NEWPORT, KY - There’s a long-running joke here that if you want to see live punk music, the last place you’d look is the Cincy Punk Festival.
Indeed, the lineup for the 12th annual rendition, Oct. 4-5 at Southgate House Revival in Newport, Ky., features artists more likely to inspire a campfire than a mosh pit. But insiders say the festival is more about the social and political consciousness of punk than about the music.
“The movement that started it was disenfranchisement with the current status quo. Punk could be whatever you wanted it to be, as long as it had integrity and honesty. It’s a similar mindset today,” said Jacob Tippey, vocalist and guitarist with The Frankl Project, a Cincinnati band performing at Cincy Punk Fest.
“What’s great about Cincy Punk Fest is how varied it is,” he said. “Punk has gone in a lot of different directions and Punk Fest does a great job of showcasing that diversity.”
A number of bands on the lineup wear the lineage of punk on their tattered-and-patched sleeves—Arms Exploding, Knife the Symphony, The Dopamines. And what other festival would invite bands called Pissed Jeans and Diarrhea Planet? But Cincy Punk Fest is also home to Andrew Jackson Jihad, Margaret Darling, Frontier Folk Nebraska and other artists rooted in acoustic instruments and softer melodies, trading anarchy for peace signs.
If there were a middle ground to Cincy Punk Fest, it would be Alone at 3AM, a Cincinnati alt-country band with singalong choruses and sparse music that makes room for poetic, first-person lyrics. The band, which has performed at each previous Cincy Punk Fest, is on the lineup Saturday. In all, 35 solo artists and bands are performing over the festival's two nights.
“More so than a style of music, it's a sense of community,” said Adam Rosing, who was just 18 when he conceived and debuted the festival as a way to promote his online magazine, called CincyPunk. That site closed in 2010 because “the festival proved far more popular than the magazine,” Rosing said.
“Initially, when we started the site, we were interested in punk music, but our tastes branched out—people started playing indie music, punk, metal. We've had bluegrass bands, ska bands, reggae. It's been all over the spectrum,” Rosing said. “Obviously, you wouldn’t call Margaret Darling punk, and there can be some confusion for people who are new to the festival. But people who are familiar with us don't feel confined to stick to the origins of what punk music was.”
Perhaps the most “punk” trait of the festival: After recouping costs, all proceeds go to a local charity—a facet Rosing introduced with the third Cincy Punk Fest and has continued since. The festival has raised about $50,000 in total for a mental health association, a women's crisis center and American Red Cross tsunami relief in Japan, among other nonprofit beneficiaries. This year, proceeds go to Save Our Shelter Dogs in Covington, Ky.
“Comparatively speaking, if you look at some of the punk rock festivals in this country that spend their entire year trying to get various advertisers involved, the organizers take a giant chunk of that, and I think that goes against what punk is real about,” said Jerry Dirr, founder of Cincinnati’s Phratry Records and a member of Knife the Symphony, one of several Phratry bands performing at the festival.
“Everybody seems to have an opinion about it and have a vigorous debate about what is or isn’t punk, so much so that people who are interested in music think they know what punk rock is because they’ve seen Green Day on network television,” Dirr said. “I can understand why somebody might say so-and-so doesn’t embody punk rock, but I kinda side with the idea the fest is 100 percent for charity and it’s a community event and it always takes place locally and they don’t seek major advertising. What’s so hard to get behind that? What’s not punk rock about that?”
Some people with the deepest roots in Cincinnati's punk scene don't know what to make of Cincy Punk Fest—mainly because they've never been asked to perform there, nor attended on their own.
Robert Sturdevant—better known as Jughead—formed his Cincinnati band, SS-20, in 1982. The band, which still performs about once a month, has produced more than a dozen full-length albums and shorter EPs and 7-inch singles. SS-20 has also opened for "every punk and hardcore band that's every played at the Jockey club," Sturdevant said, citing Nirvana, the Ramones, Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, among others. He calls it "inexplicable" that Rosing has never invited SS-20 to perform at Cincy Punk Fest.
"I don’t want to seem like I have an axe to grind and I don't want to slag their festival, but it’s not a punk fest, and we don’t get invited because we’re a punk band," he said.
Still, asked if SS-20 would be open to performing if asked, Sturdevant didn't hesitate: "Hell yes."
Shawn Abnoxious is bassist and founder of The Socials, a still-active punk outfit that formed in 1995 and has never been asked to perform at Cincy Punk Fest. SS-20 and By-Products of America are other longtime local punk luminaries absent from the list of Cincy Punk Fest alumni.
"I definitely don’t call some of that stuff punk," Shawn Abnoxious, who also publishes the blog Thwart!, said of the Cincy Punk Fest lineup.
"Punk is really something that’s based on failure," he said. "I like reggae music a whole lot. Can I play reggae music? No, but I tried. When I was a kid, I listened to rap because that’s how I rebelled. Can I rap? No. Did I try? Yes. Maybe that's punk, but maybe that's also just an artist thing.
"If punk is just a philosophy, then it definitely shouldn’t be called punk—it’s just rock n roll, right?" he added. "There’s aesthetics attached to punk, but punk is really defined by the individual, it’s really what the individual puts into it. Some people start (their understanding of punk) with Green Day and end with the Offspring, and I'm OK with that."
Right now, Cincy Punk Fest festival draws between 500 to 600 each night. Rosing, who makes his living as a freelance journalist and emergency dispatcher, wants to see the festival expand to a third night and bring in more artists from outside the region. Rosing also left the door open for inviting some of Cincinnati's classic punk bands into the 2014 festival.
“Obviously, we don't have street punk bands with Mohawks anymore—well, maybe one or two—but we’ll never feel obligated to a certain definition of punk,” he said. “If I had to do it all over again, I’m not sure I’d have named it Cincy Punk Fest, but the name stuck.”
This article has been updated to include comments from Shawn Abnoxious.
IF YOU GO ...
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 4-5
Where: Southgate House Revival, 111 E. 6th St., Newport, Ky.
Cost: $15 for one night, $20 for two