PRE-FEST 13

author PP date 02/11/14

Arriving back at The Hampton Inn for a second year of Tampa pre-FEST, it's hard not to have warm feelings for being back in the super cosy Cuban district Ybor City. Across four of the bar venues here in town, early FEST-goers can sample a solid portion of the lineup that also plays at the main FEST in Gainesville during the following days. The venues are on or near a sort of high street which is full of tattoo parlors, bars and restaurants, and at any time during the days you can see FESTers and band members in various degrees of punk rock attire strolling back and forth between shows, pizza places and the awesome veggie-friendly punk rock cafe The Bricks Of Ybor, where more substantial lunches and more tasteful beers can be had to the tunes of great music and great service. Overall the surroundings in this place are simply warm, relaxed and full of atmosphere from the old-school southern style architecture that characterises the buildings here.

The four venues - The Orpheum, Crowbar, Tequila's and New World Brewery are all essentially medium to large bars with pre-existing stage setups that cater well to the small to medium sized bands that dominate pre-FEST's lineup. Orpheum is the largest at 720 capacity and sports a balcony with its own bar that allows some relaxed seated viewing for those with tired feet, while its high stage allows good view of the bands for everyone on the large floor area. Tequila's is as much a sports bar and an eatery as it is a venue, split between a medium indoor section and a next door shell of a building without a roof, which serves as an open air beer garden. Here the smallest acts play outside while the slightly bigger ones are on the more proper indoor stage. Crowbar seems the most music focused layout of them all with two bars in the opposite corners from a medium high stage and with a raised platform to the left allowing a few seated viewers as well. New World Brewery hosts the smallest shows, and last year at least it did so under a bit of roofing in an outdoor beer garden, but admittedly, the RF.net mission didn't make it there this year due to schedule clashes, so we can't say if things might have changed.

In terms of layout and facilities, pre-FEST caters perfectly to the sizes of its bands and its audience. Everything is within short walking distances, the bars have staff and toilets enough to keep waiting a non-factor, and more often than not, the shows look decently visited without you feeling like you're getting suffocated by the crowd. The procedure of checking ID's at each individual bar doesn't cause trouble here, but spoiler alert, it will in Gainesville, so let this be the first place where we recommend giving people age-dependant coloured wristbands already at registration, which all pre-FESTer's must go through at the nearby Hilton and where they all show their ID's anyway. Other than that, Tequila's seemed the only place where some improvement could be needed, with the sound system seeming was less than ideal at least at one show, and with the parasols obscuring the outside stage from the view of everyone that wasn't standing up front. It's that venue's first year to be part of pre-FEST though, so let's give them a break, leave the circumstantial remarks at this and move on to the reviews of the shows. TL

DAY ONE

Nai Harvest

Nai Harvest @ 19:00-19:30 at Crowbar

Pre-FEST experience for the undersigned opens this year with familiar British atmospheric indie/post-hardcore band Nai Harvest, one of the most interesting newcomers in 2014 with their "Hold Open My Head" EP that drew from the dreamy aspects of Title Fight songs. Tonight, they open with "Rush" from said EP, which frankly sounds awful in the dark, spacious interiors of Crow Bar. The singing is way off from the polished decor of the EP, but fortunately gets much better as the set moves along, because while you can get away with off-key singing in the faster material they air tonight, it's much more difficult when it comes to the slower and lusher songs from said EP. The breadth of Nai Harvest's songwriting is in full demonstration tonight as they cycle through songs with multiple sections that start out with fast, d-beat style punk rock melodies and end in contemplative, atmospheric sections with dreamy vocals on top. We also get to hear a couple of brand new songs from their debut album that will come out in early 2015; these are far more punk rock / garage rock oriented than the EP so if you were looking for more dreamy post-hardcore / indie-flavored material, it seems that you'll be out of luck. That being said, these type of tracks lend themselves to far more movement on stage, so whenever we get brief instrumental sections, the guitarist/vocalist of the band spends his time in crazed frenetic movement away from the mic. Still, after about 20 minutes it starts feeling like the band could do with a third member to fill more space on the stage. This is mostly true for the faster songs, though, as "Hold Open My Hand" so well demonstrates towards the end of their set. Overall, it's rather unimpressive though at least in comparison to many of the other bands playing later on tonight. [6½] PP

Self Defense Family @ 20:00-20:30 at Orpheum

I have followed this band for about a year by now, and they are one of those bands that I only become more and more intrigued by the more I hear of their music as they manage to experiment while still sticking to a recognizable post-punk sound. They work as a musical collective with the charismatic vocalist Patrick Kindlon (Drug Church) in front as the most constant member, and on stage he is also the guy in focus. He begins by remarking that to do something special for pre-FEST, they wanted to play a medley of 60's classics, but as he says "I couldn't bench press Joe Cocker's balls on my best day", they decided to play their own set instead. They take their time on stage, both during and between songs where Kindlon tends to express himself in elaborately constructed sentences, going from being pseudo-philosophical at times to comparing himself having problems with his vocals because of being sick to Picasso in lack of a brush. It's not a major problem tonight though, as his rough, rambling vocals are as expressive as ever, but maybe not quite as melodic around the edges as they can be. Midway he announces that they'll play his favorite song by any band ever, and after that his second favorite, but since he doesn't mention the titles, I don't really know if they were covers or not. At any rate, they had the same overall feel as the rest of the original Self Defense songs tonight, that are dominated by layers and layers of guitars that build up the songs but never really culminate. Rather they weave some very atmospheric soundscapes that I just stand and let myself be wrapped in, almost entranced by watching the dramatic and explosive movements of Kindlon in time with the music. While not a mind blowing show, this only adds to the beginning pile of intriguing experiences that Self Defense has given me so far. [7½] LF

Pentimento @ 20:40-21:10 at Crowbar

At last year's FEST, Buffalo quartet Pentimento made a great first impression on me as a band that had the talent to break out of being "just" another punk rock act at FEST, and while the group have been working on their second album lately, tonight is a good chance to hear some of the great tunes from the brilliant "Inside The Sea" EP from last year. The group starts off rather suddenly and unceremoniously, and for the first two songs Lance Claypool's guitar is first too low, then too loud, but things level out after that. Frontman Jeremiah Pauly seems business-like and a bit rushed greeting us between songs, but it's easy to overlook considering the quality of the songs and the lively performance. Drummer Michael Hansen plays as if his life depended on it and he and bassist Vincent Caito deliver well-timed backing vocals at the top of their lungs, bringing early Brand New songs to mind. Pauly's vocals soar as Chris Carrabba-like as expected and the energetic songs, which sit somewhere between Further Seems Forever and Taking Back Sunday in style, show that catchiness is not left to coincidence with Pentimento. "Any Minute Now" and "Just Friends" get passionate singalongs from elated groups in the crowd and flash exactly the kind of potential people talk about when talking about Pentimento. So while time was a bit too short for there to be much intimacy between fans and band, the set otherwise delivered on every other level. [8] TL

Astpai

Astpai playing "Burden Calls" @ 20:50-21:20 at Orpheum

Astpai's "Burden Calls" is among the very best punk rock records this year, so being offered to hear the album played front to back means that the amazing Pentimento are going to be sacrificed in favour of the Austrian punk rockers for yours truly. They kick off faithfully playing the heaviest tracks of the new record first ("Single Use" followed by "Dead End Talking"), which has people looking around the fairly packed Orpheum rather confused until they reach the brilliant, brilliant melodies of "Death Everywhere". This begins a series of songs that basically highlights the absolute best material Astpai has to offer with "Departure" and "Careers" showcasing amazing melodies that bring up back chills on those of us in the know. What's better is that a crowd that is clearly here for the bands playing later tonight are starting to get into it as the set progresses along, and why wouldn't they? Astpai are displaying great energy on stage, rocking out in unison at every possibility with vocalist Zock singing passionately with his eyes closed. Small pits start forming in the crowd, and finally, the band plays "Small Change", and at this point people are starting to understand the band and the album. Not many seem to know the album at this stage at least on this side of the pond, but that will change soon considering the demonstration of excellent the band puts on tonight. A few songs are missing due to time constraints, but that's not a big issue overall. [8] PP

Signals Midwest

Signals Midwest @ 21:40-22:10 at Orpheum

Last year I saw Signals Midwest at pre-FEST and thought they were amazing, so I went ahead and booked them to Copenhagen this year. They were fantastic there as well, and that trend wasn't about to change tonight at Oprheum where the band's complex and intricate guitar work got the appropriate space to echo around the surroundings. Even though they are missing their third guitarist tonight, they sound excellent with plenty of passionate moments where the singer breaks away from the microphone, the instruments quiet down, and the crowd sings along with the faded shouts. These are the kind of moments that people talk to their friends about during concerts. Add on top of that the band jumping around crazily at every opportunity, technically intriguing guitar work, and tight, complex musicianship overall, and you've got a winner. The instrumental virtuoso on display is awe-inspiring, and it's difficult to argue against the power and passion that the band throws at you during every single song. One of the most memorable and captivating performances at this year's pre-FEST for sure. [8½] PP

Dowsing @ 22:20-22:50 at Crowbar

Chicago quartet Dowsing are commonly lumped in with your typical emo revival group from Count Your Lucky Stars records, but the show they put on at Crowbar today isn't quite as mopey or meandering as one could expect. The music may have that type of melodies and the vocal style fits the bill as well, but there's tempo, structure and energy to the songs that feel like Dowsing want more than to be just one in the emo crowd. Some issues with the bass head provides opportunity for the band to display some light hearted humour, and they look comfortable and unfazed taking the issues in stride. Most of their songs are still relatively simplistic though, and for this reason it would help the band a lot if the lyrics came out clearer. As it is now the set is enjoyable and there's an encouraging sense of engagement about the band, but things blend together a bit too much to make a particularly lasting impression. [6½] TL

Timeshares

Timeshares @ 22:30-23:00 at Orpheum

Timeshares are often described as little brothers to Signals Midwest because of how similar the two bands' records sound to each other. Tonight, that difference is put into spotlight and it suddenly becomes wider than most of us could have imagined. Where Signals Midwest displayed forceful and powerful sense of passion, Timeshares look like a nondescript version of the band that doesn't really leave any impression on the listener whatsoever. Thus only a small minority of the crowd are into it properly, and even they have moments of just standing still watching the band play. "Woke Up In Grapple School" is the highlight of the set with a small sing along for its "What if everybody hates us for this?" moments, but otherwise most songs just muddle together without leaving a big impression. What starts with an energy-driven stage performance also quiets down towards the end where I have to jot down "not much is going on" to my notes. Way too much filler between the good songs, even though the last couple of tracks were excellent. [5½] PP

Somos @ 23:10-23:40 at Crowbar

Having no prior knowledge of Somos apart from the fact that one of our travel mates is absolutely nuts about their new album, I decide to check them out at pre-FEST when I have some free time. I can best describe the feel of their music by pointing to the heavy frame they set for it in their rhythms that tie it all down in an almost sleepy manner. This overall expression in their music makes it very important for the melodic vocal lines to be engaging and work with the guitars to really keep it interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like clear diction is a clear live priority for the vocalist. His voice ends up being just another element that flows along with the music, like a big, straight, lazy river instead of one with at least a few twists and turns. That being said, they play solidly, I do enjoy their sound, and I am confident that with more experience they'll manage to become a less anonymous band on stage. [6½] LF

A Wilhelm Scream

A Wilhelm Scream (Twitter Request Set) @ 23:20-00:00 at Orpheum

Tonight's a special one for A Wilhelm Scream, we are told early on during the show, as the band are playing a set of songs based on Twitter requests sent to the band in the weeks leading up to the pre-FEST show. So if you had come here expecting a sing along FEST featuring all of their best songs, you were going to be sorely disappointed. Instead, the band play "Pardon Me, Thanks A Lot" live for the first time ever, have people passionately piling up for the microphone during "William Blake Overdrive", and air some true rarities from their early albums that basically never get played live anymore. While "Me Vs. Morrissey In The Pretentious Contest (The Ladder Match)", "Die While You're Young" and "The Horse" all are included in the set and draw a great response from the crowd, we also get to hear "Brand New Me, Same Shitty You", "Ice Man Left A Trail", "Less Bright Eyes, More Deicide", "Bowling", "Check Request Denied" and "Walkin' With Michael Douglas" among other tracks. It's not as enigmatic and explosive as their usual set, but on the other hand it's a true 'for the fans of' type of set where longtime fans get to hear rarities by the band. [7½] PP

Restorations @ 00:00-00:30 at Crowbar

Punk-rock's adopted prog-band Restorations have their third album out these days and come on to considerable anticipation considering their impressive performances both at the previous FEST and elsewhere. Unfortunately Jon Loudon's lead vocals are near impossible to make out in a low position in the mix, making it hard for the songs to fully hit home with those in the crowd that aren't super fans already. Furthermore, despite the frontman's assurances that this is a better show than a weird one they played the night before, he still seems a bit less forthcoming than usually. Fortunately the band's potential is still blatantly clear when their songs culminate in full on guitar heaven, with everyone on stage rocking out vividly and particularly guitarist Dave Klyman stands out, extending his stage area to a nearby pool table and playing his instrument right down in our faces - Much to the enjoyment of Signals Midwest's Max Stern who's in the audience. Overall you can't miss that Restorations are in the topmost echelon of FEST bands in terms of how developed their musical expression is, but with the low vocals and Loudon's slight reservation this is not the best set they can play. [7½] TL

Strike Anywhere

Strike Anywhere @ 00:20-01:00 at Orpheum

Strike Anywhere haven't been playing US shows for three years, we are told as the band takes to stage and gets the whole crowd in constant jumping motion mirroring what's happening on stage. "The Crossing" comes in early with its big "Booorderlands" sing along passage, but the response is nothing compared to the ecstatic sing along insanity mosh pit that happens during "To The World" and its "I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE... TO THE WORLD" punk anthem parts. Similarly, "Sunset On 32nd" draws a crazy response with immense pit activity on stage, while "I'm Your Opposite Number" is the highlight off the new album that's closes their set. Much like AWS earlier, in between the band airs a number of older tracks from "Exit English" and other albums that get the crowd going crazy - and with the band demonstrating frantic stage antics at the same time, you couldn't have left this show disappointed. [8] PP

DAY TWO

PJ Bond @ 16:30-17:00 at Tequila's (outside)

While people are taking in late lunches and afternoon beers in Tequila's, FEST's regular country songwriter PJ Bond plays "Stop Being Bad" in the roofless shell of a building that acts as the beer garden of the place. A fenced, raised platform in one corner accommodates Bond and two helpful friends that are joining him in a rare electric performance. Bond speaks with dry, charming humor between songs, apologizing for his stagnant career of late, yet promises that an album of his that has been done for over a year will actually come out soon. He reveals that his friends have only practiced with him this same afternoon, and consequently the electric versions they play are pretty basic. His singing talent is still evident though, as is the quality of a song like "I'm in A Bad Way" which concludes the set on a melancholic note. It's a bit of a strange set though, as parasols across the floor prevent many but the few next to the stage from actually seeing Bond, and ideally, his songs would work better in more delicate acoustic versions than in the rag tag electric renditions that some times hinder the finer points of his singing. At best then, this feels like just a brief sample of what PJ has to offer. [6½] TL

Broadway Calls playing "Broadway Calls" @ 17:40-18:10 at Orpheum

Broadway Calls are also doing a special set at pre-FEST this year, performing their self-titled album in its entirety. That's a treat for the fans because it's definitely their best album. The bad news? It's extremely generic and 'standard' at least in a live environment. The upbeat energy vocally doesn't translate to their static performance, and after a few songs it's difficult to stay interested in the band when absolutely nothing is happening on stage. "Three Weeks" is a late highlight together with "Save Our Ship", but it's just so disheartening to see such awesome melodies be ruined by a lackluster live performance that leaves a nothing saying impression on the band instead. [5] PP

Dear Landlord

Dear Landlord @ 18:30-19:00 at Orpheum

Dear Landlord have written one solid record but haven't had much activity on that front since then. Tonight, they play "I Live In Hell" early on which feels very energetic and fun: people are raising their beers in air in celebration and to scream back the lyrics at the band. It's tight and fast-paced fun with a charismatic soundscape overall; not much interaction is needed because the band just plays their songs pretty much straight, leaving a good vibe and energy around the venue. That being said, towards the end of the set their songs begin to merge together. The fun vibes and party atmosphere of their early set begins to wither away much like their album, which has a few brilliant songs and rest of it is just rather standard melodic punk rock. Some songs sound ridiculously similar to Banner Pilot live, but those guys have better songwriting overall which shows in stark contrast tonight. [6½] PP

Banquets playing “Top Button, Bottom Shelf" @ 19:10-19:40 at Crowbar

For this year's FEST, one of the bands I am excited about after checking out their music briefly is Banquets. Unfortunately their regular FEST set is clashing with one of my must-see bands, so I have to settle for their pre-FEST playthrough of their 2011 EP "Top Button, Bottom Shelf", which is not too bad a deal since it has some cool material on it. While many smaller bands at FEST seem humbled that people actually want to see them instead of the hundred other good bands their set is clashing with, Banquets takes the prize for the most humble attitude of all. The show starts out with the first solid songs of the EP, but gets pretty boring across the middle. The band generally plays their pop punk well, but during these middle songs they seem to struggle, especially the vocalist having problems with managing his melodies at one point. After that song, he apologizes noting they haven't played the song live ever before. This stands to reason as well, since most of the EP material is just not as strong as the album songs I was intrigued by initially when checking them out. Still, when they play their better compositions, they do a good job, albeit not a very engaging one. [6] LF

Wolf-Face

Wolf-Face @ 19:30-20:00 at Tequilas

Wolf-Face are one of those gimmicky bands where the novelty wears off really fucking quickly. All of their songs are about werewolves, and the whole band is dressed in bright yellow Beavers costumes complete with werewolf masks for each band member. It's pretty fucking funny at times with vocalist Michael J. Fox saying that "Teen Wolf 2" is ruining his original storyline, but over the course of a 30 minute set the band go from funny to almost unbearable. Once the mask gimmick wears off the songs are quite awful and in no way capable of keeping their set together. They play a cover of Jawbreaker's "Boxcar" but even here only about 10 people are into their version of the song (although they are on stage here to sing along the lyrics for this one). They close their set off with "Pubes On My Face" but in all honesty, the set was rather terrible aside from the novelty factor of their costumes. [4]

Leagues Apart @ 20:00-20:30 at Crowbar

"You do realise that we're Leagues Apart right? And you're still here?" The words with which British invaders Leagues Apart open their Crowbar set betray the bravado of the "Keep Florida British" t-shirts they sell and indeed also the confidence with which the band performs, despite only releasing their debut album "Brief Conversations With Hideous Men" to little to no fanfare earlier this year. With everyone in the band contributing gravelly vocals to melodic punk songs that are either fast or faster, Leagues Apart are pretty much the stereotypical FEST band, and I would forgive anyone that wandered in and mistook things for an additional Dear Landlord set. Despite their explanation that they haven't seen each other for months due to their bassist moving to New York, their performance however is everything a FEST band should aspire towards with a cherry on top. The energy is contagious with the left hand guitarist being particularly jumpy throughout, and it seems that every song they play - most of which are from the mentioned album - race speedily through a few engaging progressions before arriving reliably at an excellent chorus of the kind that begs to be shouted back at the group from the floor. The show is hardly Crowbar's most well-visited, but the guests that are here seem fittingly convinced of the quality and consistency on display, also because Leagues Apart are completely on point as the type of punk band that cracks dry jokes between songs and has the drummer throwing towels in the guitarist's face at opportune moments. Simply put, Leagues Apart do everything right that a melodic punk-rock band needs to do, and they do it for every second of their thirty minute set, something even their larger influences could often learn from. [8] TL

Direct Hit!

Direct Hit! @ 20:20-20:50 at Tequilas

"Hi, we're Direct Hit! About a year ago we put out a new record called Brainless God. Tonight we won't play any songs off that record". God damn it. That's by far their best record and to start the show off like that, well, you can see the disappointment on many people's faces in the crowd. Good thing is they play a lot of really rare material that I didn't think I'd be able to hear live, such as "Werewolf Shame" off the Mixtapes split and other rare tracks from compilations. They also joke around on stage with a brief passage of stand up comedy with The Rock getting some fairly funny treatment by the band. Later on, "They Came For Me" sees about a dozen stage dives as the crowd goes absolutely apeshit for this track, before the band close off with a crazy hardcore punk track with yelled vocals that sounds nothing like the normal Direct Hit! material. Either way, it's a decent set of rare cuts by the band, but you can definitely tell why the band first exploded in popularity after the release of "Brainless God". [7] PP

The Smith Street Band

The Smith Street Band @ 20:50-21:20 at Crowbar

Australia's The Smith Street Band has grown steadily in popularity over the past few years to become one of punk-rock's favourite songwriting acts, impressing many with relatable lyricism on par with that of Frank Turner or The Front Bottoms. Their success is evident from the anxiety of a full Crowbar tonight, yet reception is initially cautious as the first half of the set is dedicated to the band's freshly released new album "Throw Me In The River", even if the new songs show that the band has kept in stride in terms of writing things that demand to be sung along to. Midway through though, frontman Wil Wagner explains that he usually sings the next song while looking up and thinking of his faraway friends which it is about, but that this is a special occasion because those friends are now on the side of the stage. The song is the already legendary "Don't Fuck With Our Dreams" which sees the crowd explode into full pandemonium. The singalongs are overpowering, a dotted beach ball flies around the room, and that guy who was seen drinking out of his shoe at Dear Landlord now does the same while stripped to his briefs and crowdsurfing. It's still clear that what Smith Street Band do well they do with simple means - basic quiet/loud arrangements, a recognisable voice and down-to-earth, sympathetic lyricism - but the absence of striking riffs or clever compositions doesn't bother the elated crowd. Rather it appears that songs like "Sigourney Weaver" and "Young Drunk" are fast becoming central singalongs for the FEST crowd and with Smith Street Band's friends bouncing around on stage looking as excited as the pile of crowd surfers on the floor, the last half of the show feels like one of those celebrations that future sets with the band will be measured against. [8] TL

The Flatliners @ 21:00-21:30 at Orpheum

The Flatliners were one of the best bands at pre-FEST last year. This feat is easily repeated tonight as the band tear through modern punk rock classics like "Count Your Bruises", "Eulogy", Sew My Mouth Shut" and many others drawing solid sing alongs and woo-hoo backing shouts from the crowd for pretty much the whole set. On stage, the band are extremely active and feel right at home on the smaller and more intimate club stage rather than the FESTival sized stages they have played on in the past. Even the slower song is well received and attracts a woo-hoo sing along from the crowd tonight. "The Calming Collection" and "Birds Of England" finish off a quintessential FEST set with pits, singing along, and quality punk rock on display with great energy. [8] PP

Save Ends @ 21:10-21:40 at Tequilas

Since reviewing their album "Warm Hearts, Cold Hands from last year, this is a band whose catchy songs keep returning to me from time to time. Their combination of gritty pop punk with both a female and a male vocalist intertwining across songs really got to me back then, and so I was excited to see them at FEST this year. For their pre-FEST show however, they have chosen to play their earlier EP "Strength Vs Will" in full, and they only have time to play three of the newer songs afterwards. Already from the beginning they seem like a sweet but dorky bunch of people, their lead singers wearing a NASA shirt and a "Stephen King Rules" shirt respectively. This initial impression is only further developed when they sort of awkwardly explain that they won't be talking in between the EP songs, and thus the music is left to stand entirely on its own. Their newer songs are definitely stronger than their EP material, and it could have been a cool experience to see them revisit older compositions but unfortunately the sound at the venue is extremely muffled throughout. The nasal, high-pitched voices of both vocalists get jumbled behind the guitars in a way so that the delicate softness and hints of desperation in their respective voices mostly disappears, and I leave sort of unresolved knowing that I'll have to catch them again with better sound to really be satisfied with having seen them. [5½] LF

Laura Stevenson @ 21:40-22:10 at Crowbar

In a rare time slot without obviously commanding acts to see, we decide on a whim to check out a few songs by Laura Stevenson at Crowbar. The short, dark-haired singer appears with a boy-ish haircut alongside a band that includes both regular rock instruments and an accordion. She sings with a thin, high voice that quivers intentionally during the most delicate moments, yet gets somewhat sharp and nasal in the more forceful parts. You get the impression that Stevenson - while chattering charmingly between songs - knows how to use her small voice to good extent, yet it seems like a poor choice to have the guitar and accordion play mainly layered harmonic parts below the vocals, as they inevitably blur out the finer points of the tender singing, which is really the most interesting component that Stevenson's songs seem to offer. It's not enough then, to keep us from heading to Banner Pilot for more than three songs or so, but one gets the sense that with a more cleverly arranged instrumental setup, Stevenson could easily perform a more immediately engaging set. [6] TL

Banner Pilot

Banner Pilot @ 21:50-22:20 at Orpheum

Previous Banner Pilot sets I've seen have been plagued by awful sound leaving all of their vocal melodies virtually impossible to hear. Tonight, the band finally have a great sound which means they are much more well received in a live environment than normally. "Modern Shakes", "Effigy", "Spanish Reds" are all played early on and draw sing alongs from the crowd. There's not much going on otherwise, the band plays their no frills pop punk straight up with very little interaction, but the crowd takes care of it for them with big sing alongs for "Heart Beats Pacific" and especially for last song "Skeleton Keys". There's a feeling of community within the crowd, a unifying atmosphere that Banner Pilot songs bring to the punk rock community. So while the set itself isn't spectacular per se because of the band's static stand-still way of playing their songs, the crowd dynamic is so strong it's difficult to leave the show without anything but a huge grin on your face and a sense of satisfaction for having heard this many great punk rock tracks in a row. [7½] PP

Chixdiggit

Chixdiggit @ 22:40-23:20 at Orpheum

If you like the type of pop-punk that more than most can be categorized as brainless fun, then FEST already offers a number of options such as Wolf-Face and Masked Intruder. Canadian veterans Chixdiggit probably come closest to also being somewhat musically interesting though, with the dashes of simplistic retro rock'n'roll that sneak into their sound and evoke glimpses of The Ramones and the likes. Whatever. The point of emphasis here is clearly to just have fun, as frontman KJ Jansen drags out every song in order to have the crowd "give it up" for one thing or another, though most frequently itself, guitarist Jimmy Gamble, KJ himself or Chixdiggit as a whole. It's cheeky fun to begin with, but it doesn't take the full half hour before it gets old for anyone sober enough to notice. Those down front who have the prerequisite percentages in the bloodstream could not have a more fun time though, and there's crowdsurfing galore while people sing happily along to the likes of "I Hate Basketball", "Chupacabra" and super catchy set closer "Geocities Kitty". If you were looking for an interesting listen, you're out of luck as Chixdiggit's average song has two lines of lyrics and roughly the same amount of compositional variety, but it's played at high speed and with a knack for crowd entertainment that many younger FEST bands lack. A divisive experience then, which merits an in between grade that can seem too much or too little depending on which side of the fence you sit on. [7] TL

The Menzingers

The Menzingers @ 23:40-00:20 at Orpheum

As The Menzingers enter the stage at the filled Orpheum, they launch straight into "I Don't Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore" and the entire floor is ready for singing along immediately. Throughout the show most songs get the same kind of enthusiastic reception with people jumping and crowd surfing everywhere up front. They mostly play material from their two newest records, the exceptions being one song from the "Hold On, Dodge!" EP from 2009, and "Time Tables" from 2010's "Chamberlain Waits". The latter of these is played way rushed, and to me this is just a symptom of a bigger problem with the show tonight, namely that the band seems oddly distant on stage. It's not that they don't play and sing solidly, and it's not that they don't engage with the audience through appreciative remarks or encouraging sing-a-longs but they do it in such a business-like manner that it just ends up feeling flat. This is only enhanced and contrasted by the fact that the music they play is so emotional and personal, and by the energy from the audience who wants nothing but to connect with the people who have written these relatable songs that have all struck a chord with a major part of this generation's punk rockers. Even though this show is bigger and there are many more people here than at the show The Menzingers played in Denmark a month ago, it doesn't pack quite the same punch, maybe exactly because of the loss of intimacy bigger settings often bring with them. With the business-like approach of the band however, I can't help feeling bummed that they don't seem to be trying at all to manage this in a better way, and while the show is still pretty solid, it feels like it's purely their amazing songs that do their work for them instead of them as a band, live on stage. [8] LF

Spraynard @ 00:30-01:00 at Tequila's (inside)

With the Menzingers set concluding, FEST resource crisis is setting in, yet the allure of Spraynard's set in Tequila's is still strong enough to lure us in for a bit. The young band recently came back together after a short break and by the looks of it, the group is right back to delivering humorous between song banter and short bursts of excited, hyper-active pop-punk. Most of their songs seem to consist of one single sprint of a movement towards a climax that the assembled crowd at the front eagerly shout along to. All seems in order in terms of performance and reception then, even if you get the impression that FEST's most impressive songs and compositions are likely found elsewhere. But in honesty, this reviewer is in danger of turning to liquid and dripping off the bench in the back from which he is watching at this point. Exhaustion hence eventually drags us away from a seemingly solid Spraynard set, before we have a chance to see if things get more epic towards the end. [7] TL

Less Than Jake

Less Than Jake playing "Losing Streak" @ 00:40-01:30 at Orpheum

It's late, all other bands are nearly finished with their sets, which means only true fans of Less Than Jake are left at Orpheum. The place is still packed, which is understandable, considering the band are about to play their best album "Losing Streak" from front to back in a moment. Craig, the owner of the first record label Less Than Jake were signed on, has passed away yesterday so the band dedicates the entire set to him by saying we should all go apeshit in his honor. Mission accomplished. The entire venue is transformed into an enormous skanking pit as people circle around in the biggest pre-FEST pit so far to "Sugar In Your Gas Tank". And would you believe if I told you that "Shindo" had an even bigger sing along than any of The Menzingers songs just before? Skanking resumes big time for "107", and "Johnny Quest Thinks We're Sellouts" receives a thunderous, echoing sing along from literally everyone at the venue. There's lots of chatter in between the songs, plenty of stage dives, and generally a rowdy party atmosphere exactly the kind you want to have during this album. There's toilet paper everywhere in the end of the set thanks to toilet paper cannons used by the band's crew, and of course confetti as a couple of confetti bombs explode near the end. All 16 tracks of the original release are aired faithfully even with the samples on the background, so all in all the band do a great job in fitting everything into the 50 minute spot they have at Orpheum. Less Than Jake are always an amazing live band, but tonight they're just extra special thanks to "Losing Streak" songs holding such a special place in so many people's hearts in the audience. If you left this show without having a man crush on the band, there's something wrong with you. [8½] PP

And there you have it. Our run through of pre-FEST at the charming quarters of the Ybor Historic District in Tampa. Exhausted and hungover, but happy and overall satisfied, we start our two hour drive towards Gainesville in the morning for the actual FEST. Pre-FEST is a great opportunity to see a lot of bands you might not be able to due to schedule clashes at FEST, so from our side, a giant thumbs up and pretty much a guarantee that we’ll be here again at the third edition next year. No major complaints, a well executed event and a solid lineup overall means all overseas travelers should probably make it to pre-FEST for the warm up to the actual partying at FEST. PP

All photos by Lauren Harris

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