Narrowly escaping danger at Gonerfest 11

Andre Torrez

All photos by Joshua Miller

When I accepted a ride to a Gonerfest after party to see Trampoline Team play at The Buccaneer Lounge, I was told to grip a crate of records in the backseat so they wouldn’t spill. Then I realized the driver was probably drunk since he’d backed his van directly into a parking-lot pole within seconds of turning the ignition. My offer to take the wheel fell on deaf ears, so my already tightened grip clenched even harder as I feared the worst while we drove a short distance.

We safely made it to a nearby Krystal drive-thru for a sobering late-night snack, but when we got to “The Buck”, instant karma over my dumb decision kicked in. I accidentally slammed my own hand in the van’s sliding door. Nothing was broken, but it was one of those divine intervention moments; as if to say, “be aware of your surroundings.” How lame would it be if I came all this way from San Francisco to Memphis for something stupid or tragic to happen? I was there for the music and Gonerfest 11 definitely delivered.

Golden Pelicans

Golden Pelicans

My pilgrimage to rock ‘n soul Mecca would be a slow roll in on an Amtrak train. That’s over 50 hours to Chicago and then another 10 south to my final destination. I won’t detail the ride here, but despite breathtaking scenery, it’s as rough as it sounds—three nights of sleeping in a more-or-less seated position with food options that sucked, so you might as well bring plenty of snacks.

This year’s Gonerfest lineup boasted home-bred Memphian garage rock, a strong-Aussie presence and some energetic Japanese punks. The Southern scene is both impressive and inspiring, but it was Midwestern acts like Obnox and Protomartyr who’d share Saturday night’s bill at the Hi-Tone with The Rebel that sealed the deal, convincing me this was where I needed to be.

Obnox kicked off the night with Cleveland’s Lamont “Bim” Thomas rhyming over some pre-recorded beats. His digital-rhythm section gadgetry failed at one point, but he was able to laugh at himself and moved on by adding live drummer, Roseanna Safos. She relentlessly wailed on her skins in chaotic, but timely fashion. You could tell her electrifying style is purely instinctive. Their set was the perfect start for what I thought was the festival’s strongest show. All three nights, and even the day shows, provided solid blocks of live music with deejays who on all accounts barely skipped a beat; flawlessly mixing, punk, post-punk, soul, and oldies.

The following act, Nots, comprised of local ladies, were total beasts up on stage. It was like watching caged animals let loose, partly because of the way the front woman stalked around. Hair was whipping everywhere and true punk-as-fuck aesthetic was achieved when they’d lapse into nonsensical vocals rather than using actual words. It’s funny because one of the members said to me on the sidelines before going on that she was nervous about getting up there; from the looks of it, they were more than ready.

Ausmuteants

Ausmuteants

A few days earlier when I first got to Memphis, I stopped by Goner Records (the actual brick and mortar store) in the Cooper-Young part of town to pick up my festival wristband. When I opened the door and saw Timmy Lampinen (aka Timmy Vulgar) flipping through vinyl while an old friend of mine worked the counter, I knew all the rock ‘n roll comforts were in place and signs pointed to it being a great weekend. Neither Human Eye nor Timmy’s Organism would be performing this year, but Lampinen’s cosmic art was displayed and on sale at the opening night art show. Besides, he seemed to be an omnipresent fixture no matter where I was.

While Protomartyr played, the audience gave a rousing “Detroit” chant. I lasted about 75 percent of their set from a front and center vantage point, but had to cut out to the sidelines when the Goners couldn’t contain themselves anymore and bodies started mashing into one another. It was bound to happen after days of drinking (Memphis Made Brewery issued two special ales in honor of the festival) and a more destructive element seemed to emerge.

Earlier in the evening, Ben Wallers, clad in camouflage, performed as The Rebel. He peppered his set list with a nice dose of Country Teasers’ songs, including those off of The Empire Strikes Back—an album full of should-be anthems that I obsessed over during its 2006 release. Mid-way through, he busted a guitar string just as an awkward intergender fight broke out right in front of me. Fortunately the incident didn’t steal the spotlight and Wallers was able to continue when someone loaned him an axe. Something was definitely in the thick Southern air that night.

The Buccaneer hosted after parties every night, which showcased talents for the crowded, stumbling and sometimes sleepy house until 4 a.m. Quintron, joining Giorgio Murderer Professional Quintet with an arsenal of dildo-covered gear was an unexpected, but pleasant surprise. (He’d later join Gary Wrong in an analog-synth drone band called Weather Warlock, where they claim to only play during sunrise or sunset using a portable version of his Singing House weather-activated synthesizer; patented by Quintronics) Other after hours highlights included Pelican Pow Wow’s Manatees, and Heavy Lids from New Orleans.

Seeing Wreckless Eric with Len Bright Combo and the fulfilled promise of the original Gizmos lineup was exciting, but these legendary acts’ sets tended to be long-winded and jammy. Standing around for nearly 12 hours watching bands likely contributed to any fatigue. For every song I wished they would have shaved off, there were Australian bands like Ausmuteants and Deaf Wish who I could have stood to see another added.

Goner’s annual blowout has been going on for over a decade strong and I’ve wanted to go for years, but this was my first time visiting Memphis. I went all out as a full-on tourist, using their comprehensive guide, which lead me to amazing barbecue and deep-fried pickles, Sun Studios (where the original tiles and acoustics are still intact), Stax Studio Museum (where I snapped pics of things like Ike & Tina’s suit and sequined mini-skirt) and the icing on the cake that was Graceland, complete with an iPad- guided tour narrated by John Stamos who leads you through a trove of Elvis outfits, artifacts, and outlandish 1970s decor.

I packed plenty in for a short amount of time, but there’s still some items left on my checklist. The city’s thriving scene and Goner’s ability to curate leaves no doubt that next fall will bring Gonerfest 12 and a anticipated reunion with the Memphis creeps.

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