When I first moved to Southeast Michigan, I was not expecting to find a music scene as active and diverse as the one that exists today. I grew up in an area where our local music scene consisted of a few Sublime cover bands, so when I moved to Ann Arbor and experienced my first basement show, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. People here really do care about music, and no event better represents this fact than the infamous BLED FEST.
Starting out as a small basement show and pool party, BLED FEST has blossomed into a distinct and special experience. Taking place at the Hartland Performing Arts Center (H-PAC), BLED FEST invites some of the biggest names in punk, rock, indie, metal and other genres to perform in an old high school gymnasium-turned-performance-venue. And after 15 years, the festival is finally coming to a close.
The festival stands out for a variety of reasons, but what is most notable is how it still incorporates a do-it-yourself attitude. Although the festival has grown quite a bit over the past few years, moving from a basement to a performing arts center, the same sort of independence and passion found in basement shows is still very much present today.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Nate Dorough, president of Fusion Shows and one of the chief organizers of the festival, said BLED FEST is “sort of like a big family reunion that just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.” Dorough attributes this atmosphere to the expanding diversity of genres present at the festival, stating that “back when it started, there was a lot of drama between punk fans and metal fans … but it seems to be a little more acceptable now to like rap, metal, indie rock and whatever else. As we’ve developed the things over the past twelve years I’ve been on board, there’s been a natural evolution for us to continue to diversify the festival and turn it into this esoteric mix of all different type(s) of music and walks of life.”
Along with having such a diverse lineup, the physical space of the festival looks drastically different from that of any other summer festival. Forget your shades, hats and sunscreen, because when BLED FEST arrives, school is not quite out for the summer yet. “It is in an old high school. There are no barricades; it’s not your traditional venue where everything is far away, everything's off limits and the bands are backstage. Everything’s just sort of mixed in, no matter if you’re on- or off-stage,” Dorough described.
The festival stays true to its roots though, and despite having headliners like The Wonder Years and Camp Cope, the festival still showcases younger local bands on some of their smaller stages (one of which used to be an actual classroom). Bands from Southeast Michigan including Dogleg, Ness Lake, The Doozers, Complainer. and Mover Shaker, each of which already has a dedicated local following, are given the opportunity to share the stage with over 60 different bands.
In addition to diversifying genres present at the festival, there’s one other aspect the organizers have been trying to improve. “A few years ago, we counted up the bands we had that year … and the show was awesome, but we noticed that there were only like four bands that had women in them, and like one band that has anyone that wasn’t white in it,” Dorough explained. “And we kind of had a ‘holy shit’ moment where we were like, we’ve got to change this.” And just by glancing through the lineup this year, the festival already appears to feature groups of all different gender identities, races and backgrounds.
The BLED FEST community has a significant overlap with the DIY music community, and although not every band is truly independent, almost all of them have origins that can be traced to this community. Haley Butters is a prevalent figure in this community, creating music with their project Absinthe Father. They’re seen by many as representing what DIY music is about: Having no experience playing guitar or performing music, but with an overwhelming passion to create music, putting in the work to learn, create and share their art with the world. In an interview with The Daily, Butters talked about diversity in the DIY community, saying, “diversity isn’t just going to happen, it's an active step that we all have to take in order to get the visibility that we want … Nate (Dorough) has actively taken steps to curate the scene that he wants to see.”
Butters continued, “There’s nothing wrong with being a white guy in a band — no one has ever said that in their life — but the fact of the matter is, when it comes to DIY, which was originally created by marginal(ized) communities, it’s kind of been taken over.” One of the ways Butters thinks that BLED FEST and other groups can make a difference is by booking acts of different genres on the same bill, something that BLED FEST has been actively doing for some time now.
Despite this being the final BLED FEST, this installment is shaping up to be one of the best ones yet. With a massive lineup of all sorts of different artists, tons of vendors and some of the best food trucks in Michigan, it’s an event that’s sure to be absolutely historic. Tickets, which are $35, can be found on their website, but are selling out quickly for the event this Saturday.