In its opening moments, Memphis’s Gonerfest looked like a tame affair. Parents with toddlers and al fresco diners mingled with punk rock fans, both old and young, around a gazebo in city’s Midtown neighborhood as power-pop legend Paul Collins played. “When I started, Goner didn’t exist,” Collins said, referring to the eponymous label (the Oblivians, Guitar Wolf, Jay Reatard) that launched in 1993. “That’s how old I am. But I’m glad they exist. Hallelujah, Goner!” Every year since 2004, the label and its record store have been holding the festival, a celebration of rough-edged underground music.
A few hours after Collins’s gazebo gig, as the action shifted to the Hi-Tone nightclub, beer cans hurtled through the air and the Goner faithful moshed passionately. Gonerfest Eleven, featuring three dozen bands, showed how garage, punk and indie pop music span the generations. On the younger end of the spectrum, there were scrappy groups like Ausmuteants, Nots and Protomartyr. (The Ausmuteants were just one of several groups from Australia, ranging from the bright pop of Scott & Charlene’s Wedding to the powerful intensity of Deaf Wish.)
But musicians from earlier eras, including a few actual senior citizens, proved they still know how to rock. Overlooked in the 1980s, the Len Bright Combo — that’s Englishman Eric Goulden, aka Wreckless Eric of “Whole Wide World” fame, together with the Milkshakes’ rhythm section, Bruce Brand and Russ Wilkins — played in the U.S. for the first time ever, sounding marvelous. “We’re three teenage men on a mission,” Goulden cracked. Saturday night concluded with a raucous set by the original 1977 lineup of the Gizmos from Bloomington, Indiana. The older Hoosiers standing on the stage didn’t look like the sort of people who have ever attended a punk show, let alone played in a punk band, but they quickly got the youngsters slamming on the dance floor. A few kids climbed onto the stage to join in the chorus of “Human Garbage Disposal.” The Gizmos looked invigorated by the experience, grinning like teenagers.