Nerdapalooza’s Next Generation


Image: HDninja and sons by Thomas KehrImage: HDninja and sons by Thomas Kehr

Image: HDninja and sons by Thomas Kehr

Last weekend two intrepid GeekDads arrived at Orlando’s annual Nerdapalooza festival with a box full of t-shirts and a dream of geek unity. OK, that’s not entirely accurate. Only GeekDad Curtis arrived with the t-shirts and goodwill. I instead showed up late with a head cold and mild hangover, but that’s neither here nor there.

Yet the truth remains we came for the full Nerdapalooza experience, and we got it. Curtis has already provided an excellent recap of the many wild and wonderful events that transpired, which frees me up to explore what Nerdapalooza 2010 says about the very future of the brand.

While the most comforting element of Nerdapalooza – that intoxicating blend of quality music, nerd brotherhood and… well… actual intoxicants – remains largely unchanged from the events early days, the most compelling components are surely the things that have.

The most obvious example of this would simply be the size of the event. Nerdapalooza 2008, my first ‘Palooza experience, drew a healthy crowd of 300 or so interested nerds. Its 2009 iteration went on to pull in 500 attendees, and early word from the organizers assures me that this year’s target of 700 attendees has already been confirmed.

This level of growth, while not exponential, is nonetheless impressive. It represents a genuine, deliberate expansion both of Nerdapalooza as a marketed event and of nerd culture as a viable draw. Perhaps most importantly, it proves that the concept envisioned by a lone college student with designs on geek music unification was even more valid than a young John “hexWarrior” Carter could have hoped.

Just as interesting as the raw numbers was the varied demographic makeup of the Nerdapalooza crowd. Contrasted against the fairly homogenized pack of 20-to-30-something nerds that wandered between two simple rooms at Orlando’s Taste Restaurant back in 2008, the 2010 draw was noticeably more eclectic. While the floor of the Orlando Airport Marriott convention center gave the event a less confined feel, it also seemingly appealed a more diverse collection of dorks.

In addition to a number of attendees that were obviously coupled, many of the performers also brought their significant others. For example, both Doctor Awkward and ZeaLouS1 were accompanied by their lovely wives, and the family spirit didn’t stop there. This year’s festival saw more children in attendance than any before. And while geeklings from infants to teens were well represented among the masses, surely none were as enchanting as those who took the stage.

HDninja, the EMPulse Records duo who kicked off the event Saturday AM with an amazing high-energy set, did so in the diminutive shadows of their younger counterparts. Likewise, Scrub Club’s Emergency Pizza Party brought a pair of young girls on stage to help with their Church-themed set on Sunday morning. The effect of the spectacle was not lost on the audience, who seemed totally fascinated by the odd juxtaposition of child-friendly stage show meets patently foul-mouthed lyricism.

Another interesting new element at Nerdapalooza 2010 was the obvious presence of event sponsors. While the festival has long relied on sponsor dollars to help bridge the fund-raising gap, this year those supporting organizations were more visible than ever. From the Gaming Grotto hosted by local gamer geeks Play N Trade, Next Level LAN and Mobile Gaming Events to ever-present swag from the likes of Honest Tea and Cloudspace, the event couldn’t help but channel a bit of that old time convention spirit.

The most impressive presence, however, came compliments of Jacksonville geek clothier T-Shirt Bordello. Boasting a collection of clever shirts steeped heavily in pop culture staples like Doctor Who and The Super Friends, their booth was a mainstay for discriminating attendees looking to unload a few bucks between sets. And I’m sure the fact that founder Don Myers walked to show in full-on zombie attire for the whole of the first day certainly didn’t hurt their visibility.

But as important as things like location and sponsorship are to a growing event, Nerdapalooza remains, at its core, about the music. This year, however, even that seemed to point to a more diverse future for this annual festival.

Nerdapalooza 2010 at long last proved its tagline – Tonight: the Nerds Will Rock – to be undeniably true. While acts like theatrical Killer Robots and the sonically stunning Protomen are no strangers to the Nerdapalooza stage, this time around the ranks of guitar-slingers swelled to epic proportions. Seattle comic book rockers Kirby Krackle delivered a stripped down acoustic set Saturday night which played well against another of the evening’s not-to-be-missed sets, the good-natured, southern-style arena rock of Sci-Fried. Even nerdcore icon ZeaLouS1 brought rock ‘n’ roll to the table with the help of his new hybrid band The Bossfights, whose fusion of thrash, funk and punk were ably supplemented by fellow MC/vocalist Dr. Awkward.

While all these elements combine to paint a bright future for Nerdapalooza, the event’s organizers do find themselves at an interesting crossroads. They are in the unenviable position of defining what this Nerdapalooza of tomorrow will truly be. Just as you can’t go home again, Nerdapalooza cannot simply revert back to the small, casual community event that it was in its early years. It must move forward, and its current inertia could well take it far.

Image: HDninja and sons by Thomas KehrImage: HDninja and sons by Thomas Kehr

Image: HDninja and sons by Thomas Kehr

Still, in doing so hexWarrior and company must confront a number of obstacles. While this year’s convention-floor feel was adequate for a crowd of 700, it would likely devolve into chaos amid a thousand nerds. And while the same openness was a boon for interested fans, it proved a detriment to many performers who found their crowds easily cannibalized as fans jockeyed from one end of the floor to the other to secure prime space for the following act.

Just as Nerdapalooza’s uniquely positive hallmarks were well represented in 2010, so were its more off-putting predilections. The sound issues and scheduling problems that we’ve long endured this year became genuine inconveniences. With day one of the festival running, at one time, more than three hours behind schedule and mic/leveling issues apparent in practically every set, what once proved minor annoyances have at last became legitimate distractions. Of course, as frustrating as it was for those of us in the crowd, it was that much worse for the performers themselves

Still, the saving grace that is the Nerdapalooza spirit – that sense that you are a part of some universal affirmation of all things geeky – still managed to sustain us even through the dark hours of delayed sets and finicky microphones. Even those negative aspects couldn’t quell the sense of geek brotherhood that permeated the biggest incarnation thus far.

It’s very obvious that Nerdapalooza is changing, growing up. What we are currently witnessing is what you might think of as its awkward teenage years. The festival is full of boundless energy and nigh-limitless potential, but not without its unattractive features. But those of us in the know surely realize that, even in spite of some gapped teeth or mottled skin, she’s growing into a lovely (and successful) young lady.

I, for one, can’t help but look forward to all that Nerdapalooza has to offer in the coming years, growing pains and all.

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