29 June 2008

Fest 2008

Another year, another Fest, my voice is shot and my muscles are aching all over. What a weekend. What a life. Yes, I could have done more, talked to more people, seen more bands, helped out more, but hey, I think all things considered, I did my Fest best. There were times – moments, anyway – when exhaustion threatened to overcome exhilaration, and times when I caught myself wishing for the smaller, simpler Fests of yesteryear – 2006 and 2007 seem like ancient history now – but by the time Saturday night spilled over into Sunday morning and several hundred of us had been decanted into the steamy midsummer Baltimore night, where we milled about and began our series of dazed, happy and wistfully exuberant goodbyes, there was no doubt about it: the Fest had worked its inexorable magic again.

Some had carped – and I had quietly thought, though keeping those thoughts to myself – that this year’s lineup of bands was not quite as strong as last year’s, but the absence of an undisputed superstar like Ben Weasel – who for reasons known only to himself declined to play this year’s Fest – seemed to have caused people to overlook just how many insanely great bands were playing. And also to overlook the fact that while the Fest is about the music, it’s also not so much about the music as it is about the fellowship and camaraderie of people from all over this country and half a dozen others whose cooperation and inspiration has created - out of very thin air indeed – an event that has grown into the high holy days of the punk rock universe.

All those sessions at the gym had paid off, I found myself thinking more than once, especially in the waning hours of Saturday’s 14-hour marathon. If I hadn’t been in shape, there’s no way I would have still been dancing like a dervish and singing like a possessed banshee hours – some would say years, or decades - after any sensible person would have taken to his recliner and/or bed. By the time I’d watched a succession of exhausted and sweaty musicians pile off stage and into the cool of the dressing rooms, I caught myself mentally asking them, “What are you looking so tired for? You only had to play one set.”

People kept asking me which bands I was most looking forward to and I kept answering evasively because my experience from Fests past is that the most amazing experiences are often the ones that no one was expecting. But there was no denying – especially since I’d written it in the Fest zine compiled by Jenna and Adam Alive – that I had a very intense personal investment – an emotional rather than a financial one, I hasten to add – in at least two bands whose very appearance on the Fest stage was the realization of a long-cherished dream.

The first was the Zatopeks, who I’ve known since their first days back in London and who I’ve been singing the praises of ever since. While I’ve long thought they’re one of the best bands around these days, they haven’t – yet, anyway – achieved the kind of commercial success that would make transatlantic gigs a viable proposition financially. Yet there were, 3000 miles from, getting a rapturous reception from a crowd that already knew their songs well enough to lustily sing along. I can only imagine what that must have felt like from their point of view, but based on my own experience as a touring musician – when meeting someone two cities away from our own who’d actually heard of us was usually cause for great joy – I think I’ve got some idea.

Then there was Sweet Baby. My band played with them once or twice back in 1986 when they were first starting out; the last time I saw them – or that they played a show at all – was in 1989. “We never considered it before now, singer Dallas Denery told me, “because no one had ever asked us.” It took some convincing, in fact, to persuade him and guitarist/vocalist Matt that in 2008 there’d be more than a handful of people who’d even heard of them, let alone wanted to see them play.

By the time they’d made it through a couple songs, however, when the realization had sunk in that the crowd – some of whom weren’t even born when Sweet Baby last graced a stage – not only knew the songs, but was also prepared to outsing the band if given half a chance, a enormous smile spread across Dallas’s face and he and Matt – joined by old school East Bay luminaries Richie Bucher on bass and Aaron Cometbus on drums – proceeded to give the performance of a lifetime to an audience that could have been, as Matt later surmised, “bigger than the combined total of every audience we ever played to.”

It wouldn’t have been the Fest, of course, without the Steinways, who played just before the Zatopeks, and as much as I was looking forward to them, I’ll admit to being a little fearful about how they’d handle the biggest stage I’d ever seen them on.

No need to fear. Grath, I suspect because he knew he was being filmed for a DVD, swore up a storm, before, after and during pretty much every song (“Try and edit that,” he challenged the sound engineer at one point”), but unless you’re squeamish about that sort of thing, there was nothing not to love about a Steinways set that featured a generous sprinkling of new songs and wound up with an impassioned renderings of “the classics” that had the New York crew in particular beaming like proud mamas and papas over their hometown heroes.

“Best Steinways show yet,” I opined, only to be rather forcefully told, “No, that was last week, when you were out of town.” Well, whatever. I love this band. And another band I love, but who weren’t even on the bill until some last minute string-pulling, is the Max Levine Ensemble, who staged a lightning-quick guerrilla raid on the back bar, aka The Third Stage, thrilling the 100 or so in-the-know Festers who managed to cram in there with one of the most dazzling performances of the day, and were gone again to their next gig before most people even knew they’d been there. By all accounts, they’ll be back for next year’s Fest in a more prominent position on the bill.

Can’t forget the Copyrights, who were undoubtedly one of Friday’s highlights, as were their sister (brother?) band, Dear Landlord, and the Dopamines. I last saw each of these bands in a basement in Indianapolis (“And we’ll be back in the basement next week,” promised the Copyrights’ Adam Fletcher), but they all looked totally at home on the big stage, and to actually hear the music and the vocals through a first class PA left me saying whoa, so this is what it’s meant to sound like.

There were too many, way too many other highlights to mention them all here, and of course a couple dozen that I didn’t get to see it all because of schedule conflicts. Can’t forget the Leftovers and the Guts, of course, nor Short Attention, who at 1 in the afternoon managed to pack the Second Stage to far, far beyond its putative capacity. I got there about five minutes – i.e., about a dozen songs – too late and could barely force my way in the door. But a special tribute needs to go out to the Queers. There’s been plenty of criticism – some of it from me – that their shows had become too samey-samey, catering mainly to the bonehead crew to whom punk rock will always be frozen in the testosterone-fueled, beat-the-hell-out-of-each-other era, and predicting that Joe Queer would never have the balls or the sense to put together a set list that showcased his real talents as a pop punk singer and songwriter.

But the critics – again myself included – were wrong. Augmented by guest appearances from the spectacularly gifted Joel Reader of MTX/Plus Ones/Avengers/Pansy Division fame and longtime if occasional collaborator Lisa Marr (cub/Buck/Lisa Marr Experience), the Queers finally delivered the goods for which their fans have been devoutly praying for lo these many years. Thanks to the idiot/thug contingent, I’d pretty much given up trying to watch the Queers from anywhere near the stage, this was an entirely different crowd, one almost entirely devoted to dancing and singing at the top of its lungs. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that this is where my voice finally reached its limits; my usual dulcet tones have been replaced by a raspy croak ever since.

So the Queers – contrary to quite a few expectations – turned out to be a perfect headliner/Fest closer after all. And as the house lights went up and the realization that it was all over for another year began to sink in, my exhaustion began to be overcome by a much stronger emotion that I can only describe as, well, gratitude. Gratitude that after all these years I can still get so excited over the music and the people associated with it, gratitude that I still have the physical and emotional capacity to throw myself into it with the unbridled enthusiasm of an unabashed adolescent.

I haven’t had a drink in nearly seven years, but I suspect I looked like a drunken lunatic to some people, especially in the milling-about aftermath of the Fest, as I sprinted through the crowd saying goodbyes, breaking into spontaneous dances to no music at all, and screaming like, well, like a person having the time of his life.

And extra-special thanks have to go out to Mark Enoch, Chris Thacker, Pat and Reggie Termite for all their work in creating the Fest and turning it into what it’s become, to Adam and Jenna Alive for putting together the official Fest zine, to Matt Lame for being, despite the attempt by some people to hang the title on me, the real Mr. Fest, and to all the bands and all the people: for three all too brief and shining days, we were friends and we were equals. The Fest is over, long live the Fest. See you in 2009!

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