by Brian Clarey, Eric Ginsburg and Jordan Green
Phuzz Phest happened by accident.
In the fall of 2011, Winston-Salem promoters and musicians Philip Pledger and Anthony Petrovic had both booked multi-act shows for the same weekend. Knowing they drew from the same audience, and because they were friends, they struck a deal to collaborate.
Over the years, hundreds of people — artists, venue owners, bartenders, sound engineers, merch hustlers and the fans themselves —have contributed to make Phuzz what it is, and what it is becoming.
We’ve collected the stories and memories of some of the principals of the operation, a venue owner and an artist, knowing full well that this is just part of the story. And that much of it is still being written.
Philip Pledger, founder and driving force behind Phuzz Phest: I was booking shows at Krankies at the time, and I had booked a Thursday and a Friday, I think. And then Anthony had booked Wednesday and Saturday. Or vise versa. But somehow it just came together that there were four nights. And we just called each other and basically decided instead of trying to market it all individually we could just call it a festival. So yeah, at that point… [there were] no real resources, it was just kind of an organic solution to a problem. And so we didn’t have very many expectations, but people responded really well. We had two or three hundred people come out, and that’s kind of what gave us the idea that we could put more energy into it.
The first year Philip had a show put together and I had a show that I needed to put on with a touring group. It just fell the day before the fest so we turned it into a Phuzz Phest free show. The show was at Elliott’s Revue, so it was a number of years ago.
That first year there were a few kids that moved up to New York, and it was kind of a way of getting them to come and play, and get some other local stuff around them. [It was] a way smaller scale, just like a big party-style thing.
Pledger: At the time, Elliott’s Revue was still intact. I think it was actually one of the last Elliott’s shows. Maybe not. So we did shows there, and it was awesome. That’s been one of the things that is cool about the festival is to kind of watch the evolution of some of the spaces. You know, Elliott’s closed over the past five years, and it turned into a thrift shop. And then it turned into a tiki bar. And now it’s turned into a new bar/venue space [the Test Pattern].
Shanthony Exum, aka Miss Eaves,
played the first Phuzz Phest and again in 2014, later moved to New York: The first Phuzz Phest was really cool. It was a bunch of friends from Greensboro and Winston who had been gigging together already playing en mass on the same weekend. I really loved the local love and local vibes of the first one and it was nice that there was only one venue per day so you could see all of your friends play.
Pledger: It was all super cheap. It was all really local bands or bands that were coming through already. There were, like, no big names, you know. It was some smaller local shows, so I think it was like $5 to $8 for each show back then.
Saylor Breckenridge, who got involved after the first year and is now the assistant director for the festival: Most people I knew here in town who were part of the music community did go because it was sort of a coincidental series of events where a lot of bands were playing in town the same weekend. It turned into a spectacularly successful event.
I went as a fan, and I have been going to shows here in Winston-Salem since I moved here in 2001. It was clear that there were a lot of bands playing here this weekend. I’m sure I was particularly excited to see Drag Sounds who were then and continue to be a stunningly good garage rock band.
Petrovic: I think that it was so fun and successful that we thought, Okay, if we get some sponsors behind this we might be able to bring some crazy stuff to town.
Allysen Mahaffey, who became involved the second year; since then she’s become a board member and also Pledger’s sister-in-law: I’ve lived in Winston since 2010. I’ve always gone to local shows and love music. I feel like my scene in Winston has changed a little bit. Before I would just go to random stuff or I would go out of town to like Charlotte and things like that.
I think I first went [to the festival] in 2012. It was like a small set, at Krankies patio. I can’t remember if it was Michael Taylor or Hiss Golden Messenger but one of them was playing on Krankies porch the first year. That’s my only memory of that first year.
I was with just a couple friends. I hadn’t really heard of Phuzz Phest but a friend wanted to go so I went.
I went to the full festival in 2013 and every year after that.
Petrovic: The second year was I think where it started popping off and that was fun because we utilized the entire block of the Werehouse.
There was shows [the second year] in the lower parking lot of Krankies. They had a stage, and the Krankies stage and a few things in Reanimator, and the Cycle Your City spot was still empty so there was a show in there. It was really fun just being on the block all day.
Pledger: I think one of the coolest ones was one that was pretty far off the radar and kind of unassuming, but it was Hiss Golden Messenger played on the porch of Krankies. I’ll have to check: I believe that was 2013? Wait. No, that’s 2012. That was just a solo set with Michael Taylor, with like a dozen people on the porch. And it was super, really intimate and really incredible. Obviously, he’s gone on to do some pretty amazing things with Merge Records and getting some international acclaim.
That same year Calvin Johnson was really cool. Beat Happening [Calvin’s band]. That was the first time T0W3RS ever played in Winston. That was also maybe one of the Bayonets last shows.
Breckenridge: Calvin Johnson, who is a long time indie-rock person from Portland [Ore.] and runs this record label K Records and had been a part of Beat Happening and the Dub Narcotic Sound System. He ended up playing at Krankies solo, sort of just standing there with an acoustic guitar. It was very fun and unexpected, and he and I just had a conversation afterwards about being in a very small town and a very small music scene. He’s from Olympia, Washington, which is a similarly small town. I just remember having this very great feeling of enthusiasm afterwards that this festival is really awesome… it built enthusiasm in me in a really great way.
Petrovic: One of my favorite experiences was the second year. There was no shows on a Sunday and we did a show where four or less of us were gonna just play acoustic guitar songs in the backyard of Krankies. That day more and more people kept showing up. We were handing over the guitar, handing over the piano, just a lot of local people drinking and screwing around, just a really cool thing that could never be duplicated if we planned it that way.
Pledger: I mentioned Elliott’s. Krankies has obviously evolved a good bit. When it first started, a good portion of the shows were at Krankies. The stage was at a different location in the space, and we used the back lot for that big-tent stage at the very beginning, which was fun. Kind of a very hapharzardly put together sound system and stuff. Over the past two years we’ve gone and added bigger spaces like the Millennium Center and Bailey Park, which is really exciting. Kind of our goal from the beginning, whether it’s the music or the stages, our goal has been to showcase the best side of Winston and give the best snapshot of Winston. And so we really wanted to show of the natural spaces, like the urban landscape of Winston-Salem. And then Reanimator’s gone through a couple of iterations as well. I think they’re a super important member of the music and arts and just weirdo culture here in Winston.
Breckenridge: [Krankies] was the first time I ever saw the band the Tills. It was an afternoon show and they were just stunningly good, just this crazy garage-rock performance and these guys really knocked my socks off. They later on went on to work with Philip and release a record on Phuzz’s record label.
The second Phuzz Phest also began its relationship with the Garage, which in 2012 had just been taken over by Tucker Tharpe.
Tharpe: I knew right away it was a real festival. The guys had made their mistakes before they came to me. I never had any self doubt or anything. When they came to me they had a bunch of badass bands. As soon as they came to me I knew I was sponsoring it — if Anthony and Philip were doing it, I was on board — I can’t think of anyone else in town I respect more, musically.
That was everything for me in the beginning, knowing it was Philip and Anthony — I had a real interest in aligning myself with those guys even more than we had already done. We were already brothers and sisters, but I wanted to do more.
I had my own motives. The Garage couldn’t not be a part of something that cool.
Mahaffey: I remember Mount Moriah at the Garage. That was when I first heard of Mount Moriah and saw them live. Heather [McEntire], their lead singer, is incredible.
I really love the Garage. I love that venue. I think it’s just fun that it has a lot of the old posters and everything that’s playing there and it’s small and intimate and kind of grungy. [McEntire] really knows how to captivate an audience because her style and lyrics are so incredible. It’s very vulnerable and authentic. You can tell she’s very convicted and writes from a true place and I think that comes out in her stage presence.
I think the Love Language played and I thought they were really fun, and maybe Judy Barnes but I can’t remember if she was in 2012 or 2013.
Pledger: In hindsight, I wish we could have named it something else; we just never expected it to last very long. You never expect it to be more than just a weekend. The name actually came from a music blog I was writing at the time — not just music, it was like a Winston culture blog. Basically just writing about friends who were creating visual art or playing music. Just basically if a band was releasing an album doing posts about that. It was called Phuzz Media. Just like a really small pet project. Again, no real intention of turning it into anything larger than that. And so when we had the festival, it was just a really easy name without trying to reinvent the wheel. After that, it was one of those things where the name was already written. And from a fundraising and promotion perspective it was hard to want to move away from the name because people had already associated that event with it. If we could name it something else I would. I’m always paranoid that people are like, ‘Oh, this guy named a festival after himself! What is he thinking?’ Which is like my worst nightmare. It definitely wasn’t intended to kind of have that vibe. It was basically just a convenience that we didn’t anticipate being a six-year long event.
Petrovic: From there we just saw Phil freaking out so we started rounding up more and more people to help him out. Because he’s a masochist.
Mahaffey: Something about Philip is that he’s very particular about what he books and it’s going to be good. There’s just so much good variety. Even in 2013 when I didn’t know a lot of the stuff I still had such a good time and I loved it.
Pledger: Anthony’s got a really good knack for — I don’t know how to describe it — some of the weirder and harder stuff, some of the more punk-oriented stuff or metal. I wouldn’t say it’s really confined to a genre as much as a sensibility. If you know Anthony, then you know what I mean. He’s built some really amazing relationships over the years with bands of all kinds of genres from all over the country. I think in Winston in general it’s good to keep it weird and keep it gritty, especially [with downtown] getting a lot of luxury condos and things. And I think it’s good to kind of remember the grit aspect is important, too. I think he helps keep that alive on the music side.
Petrovic: It’s a collective effort, for sure, which helps diversify the fest — different people select different things. I usually get more of the louder, garage-rock-y heavy style things and the other people will fill in the blanks with more indie-pop or electronic music or whatever.
Half the time I don’t know half the bands. Phil doesn’t know what I’m bringing to the table. I guess that’s cool, so you can be surprised at your own thing.
Mahaffey: I got involved in 2014. Philip asked me to be on the Phuzz Phest staff. I thought that would be really fun and said of course. I thought, why wouldn’t you want to help out a local music festival? I don’t play, or I’m not in a band, and I thought that it’d be a cool way to be involved.
Pledger: Every year, it’s definitely gotten larger. It’s been encouraging — in the beginning because it was such an organic thing that started as a smaller little bubble of audience members and that was the foundation we kind of built on, but it’s been awesome to see different sides of the community come out and different demographics and different people who probably might just be into the folk side of the programming that we do that don’t really care about the garage rock or anything like that. It’s cool to get interest from people with all kinds of music tastes.
Tharpe: Phuzz Phest is a perfect example of us coming together and saying, ‘Fuck our own interests; let’s do something incredible. Let’s make something out of nothing — that’s real creativity: creating something out of thin air, from sheer force of will.
Breckenridge: In general there are two sorts of music festivals. There’s the sort that’s set up in a field and maybe there are multiple stages but they’re in very close proximity and people are in the dirt or the grass or the mud or what have you…. and if it’s multiple days there’s this implication that people camp.
And then there are festivals set in cities where different venues and parks host these events and the attendees are deeply engaged within the city and maybe have to drive and move around to different venues. Here in North Carolina, Hopscotch is the classic example of that and now maybe Moogfest.
Phuzz Phest has a couple of unique qualities I think in that it’s a festival of the latter sort, but it’s geographically very contiguous so it’s very easy for people to conceivably walk between every venue. Everyone’s working synergistically to make sure the entire festival goes on very well. It’s a really community-oriented operation so every year as we lead up to Phuzz Phest occurring, in the fall we’re developing a plan leading up to the year’s Phuzz Phest. There’s this sort of real enthusiasm among everybody. Philip plays this role of being a leader that combines everyone’s resources.
Phuzz Phest is very much… this is what Winston’s like all the time and we’re really just accentuating the best of what’s already here. It’s very homey.
Mehaffey: I think you get a really good feel of different venues and different places and you can kinda leave when you want to. I’ve been to festivals where… I feel very trapped. I love that [with] Phuzz Phest, I live five minutes away. Every year I’ve gone to Phuzz Phest I literally run through the streets of downtown Winston from one place to another because I don’t want to miss an act.
There’s a totally different feel for each place. I think it’s fun how the music kind of matches the venue, and you can kind of leave and go out to dinner somewhere and there’s a lot of freedom, which is one of the things I love about Phuzz Phest.
Most of the history of Phuzz Phest is written on the stages, in musical moments that are gone in an instant but remain vivid for all who were there.
Breckenridge: I remember seeing T0W3RS play in I think the back outdoor area of Single Brothers two years ago or three years ago. It was a late-night show, [and] it was the last show of the whole evening, so it was late. He was spectacular and had this entire gravel area with the tables, everybody was dancing. It was just as exciting as what was going on in any club. It was this whole other level of excitement that was going on at just this moment and it was just great. that’s this very vivid memory.
Pledger: That was a good one…. That was definitely a crazy, fun time. And that was one of [T0W3RS’] first shows with the kind of the new iteration of that record. For a long time he did that solo. The first time with the karaoke version of his own work. It was really high energy, a high performance. That was one of the first times that that format was performed.
Petrovic: Trans Am at Krankies — just breaking in that new stage, actually managing to get them all the way over to the East Coast was really cool.
Breckenridge: Last year I remember seeing Trans Am play at Krankies. Trans Am are sort of a ’90s sort of hard-rock, a little bit electronic band and it involves very technical drumming. When I got there instead of them being this sort of technically competent, very loud rock band they were like the most amazing electronic dance band I could’ve imagined. It was such a switch I imagined from how they could be live, with this like driving dance beat that had everyone at Krankies kind of swirled into this dance club. I remember seeing Anthony Petrovic from Reanimator in the corner dancing, and I remember thinking, Holy moly this band has Anthony Petrovic dancing in public in front of everyone.
Mahaffey: Seeing Hamilton Leithauser. I think he’s incredible. It was a small venue [Krankies] and we were kinda like, man, there were less than 50 people there because it was raining on a Sunday night. Being able to see him and talk to him afterwards was really cool. I don’t even think I said that much. In 2014, seeing Jessica Lea Mayfield was really awesome. I remember I had listened to her for a few years… she changed into this ’90s grunge or like bright blonde with a bunch of Lisa Frank stickers on her guitar and glitter everywhere.
I remember I suggested her to Philip to book and I remember when he booked her I was really excited about it. It was a sold-out show.
I thought she would definitely draw a good crowd and definitely draw in some people like me who might be intimidated by Phuzz Phest who didn’t know what to expect or who wouldn’t go to Phuzz Phest normally. That was when I had just joined the Phuzz Phest volunteer group. Everyone was trying to make a point to bring in more people. She was someone who I really thought would bring in different people.
Pledger: Burglar Fucker — not that you have to print this — they played one of the last shows at the Garage one year. And yeah, it was just wild. It is cool coming to the end of a festival like that and everyone’s been through the gauntlet together and everyone’s kind of like ready to send it off, you know? It’s a fun vibe.
Petrovic: I saw photo evidence of Burglar Fucker playing a show — I have no recollection of this show actually happening. I kind of thought there was 10 people there and I saw pics later and the whole Garage was packed — I guess it was fun… rumor had it.
Breckenridge: Last year Protomartyr played, who are one of my favorite bands of the last decade, let’s say. And that we were able to have Protomartyr play here at a time that Protomartyr were becoming famous as an international band was really special that we had them play here. They played the Garage and it was packed and super sweaty… meeting people who had driven from Raleigh or Chapel Hill or Atlanta who had driven to see Protomartyr or the host of other bands that were here.
Last year was the first year that Boulevards played. Boulevards is returning this year and headlining at the Garage for his new album. Just spectacular sort of Prince and Chic inspired. He puts on this amazing show that’s just essentially a one-man performance…. it was super lively and he was super engaging with the crowd and it was awesome.
The year before that No Age played, who were amazing, just really powerful garage rock, like amazing sort of loud, pounding rock at Krankies. It was just packed with pogo-ing kids and adults watching this band sort of roar through songs and it was just amazing.
Petrovic: Kool Keith was a pretty big score.
Tharpe: I watched two bands from the same town meet each other in [the Garage] and fall in love with each other here and became mutually beneficial for both their careers in their hometown — All Them Witches and Diarrhea Planet from Nashville, Tennessee.
And so it was the drummer of Diarrhea Planet — they were headlining here, they had heard about All Them Witches, but Phuzz Phest had booked them.
I was watching the drummer from Diarrhea Planet Instagramming All Them Witches and typing how great they were. This is the band that’s opening for you and you’re writing about how great they are. They live two miles from each other and they never met.
We figured we’d put them up before Diarrhea Planet so people could see Kool Keith and get back for Diarrhea Planet — and it worked.
The scene kids — my people were running from Ziggy’s to here because they wanted to see Kool Keith and Diarrhea Planet in the same night. How weird is that? A rapper with a Shakespearean vocabulary and a punk band from Nashville called Diarrhea Planet. The kids were sprinting and sweating to get here in time for Diarrhea Planet.
Beautiful. Beautiful. And from 10,000 feet it’s what we hope might happen, but how do you make people run? Well, you book the right fucking band. You book the right bands, people show up.
Mahaffey: This year there are a few of the bands that I haven’t heard of before like Lera Lynn that I’m really excited about. She’s a singer songwriter that has this song “Shape Shifter” that’s so catchy. Per usual I’m excited for T0W3RS, and he’s moved to Atlanta. I’m excited for Body Games, they’re an electronic act. They played at Phuzz Phest in 2014 at Ziggy’s, I think, and they had a really awesome slide show, I think one of them was The Lion King.
Last year I had never listened to or heard of Boulevards but oh my gosh, I was so blown away. He has such a good stage performance… I’m really excited for him to come back this year.
Pledger: Last year we didn’t have a single act cancel, which was incredible because we had 64 bands play. Just statistically thinking — you always assume you’ll have at least a couple cancellations. There’s always just the wonder of, are people gonna show up and respond to this in a positive way? Are people gonna spend their money on it in the age of Netflix and Spotify and distractions? There’s always that underlying question of, is the public gonna support local arts?
Petrovic: For the most part, you know, most of the acts I’ve dealt with have been very gracious and cool, very well accommodating in comparison to other festivals I do. Coming to Winston-Salem maybe isn’t as luxurious as some of these other fests but you get treated pretty well when you’re here — nationally we’re known for our hospitality, and that makes people want to play here.
In its sixth year, Phuzz Phest has gone from a serendipitous overbooking to a full-fledged urban music festival, with plans in place for growth.
Pledger: Kind of the goal has been to create a festival that the reach is far beyond Winston and that we can bring international acts and really big bands from across the country, but we want it to be something that Winston can be part of and that — it’s cool that we’re building something here with our neighbors. Even the sponsor money is local.
Tharpe: We just get it done. I think that everybody expects us to be some wild and crazy rock-and-roll outfit — if I had anything to say I’d want to smash any misconceptions. It’s not a hobby; it’s not a joke or a game. We’re not here for money or fame. It’s hard to take criticism because we’re not really doing it for that. We do it for the people and we price it fairly and it’s what it takes to get the festival done — it’s starting to stand on its own. We just book the best up-and-coming talent we can and the best known bands we can get, promote the shit out of them and, when it comes club time, we tune them up and put on the best fucking show we know how.
At the Garage, you know, we do this every weekend. When Phuzz is around, the talent takes a jump in the right direction.
Pledger: People don’t understand how expensive it is. It’s tough. I feel like sometimes Winston does an awesome job of supporting the fine arts and not as good a job of supporting the kind of lowbrow arts. That’s a bummer. That’s not directed at anyone in particular. It’s just kind of the way it is right now. Winston doesn’t always do a great job of supporting opportunities and programming for young people. And it’s not just Winston. It’s a challenge to continue to raise money in a highly competitive — not as far as music goes — but there’s a lot of organizations competing for grants and things like that. It’s just extremely stressful and extremely tiring.
Petrovic: Its very hard to do this. Normally you have a large staff, and then you can have interns and whatever. Phil doesn’t make any money off of this — this year I think the tickets are cheaper. Every year he’s done a great job of getting more and more sponsors, but you have to put all that money down to make a quality thing. If you don’t, then people will laugh at it. I have no problem saying that we all work really fucking hard to do this thing.
I think Philip is like 20 years older than I am at this point. Look at him on the final Sunday of Phuzz Phest. He looks like Bernie Sanders.
Got Phuzz Phest memories of your own? Add them in the comments thread or email [email protected]