Last year, the tiny Tampa suburb of Ybor probably didn't know what hit it when the first ever Pre-Fest rolled into town.
As its name suggests, Pre-Fest is a warm-up to Gainesville’s wildly popular punk festival, Fest, which celebrates its 14th edition this year. Yet while it might be a good way to ease in, it’s still quite an intense experience. Over two days and across four and a half venues (one has an outdoor stage the second day), there are 74 bands playing, from the relatively unknown to bigger names like Strike Anywhere and Less Than Jake. Built around the DIY punk ethics of friendship and community, the atmosphere across both days is as worthy of a mention as the music, and seems as much a part of the spirit of Pre-Fest as the former. It’s TINY MOVING PARTS who kick things off for this reviewer, the trio storming through a set of complex and passionate songs, tricky time signatures trading up with anthemic, shout-along choruses. Sundress in particular is superb, it’s broken-hearted poignancy brilliantly offset by singer/guitarist Dylan Mattheisen’s constantly wide, wild grin. SELF DEFENSE FAMILY frontman Patrick Kindlon talks a lot during the progressive/post-punk band’s set, but when the constantly shape-shifting outfit actually play their slow-motion, experimental songs, they possess a rare, introspective power that makes them one of the weekend’s most intriguing and interesting live acts. That’s even more impressive given that the majority of bands only get half an hour to show their stuff. DOWSING use theirs to fire up their old school indie-emo vibes with aplomb, and it suddenly feels like 1997 all over again, a provocative mix of innocence and experience that shows whatever changes in the world and however old you grow, there’s always fear, uncertainty and insecurity - and always a way to battle them. SOMOS tread similar musical and thematic territory, the Boston four-piece channelling a sad sense of loss into their jaunty, upbeat songs to create an atmosphere that’s simultaneously melancholy and uplifting. RESTOTATIONS, who’ve just released their marvellous third record, don’t sound anywhere near as gruff in real life as they do on record, but their songs nevertheless maintain the same kind of power, an onslaught of defiant, punishing riffs that’s both deafening and delicate.. Taking to the stage at 12.50am means that DADS should probably be tired, but the trio are full of energy. Drummer/vocalist John Bradley divides his attentions impossibly well between his two duties - Phil Collins could never in a million years do what he does - while guitarist Scott Scharinger and bassist Ryan Azada are the perfect sidekicks, propelling the band’s songs into wholly three-dimensional bursts of energy and emotion. Shit Twins, in particular, is wonderful, somehow encompassing the entire range of human emotions all at once and creating a surge of bodies to rush and push against the stage in a one final time before the song and the night draw to a close. Hangovers have just about subsided by the time THE FLATLINERS take to the stage the next evening. Doling out melody and aggression in equal measure, the Canadian four-piece fire off quick fire punches of guttural, heartfelt punk which seems to fly by in an instant. BANNER PILOT’s set goes similarly fast - even if 30 minutes is enough time for them to run through a whole bunch of their short, sharp tunes - but the supreme power of the way they deliver new cut Effigy proves that, right now, they’re at the absolute top of their game. The same has to be said of PUP, who practically tear apart the venue they play in. Their debut album came out just over a year ago, but the crowd’s reaction seems to come from decades of adoration - Guilt Trip and Reservoir send the pit crazy, while Mabu and Yukon result in two of the biggest and most intense singalongs of the weekend. In fact, it’s probably only rivalled by THE MENZINGERS, whose set sees impassioned chant follow impassioned chant. And with good reason - Sun Hotel and The Obituaries sound just as vital as they did on 2012’s breakthrough, genre-defying third album, On The Impossible Past, while Where Your Heartache Exists, from this year’s Rented World, fizzles and sparks with tenderness and elegance despite its fist-pumping, heart-racing effect on the crowd. If any band could make a packed room full of bearded, boozed-up, burly punk rockers cry, it’s probably The Menzingers, and as the Philadelphia four-piece leave the stage, it feels like the end of a true headline set. For many, it probably was - and the venue is noticeably less full when the actual headliners show up just 20 minutes later - but there’s a reason why Less Than Jake have been doing what they do for so long now, and much of that has to come down to their live show. They play their second album, 1996’s Losing Streak, front to back, and with the same kind of goofy, juvenile energy it probably had back then, too. And whatever you say about Less Than Jake - and a lot of valid criticism can be hurled their way - there’s a real sense of occasion to the performance tonight, something best demonstrated by a full-throttle runthrough of the still awesome Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts. It might not be cool to like them anymore - if it ever was - but as a way to celebrate the end of Pre-Fest, it works pretty damn well. It all adds up to assert this preamble as a worthy festival in and of its own right. How anyone can do both this and Fest is a wonder.