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2017 Pete Fest in Louisville, KY. Destigmatizing Mental Illness Through Music And Activism

In the wake of a tragedy like the one The Jones family faced a mere nine months ago, most would have shut down, tried not to think about it or drowned in an endless sea of questions, what ifs and the like.

The Jones took a different approach to their son’s death, they decided they had to take their experience and educate others about the terrible disease that depression is and all its repercussions. Pete had struggled with depression since he was a teenager. He was a gifted student and loved by many, his death was a shock. He had struggled with a sadness he didn’t understand.

The Pete foundation was started to raise awareness for depression, a disease that The World Health Organization states 350 million suffer from, as well as other mental illnesses in our youth, to “stomp out the stigma.” It is not easy living with a mental illness, the way people think of those who suffer. Sure, we may be a long way from Kesey’s Coocoo’s Nest but we’re still a long way from treating people with the respect and openness they deserve. Some people bottle it all up and don’t seek help because they fear what people will think. Imagine the worst pain you’ve ever felt and then imagine you feel that you can’t tell anyone. It’s a burden that grows like a cancer. It’s like a boulder you carry over a long period, you can carry it alone for a while but sooner or later you will succumb to the weight. You need to have someone help carry the weight. But it’s hard for those who consider suicide to get help with ignorant beliefs that it’s a decision for cowards or quitters, that it isn’t a disease and for crying out loud, calling suicide thee unforgivable sin isn’t a deterrent against the act but a deterrent against seeking help.  Someone with diabetes or Parkinson’s wouldn’t be afraid to talk about their illness, why should someone with a mental illness fear discussing what they’re going through?

September 8th was the inaugural Pete Fest, a festival dedicated to raising much-needed awareness. Music has been used time and time again to make a point, from the bards of old to the hippies of the sixties. We weren’t protesting a government or an institution, there was no hate and no condemnation. We were protesting ignorance and spreading a notion so simple yet so profound. The message was, it’s ok to be sick, its ok to be sad and there’s nothing wrong with getting help.

Music itself is more than just a way to get a bunch of people together and spread the word. As the singer of the Blues infused rock band, Big Atomic said later that day “You can keep your lithium, you can keep your zoloft, just leave me music.” I’m not suggesting we due away with medicine, some people really need it and it helps but Shannon Vetter was on to something. Other than being one of the most gifted saxophone players south of Chicago in a band that mixes qualities of the Doobie Brothers, Chris Cornell and Chicago, he’s a man with firsthand experience of music’s healing power. You see he, amongst others found a drug so potent, so readily available, that has zero side effects aside for the urge to come together and share in it. That drug is music. Music’s treatment method is that feeling you get when the band takes the stage or you put in that cd for the first time. It’s that inexplicable warmth you get in your chest and that thought that fills your head, the one that even in your worst days, says it’s going to be all right.

It was Twelve O’clock on Saturday and I had just entered Jones Field. The property was off the beaten path, about fifteen miles from Louisville off of Bill Town Road. It was part of Louisville, but by no means was it part of the city and it certainly had better parking than the water front.

From the get-go at check-in I was impressed by the attitude of these people. There was a kindness that went hand in hand with this common goal. I had a look around before things got started, surveyed the lay of the land if you will.

Local vendors had made their way round the circle. This was there bread and butter. A festival is a good gig for a food truck operator, this was their day. The operator of Dark Side of the Brew had been to four festivals this very week. Prices were quite astonishing for a festival. I paid somewhere around ten dollars for a hot tamale at the Jolly Tamales and what do you know, I received ten dollars’ worth of food, delicious food. At the bar, I purchased a double bourbon for a mere six dollars. Where at festival like Louder than Life, half a shot of bourbon would cost you a whopping eight dollars.

At one tent, you could purchase or even watch spoons being made into beautiful rings. There was a Sober Stomping tent located across from the West Six Brewing Truck. There was a certain comfort knowing you could fall off the wagon on one side of the field and cross the way to seek help in getting your act together.

On a personal note, I found the “This is your brain on hugs” bumper sticker quite charming. Something I took notice of as the weekend progressed is that for a festival, the boozing was minimal and so was the littering. Responsible drinking was practiced and so was tasteful drinking, the Pete Fest Punch, oh my, the Pete Fest Punch. These people knew how to make a punch. Did I mention the Pete Fest Punch? So good!

The Art Cartel had set up beautiful paintings on a wooden canvas so large they had to put it together and finished on-site. They sold T-shirts and art that anyone would be proud to keep in their gallery or living room to show their neighbors what classy taste they had.

There were two stages and over forty bands playing over three days. I had to accept early on that there was no way to write in depth on all of them and finish the article before January. I had to save paper for the best of the best which I found was like picking giants among giants, one difficult task. There really weren’t any bad groups. Pete Fest had managed to draw the best of the local and regional talent. From bands just making the jump from bars and dives to concert halls. From Prodepressants and their John Entwhistle-esque bass Players to Voodoo Economics and their Nils Lofgren-esque guitarist, I was making comparisons until I had to stop, realizing every band here could compete with the legends.

One band in particular though, that I drew similarities with greats from history was, C2 and The Brothers Reed. A band from small towns as well as Lexington with connections to the Jones family. I couldn’t help noticing from their style, both in wardrobe and music, a nostalgia shared in a time none of us were ever a part of. They had the appearance of Rockers from the sixties and seventies. They had elements of the Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin and something all their own. Not only was their sound impeccable, their presence on stage stood out like twenty-year veterans of the craft. Their showmanship, their confidence and most of all their music said these boys were professionals. Our dear friend Lester Bangs, if he were alive today, would eat his words. The death rattle had not yet come, here was a band not resurrected, not frozen in time but very much alive.

Fredrick The Younger, real up and comers on the national scene captured the mood of day one with some emotional heart felt originality. If I compared C2 and the Brothers Reed to the Who in style, I could compare Fredrick the Younger to Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Brown not in style or musicality, but in soul. The band had a way of tugging on your heart strings with their proper evolution in Rock and Roll. You could really call Fredrick the Younger the future of Rock and Roll and feel alright about it. They didn’t forget were they came from but they weren’t afraid to lead the way to someplace great. Any psychiatrist worth his salt would prescribe their song “Horoscope for Depression.” I’ve been plugged into this band for quite some time and all my instincts say, “they’re going to make it.” So, folks, see them cheap while you can because it won’t be long until your pawning your grandmother’s ring to purchase tickets to them Yum Center to get a glimpse of the hometown heroes you once saw on that cool September night.

The second day, against all odds was just as impressive as the first. There was a folky vibe added to the festival. Singer-songwriter Malcom Holcombe took a stage formerly occupied by full sized rock groups and delivered a performance just as moving. His lyrics were reminiscent of the Woody Guthrie era and he delivered them from a chair, rocking back and fourth like our wise grandfather delivering stories of woe and advice. A powerful breeze crossed the field driving home his working-class anthems.

Cheyenne Mize added to the folk flavor. The fiddle drove home a crisp southern sound that infused a Bluegrass sound with this Rock band. Mama Said String Band played the old Kentucky Bluegrass with a breath of fresh air, moving and soulful.

Mike Ditmore and The Saw Dusters blurred the line between Country and Rock and their song about “Dying and Going to Shively” was quite amusing to us Louisville natives. The prospect of entering to win plots in Shively, Kentucky, well who wouldn’t write a song about that.

Nothing says Kentucky like Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. This folksy group had some of the most talented musicians of the weekend. Everyone seemed to have a solo and they knew how to use one instrument to emphasize another. They infused a little Jazz in some of their songs, not much but it was noticeable. They played songs that could be called Kentucky anthems, railing against issues of our time and geography.

The Curio Key Club and Louisville Lips Played the ground-breaking album, Graceland to close night two. It was a wise cover. An album done in the face of opposition. Paul Simon didn’t care about the boycott against South Africa, he knew that it was unfair to include black South Africans, the victims of the Apartheid. In the face of controversy, he recorded with those talented musicians. He knew not to take things at face value much like the Pete Foundation knows not to take depression at face value. Sometimes you must cross the line, get to the heart of the matter and once again use music to do it.

The third day was key. The stages weren’t held by the current heavy hitters but those just wetting the waters of the music scene. Discover Sunday was curated by Mom’s Music and Michelle Jones from PeteFest, they brought budding talent from local music schools and garages. These, in many cases were just kids but they could join any of the bands from the previous two days. There is nothing like that feeling when you discover music, when you and your friends know what you’re going to do. It’s something that you must put your heart into, something that will frustrate you at times and you’ll question, but those early years are the best. They may be the hardest but that is were the stories come from, where friendships are tested and bounds are formed. These starry-eyed dreamers hit a good mark at Pete fest, playing covers and originals. They already had that professional vibe about them. These weren’t just young folks jamming in their basement and performing at local parties, these were musicians. They were the type to give parents a little concern because they knew their children were going to make a go at it but they also would have to know, they stood a pretty good shot at it.

AMPED, an organization that provides free musical education for youth, provided a set by some brilliant young talent as young as grade schoolers.

Madison Lewis was a big hit with her soulful folk tunes and knew how to work the audience. I never thought these words would reach paper in any publication but Generation Lost played a cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” that was better than the original. Seriously.

Something I couldn’t shake about one young band was the singer of The Closers resemblance to the protagonist in David Chases, “Not Fade Away.” He sang like him and personified somehow, that energy of early rock and roll. He even shared John Magaro’s voice.

The night was closed out by Little Capital, a band that didn’t care much for the confines of the stage as they spent much of their set performing on the grass with the audience. The barrier between musician and listener was non-existent. The Kink’s “All Day and All the Night” was the closing anthem of a weekend well spent.

Awareness was raised and not as some sort of gimmick or excuse to party at a three-day festival. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that weekend who didn’t have some serious thought to the subject matter, who didn’t feel a deep sorrow for the young man who brought us here. Pete Jones was a beloved son brother and friend, a gifted student and all of the stories I heard told of the man were told with love.

It’s easy to look at the news when a celebrity loses a battle with this awful disease and say, “Oh what a tragedy, someone should look into this” and move on a day later but the truth is, Chris Cornell, Robin Williams and Chester Bennington aren’t the only ones to commit suicide. We all know someone, a brother, a cousin, son, daughter, co-worker, who has suffered from depression. Even worse we might not know it, they may be there suffering in silence, too scared of some stigma that has no place in civilized society.

So, don’t be afraid to approach someone who seems down, sometimes you don’t even have to say anything, just being there may be enough. Approach a stranger and ask him how his day is. Stop thinking of people as strangers all together and take a page from the people at this festival and think of them as family you just haven’t met yet. Read the testimonials on the Pete Foundation Website, educate yourselves and others and most of all, stomp out the stigma.

Photos By Estill Robinson: