I still sometimes find it hard to believe that I’d been to two editions of Fest and Pre-Fest prior to this year’s. The need to undertake the annual pilgrimage was totally entrenched in me from the very first day of Pre-Fest 3 in 2015, and walking back into the Florida sun in Tampa this year felt like walking back into an exceptionally comforting embrace.
Of course, one of the key things to know about Fest is that you won’t be feeling like that at the end of the week: be that down to Fest flu or just one incomprehensibly large hangover. It’s all manageable, though, when looking back at the memories created and the times shared over those heady days in Tampa and Gainesville.
Having arrived in Tampa on the Tuesday prior to Pre-Fest, we’d already caught up with a bunch of mates by the time the registration queue started forming at the hotel. As always, though, there were hugs, high-fives and PBRs by the dozens, as the energy and excitement tangibly rose around the hotel lobby. The pool party, always one of my favourite parts of the whole five days, was strangely quiet this year: be that due to the slightly cooler temperature than usual, or perhaps due a lack of people at Pre-Fest this year. No matter, though: by the time we’d pool partied ourselves out, we were particularly keen for the music to start.
One of the hottest bands being discussed at the earlier pool party was Mom Jeans, with rave reviews from a number of people from all across the globe. It was therefore fitting that they were the band which started my Pre-Fest 5: playing in the early evening in Tequila’s was the ideal slot as people finished their food and drifted into the bar for the first of many $3 PBRs. For me personally, the band was a bit of a slow-burner, but by the time they got into their performance and settled, they delivered a really solid half an hour of rolling, crashy, and brilliantly accessibly punk rock. A very good start to the festival.
A really early highlight to the entire festival came next. I’d seen City Mouse back in 2015 at Pouzza Fest, and was blown away by just how good this band were. For this reason it was an extra pleasure to watch them at Pre-Fest, nearly two and a half years later, and to see just how much they’ve grown and improved as a band across that time. Their set at Crowbar was genuinely brilliant: their bass-driven style of incredibly melodic pop-punk had attracted a massive crowd and I’m sure added considerably to their fan-base. The set was littered with brilliant instrumental flashes, and there were some exceptional intros to a vast array of their tracks. Frontwoman Miski, too, has a wonderful voice which was showcased perfectly here.
We flowed from the melodic pop-punk of City Mouse into the sharp, angry and aggressive bite of Caskitt. Fest always has a brilliant number of bands giving their own interpretation of the same genre, and this was a case in point. It’s one of the things that makes it such a good festival. One of the things that makes Caskitt quite as good as they are, too, is that vitriol. I’d noted down that theirs was an “incredibly angry” set. I also found them a really very watchable band: for me being a non-musician, it’s brilliant to watch the sheer ability displayed by a drummer also being a vocalist, as Matt did perfectly here.
Ghouls were next: the London-based pop-punk with horns outfit playing their debut Pre-Fest this year. There was a sizeable crowd in Tequila’s by the time they took to the stage, and they clearly were revelling in that as they rattled through tracks from their latest release Run. As always for me, the standout song was Seasonal Affective; with that distinctive guitar and horn riff sticking in my head for hours afterwards.
On our way to Awkward Age, we swung into The Orpheum to catch a bit of Teenage Bottlerocket: as ever, the adrenaline boost of their pop-punk was just what we needed before going to The Dirty Shame for my final band of the night. A classic Fest band, Awkward Age delivered on every level. The day’s exertions had taken their toll on me by this point, and I headed back to the hotel in an attempt to get enough sleep to be fresh for day two.
Slightly unbelievably considering I had arrived in Florida full of flu just a couple of days prior, I felt pretty fucking good on Thursday morning. A bloody mary just helped to perk me up even further; and the general perkiness was topped off by watching a breakneck set from The Jukebox Romantics. Another band recommended to me by one of our group, this was a brilliant way to start the day. Featuring an excellent mix of melodic vocals and some heavier, more gravelly tones, the three-pieces classic Fest punk rock went down an absolute storm. As, it must be said, did their on-stage banter.
This did also make up for the lack of the Tequila’s acoustic session: one of my favourite parts of the two Pre-Fests I’d attended was the Thursday early afternoon sat in the courtyard with a bunch of Mexican food, mates and four or five acoustic sets. This sort of took place this year at The Bricks, but it was never going to be the same as the classic Tequila’s sets over the years. What I would say, though, is that The Dirty Shame’s beer garden was just as good a place to hang out in between and before bands!
The Dead Bars came next. Their raucous set was packed with massive singalongs, the crowd inside The Dirty Shame obliging with delight. They were again a brilliant Fest band: perfect fare for the second day at Pre-Fest.
On the subject of perfect…just how good are A Wilhelm Scream?! I’m ashamed to say that they’ve never been a band I’ve checked out in any great detail (their recorded material at least); but having caught them at last year’s Pre-Fest there was no chance I was going to miss them here. Once again, they delivered an absolutely stunning set: I still think that they’re one of the most energetic live bands I’ve ever seen, while also being totally note-perfect in their delivery. Alongside the sheer number of absolute bangers they’ve got in their armoury (and consequently in every set list), it’s the literal glee with which frontman Nuno bounces about the stage which makes every AWS gig an astonishingly good time.
Unfortunately I can’t quite say the same about The Dirty Nil’s set. On reflection, I wouldn’t say their brand of what appeared to me to be sleazy, indie-influenced garage-punk is exactly my sort of thing, but I did leave their set perhaps a little more unmoved than I had hoped. I found their sound perhaps a little unoriginal, and while that accusation could easily be levelled at a whole bunch of bands at Fest, for some reason they just didn’t grab my attention at all.
Pkew Pkew Pkew, though, grabbed a massive amount of attention from a massive amount of people. Their Tequila’s set drew the first properly massive crowd of the festival, showing just what a big band they were for Fest-goers. Catchy as hell, pop-punk banger after pop-punk banger poured from the stage, with their raucous energy seemingly infectious amongst the crowd, who were hanging on their every word. They really did smash their set: the amount of people proudly sporting a new tee-shirt just after the gig being testament to that.
From the busy Tequila’s to the relative calm of The Dirty Shame again next, as we caught the unique Dead Broke. I noted down at the time that they had an “experimental” style; but the most eye-catching thing about the band is undoubtedly the roving nature of frontman. He genuinely marauded all around the small venue, even at one point clambering up on the pool table in the middle of the floor. Vocally, the whiny nature of his voice does take some getting used to, but the choppy and experimental nature of the band’s sound is certainly intriguing and worth checking out.
Next up were two popular acts: Tim Barry and Signals Midwest. While I can understand the drag of the former, on this occasion I was left a little cold by his acoustic punk rock. The crowd around me, though, was not, with a huge amount of massive singalongs cementing Tim’s place in Fest royalty. Signals Midwest came next, and delivered a really very catchy set of pop-punk with depth: despite fitting firmly into the ‘Fest band’ category, they did stand out by means of their addictive choruses.
The highlight of Pre-Fest for me was next, though: Banner Pilot’s absolutely seminal Crowbar performance. It was one of those where you’ve got your arm around your mate, and you’re screaming lyrics to one of your favourite band in each other’s faces in sheer adulation of what was happening on stage. It was a perfect set-list, with tracks from all their albums being fired at the crowd one after one. Highlights included, for me, renditions of Intervention, Division Street and Skeleton Key. This was really a very, very special gig.
We then managed to rush to The Orpheum to catch the end of Against Me!’s set. I didn’t note down too much about this, as I’d intended to see the band at Bo Diddley Plaza in Gainesville: but what was clear from this snatched few songs was that Laura’s voice was note perfect, and that Unconditional Love is an absolute banger when played live.
And that was it for Pre-Fest 5. As always, this was way more than just a two-day taster plate: it’s a festival in it’s own right, and has it’s own character and spirit. On to Gainesville for Fest proper next…