Spazzfest: A music festival that brings the community together
The iconic local music festival that has something of a cult following is back, March 24-27, in its 13th year. Those who grew up with the festival are faithful and enthusiastic supporters. But folks new to town or living outside the Spazz bubble may benefit from some background and context. The organizer and Spazzevangelist himself, Jeff Blinder, is happy to oblige.
The Spazzastartium (How it got started)
“I’ve been booking stuff since 2003, for 20 years, almost,” Jeff Blinder explained. He operates under the umbrella of “Spazz Presents” and seemingly every weekend, and a number of weekdays, Blinder gushes on social media with teasers about musical performances like “Don’t say Greenville never gets any cool tours coming through.” If touring acts passing through are his bread-and-butter, local bands discovering and honing their musical identities are the favorite beverage and sustaining hydration: “The festival itself came about when one weekend I had gotten a lot of requests from bands to come through the same weekend, and I said, ‘I really like all these bands. How am I going to do this?’”
Blinder explained that he usually likes to have two touring bands, if possible, and local acts. But suddenly he was getting as many as 6 different touring acts wanting to come on the same nights: “I said we’ve got to do something special, to make it more special. I turned it into a festival. It was like Friday and Saturday, with like 3 or 4 bands each night and 3 or 4 locals.”
It was a couple of years before Blinder figured out why all the bands were coming through at the same time. They were coming from the Austin, Texas South by Southwest festival. It’s described as a conglomeration of film, interactive media, and music festivals that some just call “South By.”
Soon the bands at South by Southwest were telling other bands, “Hit up Jeff in Greenville.” So instead of 8 bands asking, it was 15, then the next year, 25. “It kept getting bigger and bigger, and with that we made the festival bigger and bigger,” Blinder said. “We kind of got word of mouth going with the underground, independent bands.”
The Spazzacausium (All the right reasons)
Then Blinder got the idea to combine the festival with a benefit: “One of the local acts came down with a cancer diagnosis. I said, ‘We have to give the touring acts some gas cash but I’ll tell them it’s probably going to be one of the better shows on their tour because everyone’s in it for the right reasons, for someone from the community.”
The first couple of Spazzfests were at the Tipsy Teapot. “The second one was a big benefit for our friend, to get some money for him so he could have his cancer treatments,” Blinder said. He was keyboardist in a local band called Lonnie Walker. So we had some really great touring acts and the locals coming together for all the right reasons. And it was really good to see that in Greenville. Showing that you can do something for someone else is really important for the community. Sometimes it’s good to see that you’re doing things outside yourself. But when they see people doing things for the right reasons, I see the community kind of turn toward being kinder to each other.”
The next year the benefit was for the Tipsy Teapot, the venue that had been supportive of Blinder and local musicians. “Businesses like that really struggle because you have a whole summer when you’re not making money because the kids are gone,” Blinder said. “The owner, Delia, said ‘We might be closing in a few months.’ I said, ‘Wait for Spazzfest….we’ll make it for you.’ And we made a lot of money for them. I told people, ‘This is our home base. Let’s do a benefit for them. And we were really able to help. I think they were able to keep things going for a year or two. We were able to get some people to see that this place is important and that it’s kind of a cultural hub and then some of those people graduate and leave. It’s the transitional nature of Greenville. But for that time we were able to help Tipsy Teapot and they helped me …I was able to have a place where we could do music.”
Blinder began to realize that Spazzfest was pretty special if it could basically save a business, “People started looking forward to it every year,” he said. “Some years I’m like ‘Oh gosh…I have to get ready for another one. And then people remind me why I do it. It’s a lot of work, but it always makes the town feel like the best it can be…all the people coming together and seeing a bigger thing.”
The Spazzfavorite memories
Local musician Nathan Maxwell said, “Jeff has done an amazing job of bringing so much varied music to Greenville. great folks, many of whom have become friends, thanks to his seemingly tireless enthusiasm and networking.”
Maxwell shared a memory from a Spazzfest a few years back, when Birth Rattle (an improvisational group he was in with Jim Capps) played a set with the Emotron and Robin from the band On the Water: “Everyone was given a harmonica and a tambourine, we started playing in a tight circle, slowly backing up through the space [Trollingwood] until we had expanded as far as we could, at which point we slowly moved back together again. When we started playing, there was conversation at the bar, but by the time we finished playing, everyone seemed entranced. It was like no other musical experience I have ever had, and was so much fun!”
McKenzie Shelton declared, “Spazzfest is definitely an iconic cultural event in Greenville’s recent history.” She described her favorite Spazzfest memory: “Throughout my early twenties as a vocalist in Greenville, I participated in a few of the Spazzfest singer-songwriter round-robins. In this style of performance, musicians sit in a circle and take turns performing songs one at a time. I really enjoy this approach to performance; rather than having one stage that everyone is facing, the circular structure has all the performers facing each other, and the audience around us. To me this encourages listening, community-building, and focus. It summons up both intimacy and observation between the performers and audience. “
Shelton described her first round robin at Spazzfest: “One person performed an indie lament and ended up destroying their guitar on the ground by the end of it. That person is also a local comedian and worked at a restaurant in town. This is what I love about Spazzfest and the legacy it brings; it’s a space–lots of spaces, in fact–for experimentation, exploration, and communing through performance, not only for bands that travel far distances to play, but for local talent as well.”
David Brown, owner of David’s Used Books, said that he went to some of the Spazz shows back when he was in college, but “officially met” Blinder 4 or 5 years ago when Brown was doing some record shows: “He came to me and said ‘Hey, I’m doing this event the week in March. I see that you’re doing this record show and it just happened to coincide. Would you mind if I put your record show on the flyers?’ I said ‘Sure, yeah, go ahead.’ And there was this huge turnout. A lot of people came out. He draws a very good crowd.”
And while the events falling on the same weekend was coincidental, Blinder’s efforts to bring synergy through collaboration turned out to be mutually beneficial. A few years later Brown needed someone to manage the record side of his business and he tapped Blinder.
Great Spazzfexpectations (What’s on tap for Spazzfest XIII)
Last year, due to the pandemic, Blinder had what he called Spazzfest Lite: “We did it out in the backyard of someone’s house. Then we had a Spazzfest that was like a 12.5 because we were able to have some indoor stuff, and wore masks inside.”
This year Spazzfest’s home base will be Molly’s Community Cafe. “Now that’s not where everything’s going to be,” Blinder explained, “because Spazzfest is all over. We jump around to all places. But I’ll say, because they’ve been so good to us, that will be home base.”
Blinder plays matchmaker to the genres and venues so they are suited for one another, and so the crowd can move where they want to go: “We do a thing called the golden ticket, so you can have access to everything. I keep it down to $50 for it and for that you get 3 or 4 days of access to everything. And I do secret things like after parties, and merch if I get it. Bonus stuff for people who support. If I can sell like 50 of those before the festival hits, I have some money to work with and I can offer guarantees to bands that I feel are worth the money, but maybe there’s not going to be the biggest crowd because they’re not that well known yet. But in a year or two they’ll be known and people will be like ‘Oh, they played Spazzfest?’ And that gets a little buzz going.”
As in major festivals, multiple events are scheduled at the same time. When possible, he tries to get venues where attendees can walk from one to the other. “But if I don’t have that, I give a window of time so one starts a little earlier, some later, so if you like the vibe you can stick around and if you don’t you can go to another,” he said.
While touring acts are a draw, Blinder explains that locals are like the skeleton he works around: “If I get a touring band interested, before I confirm them I think about the locals that could play on that ship. The locals will say ‘Yes’ before they even hear the bands because they trust me to put them in the right spot. That’s where my art comes in, because I don’t make music, but I curate.”
Concerning the festival’s demographics, Blinder said, “The older folks who are interested actually make time to be there. They take off work and stuff.” Younger people tend to come two nights in a row. He laughed and said, “And I don’t see them the next two nights because they’re sleeping.”
For those that make it all 4 days, he has what he calls a “Recovery Brunch” or “The Endurance Brunch” for “those who have all the wristbands from all the venues and have the ragged looking face.” He’s thinking of having something like that again this year at Molly’s.
While all the acts are not yet locked down, Blinder is certain Paleface will be an anchor, performing at Pitt Street Brewing. Paleface has been a part of Spazzfest from the beginning and used to play at his old venue, the Spazzatorium. “The history of Paleface is great because he comes from an anti-folk movement from New York City and that spawned Beck,” Blinder said. Paleface actually had Beck’s sound before Beck had his sound. I won’t say Beck took it from him but they both definitely came together with that same style.”
Paleface can be heard on many of the Avett Brothers’ earliest seminal albums, such as on the song “Dancing Daze,” off Four Thieves Gone and “Go To Sleep,” off of Emotionalism.
Blinder expects the schedule will include two nights at State Theatre (Friday & Saturday) with a kickoff event at a new spot called Dirty Dan’s (formerly Buggy’s Bar).: “Dirty Dan’s was way back in the day Peasant’s, where I saw some of my earliest big shows, like the Avett Brothers,” Blinder said.
Plenty of locals such as Vstlty, Paper Skulls, and nu clear twins will round out the lineup. In addition to the all inclusive “Golden Ticket” option, a la carte tickets will be available for purchase.
Spazzpresents recently launched an updated website with an animated logo by Merry Leigh that conjures thoughts of Creature Feature or Rocky Horror Picture Show. Festival news and the complete schedule will be posted there as performances are confirmed.
And to quote one of Blinder’s spazztastic promotional posts, “This news should leave you quakey with giddiness!”
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Originally published in the Daily Reflector March 19, 2022.