Bottle rockets whistle through the air and beer cans crunch underfoot. Smoke from the grills mixes with exhaust from the line of bikers rolling up. Snapping snares and brutalized guitars echo across FDR Skate Park. Around the band, a small mob is thrashing, a storm of studs, spikes, leather and dreads. It’s a scene made hazy and jittery by heat and sweat and bloodied-up elbows. There’s a sense of brotherhood and an undercurrent of barely contained chaos.
All of which is standard operating procedure for the Philly Punx Picnic.
Every year since 2007, its organizers — Nyssa Capps, Chris Tsonos and Leora Colby — have worked their community ties to produce a DIY, multi-show, multi-venue festival of proud-and-dirty rock shows across South and West Philly. (The 2012 edition went down last week.)
“When I first moved here from D.C. back in 2005, there was the punk scene, but then there were the thrashers and the metalheads and the street punks and the hardcore kids and the skaters and the bikers and everyone else — it was all there, but they were very disconnected,” says Tsonos.
The trio trace the Picnic’s origins back to their days hanging out at Disgraceland, a dingy, now-defunct show house in South Philly. The place is remembered fondly as an epicenter of the Philly scene, a shelter for communal, creative living and a reliable place for underage kids to land their first shows.
“Slowly it got into everybody’s heads that we’re all doing the same thing,” recalls Tsonos. “Now you go to these shows and you see a metal band and a hardcore band and crust band — we’ve all just come together and grown so fast.”
The Picnic is, in part, a celebration of the local scene; 20 of the 30 bands that played this year were from Philly. Violent Society, a staple of the city’s hardcore scene since the early ’90s and longtime idol of the Punx, headlined the main event at FDR. The lineup was rounded out by out-of-towners like Fucktard from California and The Krays from Brooklyn.
“There’s other people that can make huge events happen. We want ours to be a small, DIY, mid-sized festival that isn’t off the charts,” says Capps. “It’s just something that you’re going to hear about through other people who have been here. There’s a need for a festival this size and not to take it in another direction.”
The mission is also to make it affordable; a four-day pass was only $25. “That brings it back to the whole DIY aspect,” says Colby, former frontwoman to the band Thusla Doom. “That $25 won’t pay any of us — it’s gonna pay for the bands, the permits, the port-a-potties, the beer and the food and the merch. At the end of the day we’ll break even and hopefully we can actually make a little money to invest in future endeavors and do more shows and more events and have a budget to start off with.”
The ultimate goal is to continue gaining sponsors — right now, allies include South Street stalwarts Tattooed Mom and Crash Bang Boom, Blackbird Pizzeria and Beautiful World Syndicate record store — and to one day establish their own venue in South Philly or Point Breeze and put on smaller-scale punk shows year-round.
“Being punk isn’t about being drunk in a gutter. I mean, yeah, we’ve got those people too, but you can still be a productive member of society,” says Colby. “You build a skill set. I’m a pastry chef, Nyssa is a carpenter, Chris is a chef. We all have skills. You better your life and you bring it back to the scene. You say, ‘Here’s what I can do for the community that raised me.’”
In the Picnic’s six-year history, there have been some wild moments: A tire fire. A bit of brick-throwing. And there was that one time the Red Bull car got hijacked — well, more like temporarily occupied, says Tsonos. “In 2008, we were having a block party on Sixth Street when the Red Bull car showed up out of nowhere.” While the drivers (both traditionally attractive young women, as is standard for Red Bull promotions) were out of the car passing out energy drinks, says an amused Capps, “Some people jumped in their car and locked the doors, so these hot Red Bull girls had to stay and hang out the whole day.”
But the chaos never quite gets as extreme as it could — the fire was quickly extinguished, and even the quasi-hijacking ended amicably. “One of the guys who hijacked the car got [the girls’] phone numbers; I think they went on a date later,” laughs Tsonos. “When we took care of those situations, it showed how together everyone really is, how responsible we’ll be if we have to be,” he continues. “We had a row of people throwing buckets down the line to put out that fire.”
“Being a parent myself, I feel a little more personal responsibility to promote a good environment for young punks to grow up in,” says Colby. “I was raised by punks. My ethics and my morals, my perceptions on reality and society and the way things work were educated through punk, and it’s definitely a positive message.”
Six years ago, this was just a hyper-local picnic at Lemon Hill. Now it’s a festival that people schedule their tours and vacations around.
“It’s really nice to see the full circle,” says Capps, “Like, some 16-year-old punks coming to their first show see that they can actually make a career of living DIY. You can start a business, you can contribute to the community by creating jobs. There’s a lot of growing up that you can do by staying in this place and this way of life. Philly proves it, everywhere you look: There’s no city like this.”