10+ breweries that have opened in the last decade alone, means it makes more sense to sell alcohol at venues, because it’s the only way for them to stay afloat. If you serve alcohol at your all-ages venue, you’d have to hire more security, because North Carolina’s Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) will become a frequent patron, and the possibility of being shut down will seem like an inevitability.

But I digress. The fourth and final band repping Charlotte at Fest is Sinners & Saints. It will be the first time the Americana folk duo have been to the event, but I suspect that they will feel right at home if all these stories of the inclusive and positive-vibed nature of this festival are indicative of what’s to come for them this year. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about North Carolina music when Perry Fowler and Mark Baran lock in on stage, harmonizing, strumming their acoustic guitar and upright bass, kicking drums and taking whiskey shots in between songs. And who knows, maybe after this weekend, Sinners & Saints will be the next to call Fest their mandatory vacation.

Phil Pucci

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