It seemed almost too on-brand: Hundreds of sweaty strangers pushing each other, jumping up and down and screaming each and every lyric to songs that they’d listened to hundreds of times in their cars with their friends. Their voices echoed through the massive gymnasium, reflecting off of the concrete walls and basketball hoops to make them seem even louder than they already were. It’s moments like this when you realize how much power there is in music and the communities it fosters.
BLED FEST has proven to be a haven for different musical communities for the past fifteen years, and this past weekend, the final installment of this legendary festival ended with a bang. Over 70 bands from a variety of genres gathered at the Hartland Performing Arts Center to celebrate the end of an era.
My day at BLED FEST started at noon with Ness Lake, a delay-driven rock group from Ypsilanti. They occupied a huge dynamic and emotional range and started a trend of inviting other artists on stage that I saw throughout the day. Toward the end of their set, they invited Alexandria Maniak, a Detroit-based artist better known as Shortly, on stage to perform a duet (jokingly framed as a competition in which the ‘loser’ would have to quit playing shows forever). Throughout the day, I saw this happen quite a bit. Dan Campbell from The Wonder Years and Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties joined Shortly on stage for a song, and Prince Daddy and the Hyena not only brought out Zoe Reynolds from Kississippi, but also Jack Parsons from Mover Shaker to perform a guitar solo. Each time these spontaneous collaborations took place did, the guests on stage were met with screams from wide-eyed audience members.
Each set had a very individualized feel to it, and the crowd responded to each one in different ways. Seeyouspacecowboy had a crowd that opened up a space in the center for observers to roundhouse kick along to the intensity brought by the band. Dogleg had the people in the crowd morph into sardines, pushing up against each other and jumping up and down with enough force to shake the ground on which we stood. Absinthe Father encouraged the audience to sit on the ground and relax a little bit as they swept the crowd away from the chaos of the day with their shoegaze melodies.
But more than anything, the day reminded me of why I first fell in love with the DIY scene. Whether it’s seeing strangers bond over matching band shirts or crowds of people stopping everything to make sure that someone pushed over in a mosh pit is safe and able to get back up, people here genuinely care about one another.
Right before one of my favorite groups from Ann Arbor, Dogleg, went on to play one of the most anticipated sets of the day, the unforgettable sound of a high school fire alarm went off, causing the audience and band alike to look around the room in confusion. What were we supposed to do? After all, we were in an old high school, were we supposed to treat the situation like we would have back then?
We decided to ignore it, considering that the band’s amps overpowered the sound of the alarm for the most part. That is, until about halfway through their second song, when one of the event organizers cut off the group and asked the audience to go evacuate until they could figure out what was going on. Once we were all outside, information spread that one of the smoke machines had malfunctioned and produced far too much smoke for the fire alarms to let it slide.
Once the building was given the all clear, I was a little confused on how the rest of the day would proceed — it’s not often a festival has to deal with indoor fire alarms. But I think that this situation allowed me to see DIY do what it does best: roll with the punches. Dogleg went on to play one of the most insane sets I had ever see them play to an audience that could not be any more energized, organizers spread word of an updated schedule and every band got to play their full set.
As the day grew shorter, the looming fact that we were in the final hours of BLED FEST seemed to hit everyone, including the bands. Groups that had been to BLED FEST many times before like Mover Shaker and newcomers like Pool Kids talked about how special this event was and seemed to truly give everything to their audience.
But the day could not have ended with better bands: Ypsilanti’s favorite ska punk band Complainer. and the legendary pop punk group, The Wonder Years. Luckily, I was able to see all of Complainer.’s set and a good portion of The Wonder Years’, and both sent chills down my spine. Complainer., playing their last show ever, played one of the most energetic and fun sets of the day, despite performing in front of a significantly smaller crowd than most other bands had throughout the day. Frontperson Micah Cotner didn’t care that the crowd was a bit small. They knew this was their last show and decided to go all out: stage diving every other song, running out of the room with the crowd hot on their heels and taking the performance to the school’s hallways, even covering “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes with every member of the audience on stage with them.
In his essay “Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years and the Great Suburban Narrative,” Hanif Abdurraqib says that The Wonder Years’ music is “Like coming home for a summer after your first year of college, having tasted another existence and wanting more, but instead sleeping in your childhood room,” and as the group closed with their fan favorites, “All My Friends Are In Bar Bands Now,” the crowd knew it was almost time to go home. Performing with members of several other bands, the Wonder Years closed the final BLED FEST with an explosion of emotion. This festival was special, and everyone there knew that. And despite it being over permanently, everyone can be thankful that BLED FEST provided for them an entirely fresh, life-changing experience.