City Link's Music Fest is supposed to be a blast. After all, this block party for local bands in Fort Lauderdale's bars-'n'-clubs district is about the best concert the city can count on each year. And even though crowds swell to claustrophobic levels, it is fun to cheer loud bands packed in close quarters and drop-kick cups of beer down Himmarshee Street. In theory it could almost be a religious experience: Let go, let rock.
Alas, this year's Music Fest was fraught with problems, with multiple arrests (including a well-known local music promoter hauled to the slammer), several bands ordered to stop performing mid-set, and other performers unfairly denied the chance to play at all. One source of the friction is certainly the collision between the plastic-surgeried fashionable flatliners who ordinarily prowl the district and the more "normal" people (meaning "more like me") who attend the festival. Granted, the T-shirtand-sneaker crowd can expect snickers and sneers from downtown's platinum set. But this is one night of the year when it's supposed to be about the music, stupid.
A pretty simple concept to grasp -- unless you're one of those art-gestapo types who simply hates music. That would seem to sum up Tarpon Bend's manager, Chuck O'Connor, who booted at least two groups off-stage during his venue's so-called "hosting" of the event December 8. The first victims were the Trash Monkeys, originally slated for 10 p.m., who were instructed to perform an hour earlier if they wanted the chance to play at all. But when they did, they received such a poor response from Tarpon Bend's management that the Monkeys bailed about halfway into a planned 13-song performance.
"They came up and harassed us after every single song," says guitarist Mark Feehan. "They treated us really bad. We could just tell we were about to get thrown out, and then the manager came over and said, "All right guys -- you're done for the night.'"
Feehan acknowledges that Trash Monkeys' abrasive punk wasn't exactly connecting with the apathetic audience but notes the crowd wasn't booing or throwing tomatoes, either. "I'm sure it was busier in there than on a normal Friday night, but all [the management] did was bitch and complain."
Evidently soft-rocker Amanda Green met Tarpon Bend's interpretation of the festival's by-laws, because she was allowed to perform without interruption, as was the excellent Britpop-leaning quartet the New Graduates. However, when Fort Lauderdale's quirky, angular (but far from strident or dissonant) trio Neptune B took the stage, Chuck Barris... sorry, O'Connor, decided to turn the Music Fest into The Gong Show once again.
"We had played four songs," relates singer-guitarist Javier Caballero, who describes the venue as packed. "After that the manager walked in front of the stage and said, "We're cutting you guys short.' I just stood there in total shock. When they dimmed the lights on stage, I said over the microphone, "Hey, they're kicking us off.' Then, boom, they cut the stage power."
Fortunately the throng of fans appeared thoroughly satisfied with Neptune B and, emboldened by liquid courage, began to voice their disapproval -- loudly. Without amplification, drummer Dave Coleman began to pound out a tribal beat that helped stoke the crowd's rebellion but infuriated the venue's bouncers, who attempted to disassemble the drum kit, then roughly escorted the rowdy fans out the door.
The next day Caballero sent an e-mail apology to the band's mailing list of friends and supporters, offering to refund their $5 admission charge. "We thought it was a "Music Fest' at which we were scheduled to perform," he wrote. "The venue thought it was a "Music Fest' where the band would play four songs and then be asked to leave. We were also unaware that attendees would be removed from the premises in a chokehold."
Reached for comment a few days later, Caballero reports that no one took him up on his refund offer. But he's still smarting from Tarpon Bend's mistreatment of his band, which he readily admits is "not mainstream. Maybe they took offense because it's not something that you'd normally hear on the radio."
O'Connor admits that things "got kind of out of hand," but insists that his reasons for bum-rushing the Trash Monkeys and Neptune B were economic, not artistic. "Friday is our biggest night of the week," he says. "There were a couple bands who were clearing out the restaurant, bands who wouldn't normally play in the neighborhood. It was affecting my revenue greatly. So I'd let them play for 20 minutes or so, and then I'd say, "Thanks a lot, guys.'"
He maintains that he did a favor for every band that played his joint, but he ain't runnin' a charity over there. "I gave the bands some exposure," O'Connor asserts. "But I get paid to make the owners of the restaurant money. We did our thing for City Link and for these bands, but I can't sit there and watch the restaurant empty out." The bands and other witnesses contradict O'Connor's reports of a mass exodus.
Across the street at Tavern 213, the Ex-Cretins were also asked to stop playing mid-set, and management and police escorted both band and audience out the door. But that's because of a bit of drunken on-stage rowdiness. The Reverend Felcher, the band's singer, explains: "Something about a monitor, beer on the floor, some cables, and some falling down. I got my head bashed in that night." The incident didn't deter his bandmates from continuing the set. But as Felcher sat on the edge of the stage holding his bloody head, management decided they'd endured enough Ex-Cretins for one evening. "It was mostly our fault," the wrong reverend admits sheepishly.
But the group still fared better than the herd of young acts City Link touted in its recent "music issue." The weekly said the recent law that prevents patrons under age 21 from visiting the town's nightclubs and bars is "a restriction that extends to the [festival's] performers." That misinterpretation resulted in young musicians (including 17-year-old singer Betsy Ross, 18-year-old bassist Felix Pastorius, and teenage acts the Blue Jeans, Metal Militia, and the Trytones) being banned from this year's Music Fest.
Had the event's organizers paid closer heed to the discussion/debate surrounding the proposal's passing or bothered to read the actual ordinance, they would have noted a few exceptions to the rule: restaurants where the majority of revenue is generated from food sales, like Himmarshee Bar & Grill; "employees" of a club, including independent contractors like bands; and anyone under 21 who cared to bring a parent to the Fest. In truth, had City Link really wanted any of these individuals to perform, it could have found a way without violating any law.
But being denied the chance to perform -- or even sustaining an ugly-but-superficial head wound -- would be preferable to spending a night in jail. By 1:30 a.m. fights started breaking out in the large crowd, with one such disturbance landing on the street outside Lord Nelson Pub, directly in front of Steve Rullman, who books shows at West Palm Beach's Respectable Street and masterminds TheHoneyComb.com, South Florida's preeminent music Website. Rullman says he witnessed five officers tackle a fleeing suspect and whack the man with nightsticks as they attempted to cuff him.
"It didn't seem like he could be fighting back," Rullman recalls. "When I saw this cop [throwing] punches, just hitting this guy in the kidneys, I stepped up and said, "Yo, you can't be doing that.'"
The Fort Lauderdale police describe the incident differently in their report, claiming that Rullman grabbed one of the officers from behind, trying to pull him off the suspect they were trying to arrest. Rullman admits he was "real close" but denies touching anybody. Both sides agree on this much: The cops tackled Rullman, arrested him for obstruction, and tossed him into the pokey for the night.
Other witnesses told Bandwidth that a large crowd did gather as police arrested the first man, who was allegedly involved in a fight down the block. Carlos Caballero, who attended the fest with his brother Javier of Neptune B, almost involved himself when he saw officers striking the man with billy clubs.
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"I caught myself stepping in that direction and thought better of it," he says. "They had the guy down, but they kept grinding his face into the pavement, and they were still pounding on him, though he was offering no resistance at that point. It was hard to watch and not do anything. I just yelled, "The guy's down. He's not fighting back.' An officer came up and asked us to step back before he Maced us."
Fights and arrests are normal collateral damage when that many partyers are crammed into a small area. But with luck next year's Music Fest will be more musical, especially if folks like Chuck O'Connor aren't acting as its supreme arbiters of taste.
But guys like him are mere symptoms of the problem. A sinkhole of suckdom would swallow Fort Lauderdale whole if not for local bands like those who made the Music Fest such a great place to be. True to form, downtown embraces a system in which bars must constantly appease the mouth-breathing dullards who roam Himmarshee on the weekends, demanding musical mediocrity.
Contrary to Tarpon Bend's myopic mindset, there is room for an hour of live punk rock downtown once every 365 days. No one's stopping O'Connor from keeping his restaurant stuffy and tedious the rest of the year.