Punk festivals are chaotic, and it’s exactly this unpredictability that we love. The Fest in Gainesville, Florida, is certainly no exception, and the unpredictability factor might actually be higher because Fest is organized between 18 different venues over three days, and everyone’s experience of the weekend is a little different. For me, this year promised two nights of Against Me! sets followed by a solo Laura Jane Grace solo show on the last day.
Chaos in the pit is a given. Night one was Searching For A Former Clarity and New Wave. My husband and I were a few people back from the rail, a little to the side, mostly out of the path of crowd surfers, but still very much in the surge of the crowd, the push, and the strain. It was a chilly night, but we worked up a sweat just fighting to stay on our feet. Night two was White Crosses and Transgender Dysphoria Blues. We backed off the pit a little more to focus on the band and feel more connected. By the time they played the title track of TDB, I couldn’t stop the happy tears. They finished the set sooner than expected, and after “Black Me Out,” Laura said, “Aww, fuck it! We have 20 minutes left,” and launched into favorites from other albums. The crowd went wild, especially to the Florida songs “Sink Florida Sink” and “We Laugh At Danger (And Break All the Rules),” and the momentum carried into the night.
On Sunday, the excitement turned to anxiety as it came time for Laura’s solo set and the Civic Media Center was packed. There was a line waiting to get in, but it wasn’t nearly as long as I’d feared. We were about halfway to the courtyard. When the set before Laura’s finished, only a few people left. We moved up in line but then stopped cold. I think everyone knew what was coming next. Eventually the CMC crew came out and confirmed the line wasn’t moving any further. We weren’t getting in. But they also announced that sound was being set up in the courtyard behind us, and at that, half the line went. My husband asked if I wanted to go, but something told me to stay, and I decided to trust it. As it turned out, each time someone came around to tell us the courtyard was open, newcomers and others ahead of us went. When Laura stepped on stage, we were maybe 5th in line.
Then as the first song started, that line of about 20 transformed into something so much more. Packed in that doorway together, we changed from nervous strangers to grateful allies. It should have been a struggle to hear as everyone got settled, but instead, we all instinctively mouthed the words, at first not making a sound more than a whisper. We shifted around so everyone could see. The adrenaline only grew when a CMC volunteer opened up a second door, bringing us even closer to the music. When it got loud inside, we got loud outside. Someone started passing out PBRs. For the final two songs, Laura went into the courtyard. As one, we turned and ran around the outside of the building to pile in, laughing with each other and singing “Baby I’m an Anarchist!” at the top of our lungs. We got “Sink Florida Sink” once more, and watching Laura’s ear-to-ear grin, I felt overwhelmingly grateful to be a part of this amazing moment.
We didn’t make it inside the CMC that night, but no one else saw that set like we did. Standing in that doorway, we came together as a true punk community, and we looked out for each other because of it. That night reminded me of why I keep coming back for more--the love of the music, the fun of the chaos, and getting to be a part of those lucky, smaller moments that somehow feel the biggest.