There are a lot of music festivals out there, from the huge ones like Bonnaroo to mid-sized ones like Riot Rest to just plain tiny ones like the Circle City Ska Fest. If you haven't heard of the Circle City Ska Fest, don't feel bad. This was the first year, plus it happened in Indianapolis, which isn't known for it's music scene...yet. The fest was organized by Circle City Ska, a local promotion company, so it wasn't so much of a SKA fest as it was just 20 ska, punk, hardcore and reggae bands from across the Midwest (and a few from a bit further) that Circle City Ska really liked...but there was still a whole lot of ska.
CCS Fest started at 1 p.m. At that point, there were probably only 25 people in the Underground. The first three bands played a combined 80% covers, which was silly and lame, but it was also a self-less way of helping the slowly growing crowd wake up and get into the fest. The first highlight of the day was pop-tart ska act the Loser Broadcast, whose peppy ska anthems conjured memories of early No Doubt. Grind-ska act Cannon Law followed up with a brutal set of evil ska-punk that would make even Stza cry. Cleveland's SSCP also heaped on the crust and grind with their vibrantly intense set of straight punk fury.
The crowd really began to congeal when Cincinnati group the Pinstripes took the stage. The Pinstripes are in the same vein as old school-leaning ska acts such as the Toasters, the Aggrolites and the Slackers, but dare I suggest that they are a tad better than even those heavyweights? Yes. Especially considering how young the band is (not yet 21), the band exudes a knowledge of ska, reggae, dub and rocksteady that would have even Tim Armstrong scratching his head and muttering inaudibles under his breath. The Pinstripes' opening track, the instrumental "Africa" captured the crowd's attention like some sort of Rastafarian spell, which they were unable to break until the last note was played.
The next act was Hoosier grind-ska act Young Til We Die, who had clearly improved since they last played in Indianapolis. Their transitions from ska to punk to metal and back were all flawless. After YTWD, the phenomenal Frankl Project quietly took the stage. With their first note, however, the group commanded the stage and hypnotized the audience with a confounding mixture of punk, folk, hardcore and reggae. The final product was worth far more than the sum of its parts, and was apparent from the looks of awe on the unsuspecting crowd's faces. The chilling "California Burnout" topped off the set and left those in attendance breathless and cheering for more.
After a fun but silly performance from Ohio's Lumberjack Death Squad, Ann Arbor, MI's We Are the Union took the stage. Five or six seconds into the first song, "MTV Is Over If You Want It," it was apparent that the crowd wasn't expecting such an energetic show from the band (who had never played Indianapolis prior to CCSFest) and the band was not expecting such an energetic response from the swelling crowd. WATU played the gems off of their newest album, Who We Are, and brought smiles to the crowd with their wonderful `90s ska-core sound.
Next up was up-and-coming Chicago bro-core act Shot Baker. SB had previously played Indianapolis with the Copyrights back in February, and had rightfully earned the crowd that they pulled. Pulling tracks from their debut album Awake as well as a few new tracks, Shot Baker was unmistakably in love with the crowd and vice versa. Each Shot Baker song includes a sing-along chorus that is impossible not to take advantage of. Even if the song is unknown to the listener, the lyrics magically appear in the brain and they find themselves pumping their fists along to the words. It's one of the beautiful mysteries of punk rock.
The final act, Bolth took the stage around 11:30 and the 300 or so in attendance packed around the stage to exhaust the last of their energy for the day. Bolth played mostly tracks from their latest album Short Sighted, but also a few older tracks such as "Fuck the Monon" and some yet-to-be-recorded numbers as well. Bolth even threw in a few well-placed covers (Minor Threat, Operation Ivy) for good measure. At several points in the night, the stage was swamped with rabid fans and lead singer J.S. was tossed around like a rag doll. After Bolth's set, the tired crowd, drenched in sweat, dispersed back to their homes and the bands drove back home.
It may not have been a huge event. There was no huge national headliner. There was no high-profile reunion. It was just a few hundred kids in a church basement listening to the music that they loved. Maybe the CCSFest will blow up huge in the years to come, and maybe not. But all that matters is that this year was a blast.