Gonerfest is a garage rock/punk rock festival put on by Goner Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The festival started in 2004, originally to promote Goner releases from King Louie One Man Band and King Khan & The BBQ Show. The King Louie/King Khan bill was so sought after, Goner decided to book a multi-day festival around it. The rest is history.
In September 2015, I agreed to photograph festivities at Gonerfest 12. I knew going into the festival that it was a garage/punk haven in a city noted for its musical history in the United States. But nothing could have prepared me for the whirlwind three-day weekend I was to experience.
I saw Ty Segall smash acoustic guitars and cover the crowd in champagne & glitter during his Ty Rex set. I saw Timmy’s Organism use smoke bombs, filling everybody’s lungs with colorful vapors for an entire evening. I saw Quintron & Miss Pussycat lead a full-on dance party with hardened punks. I saw Buck Biloxi nearly tear down the Buccaneer Lounge at an after party. Obnox mused, and suggested, that the handful of African-Americans in attendance “start takin’ over this shit.” I saw hometown Memphis figures Jack Oblivian and Nots delight the Hi Tone with their respective sets. And I even got to befriend a Nowhere Squares member (Alabama represent).
Between sets, you meet tons of Gonerfest regulars and Memphis residents. Attendees are flying in from Chicago, Wisconsin, California, Oregon, Texas, New York – even Canada, Australia, and Japan. Band t-shirts illicit responses and spark conversations. If you wear the right wrestling t-shirt, somebody might cut a promo on you or extend a “Too Sweet!” Bullet Club greeting. (Memphis is also a legendary pro wrestling city.) As someone who had never attended a punk festival like this, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality, inclusiveness, and camaraderie on display.
There was no way I would miss Gonerfest 13. Here’s a rundown of the highlights. If you need a preview of the bands, check the Gonerfest Mixtape below.
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DAY 1 HIGHLIGHTS
Nots – A month ago, I wrote a glowing review of their latest record (Cosmetic). So, you could imagine my excitement in getting to hear the new material live and, as usual, watching the ladies tear it up. Tasked with the opening ceremonies at the Cooper-Young Gazebo near Goner Records, Nots brought five-o-clock traffic to a standstill with crowds vying to see them dish out their trademark dissonance and pulsating performance. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again – if Nots is near you, go see them!
Chook Race – Festivities moved on to the famous Hi Tone for the night, as Melbourne, Australia’s Chook Race surprised the crowd with their melodic, jangly, poppier set. Gonerfest is known, mostly, as a garage rock/punk rock weekend festival. But when Goner features an act that strays from the formula, it’s for good reason – they’re pretty special. Chook Race won me over as a discovery and I promptly bought their merch. I’d encourage you to check them out.
Counter Intuits – The first flying beers of the festival happened during this set. Frontman Ron House swayed with menace and glee as Counter Intuits brought their lo-fi, garage rock intensity to Goner spectators.
Useless Eaters – Cold, hard, no nonsense garage rock. Crowd activity intensified during the set, which saw Useless Eaters ramp up their performances accordingly. Fuzzed out guitars, menacing synth lines, spit, sweat, moshing. It got lit.
Fred & Toody – The sentimental highlight of Gonerfest, as Fred & Toody (of Dead Moon, Pierced Arrows, and the Rats) returned to Memphis and delivered their unique magic. Truly an honor to witness these two upclose.
Reigning Sound – I only got to check out a handful of songs during this set, but the original line-up fed off the packed Hi Tone crowd and went for it. Might be safe to say that Reigning Sound drew the largest crowd of the entire festival. Hats off to the legendary group.
Shoutout to Black Abba and Toxie for a really cool after party. Even at 4AM, those bands had me swaying from side-to-side – likely out of fatigue and delirium.
DAY 2 HIGHLIGHTS
Trampoline Team – Gonerfest patrons packed Memphis Made Brewing on this afternoon. Pelican Pow Wow, who released their debut LP Make It Faster earlier this year, described Trampoline Team best – “snotty punk with tons of pop and charm.” Super fast, blink-and-you-miss-it style punk.
Pity – Only got to see a portion of their set, but the visual of a band dressed in black and donning black ski-masks leaves an impression. Their sound was just as threatening as their look.
Aquarian Blood – Back to the Hi Tone for the evening. No strangers to Gonerfest, Aquarian Blood brought the full range of synth, fuzzy guitars, and roaring vocals with great intensity. I saw them for the first time last year and they killed. This year, Aquarian Blood managed to sound even better. Look out for their debut LP from Goner soon.
Power – A tremendous discovery for the festival this year. Three scrappy dudes from Melbourne, Australia – with its frontman sporting an amazing mullet, bringing the rawest sounds of the entire fest. The best summation of Power is a tweet from Andy O’Connor:
Chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga-POW-AAAAAAAHHHH!!!! Please look them up. Power rules.
Buck Biloxi & the Fucks – Something about Buck Biloxi brings out the crazy in everybody. Last year, Buck Biloxi headlined an insane after party at the Buccaneer Lounge. This reviewer was lucky enough to escape without a concussion. This year, Buck Biloxi took the stage at Hi Tone and threw the crowd into a frenzy. Plenty of beer, sweat, spit, and blood to give newcomers and regulars their Gonerfest stripes for the weekend.
The Blind Shake – The Minneapolis Technicians, as I call them. Blind Shake had a great set at last year’s Gonerfest on the final night. But this year, the set was far crazier than I would have imagined. With the momentum carried on from Buck Biloxi, the moshing showed no signs of stopping during this tight set. Blind Shake noticed and thrashed accordingly.
The Black Lips – Billed as their return to the Gonerfest stage, “12 years in the making.” The Black Lips’ legendary reputation speaks for itself in the garage/punk community. With a massive crowd, and new line-up, The Black Lips lit up the Hi Tone with favorites and select new tracks. The full wave of the evening’s moshing and beer projectiles reached its peak during this set. Rightfully so.
Another after party shoutout to Manateees and Tommy Wright III for bringing the Memphis punk and hip-hop well into 4AM.
DAY 3 HIGHLIGHTS
Day 3 seems like a punishment to those that partied into 3-4AM. Festivities started as early as 1:30PM on this day, this time at Murphy’s Bar.
Fire Retarded – After a cool set, these guys set a guitar ablaze while an audience member tried to piss on it. Easiest highlight blurb ever.
Bloody Show – Gritty garage rock out of Columbus, OH. Coupled with charismatic frontman Jah Nada and an energetic set, Bloody Show made for a nice discovery within the festival. I hope Goner invites them back.
The World – Artsy, danceable, post-punk funk group out of Oakland, CA. A band after my heart, I tell ya. Hand-selected to counter program the usual Gonerfest aesthetic. Boasting saxophones, Latin drums, and rhythms you’d associate with Suburban Lawns and Tom Tom Club, The World was a pleasure to discover through another varied Gonerfest line-up.
Spray Paint – Stone cold “post-punk, post-apocalyptic, post-music” from Austin, TX. I mean, really cold. Listen to their latest LP, Feel the Clamps, and you’ll see what I mean.
Couteau Latex – “Extremely moody, no-BS cold wave” from Geneva, Switzerland. I’m kicking myself for only catching the end of their set, but I fell hard for what I heard. French vocals over a drum machine, synthesizer, and sparse guitar. Look out for their 7” single from Goner Records.
Sick Thoughts – Goddamn. I’ve never seen a man tackle his drummer through a drum set before. DD Owen is a captivating showman and the band is ferocious. Sick Thoughts is awesome, period.
Bloodshot Bill – The one man band from Montreal, Canada. With his guitar, bass drum, and slicked hair, Bloodshot BIll’s rockabilly set turned the Hi Tone crowd on its head. I know I’ve mentioned a lot of highlights thus far, but Bloodshot Bill’s set was truly special.
Midnight Snaxxx – KILLER. The end.
Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds – The legendary, smooth, charming, well-dressed headliner. In contrast with the crowd’s heavy moshing during Sick Thoughts and Control Freaks, Kid Congo’s magic turned the closer into a straight-up dance party. Taking into account the many acts that we saw during this three-day weekend, it felt just right. Salute to Kid Congo!
One final after party shoutout to Die Group and Giorgio Murderer for closing out the fest to another frenzied Murphy’s bar crowd. Giorgio Murderer, in particular, for whipping up a raucous pit on par with Buck Biloxi the previous night.
Upon arriving in Memphis, I was approached by a Gonerfest regular, Hugo, who flew in from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This was his third Gonerfest in a row. I mentioned “Three trips in a row makes it a pilgrimage.” He agreed.
If you’d like to experience a unique, close-knit music festival that brings together the best facets of music, booze, and camaraderie, then you must attend Gonerfest. At this point, you’ve got a whole year to plan. I’ll certainly be in attendance. Will you?
All photos by Anton Jackson