At Feedback Fest, the Spirit of Inclusivity Is a Breath of Fresh Ear

Well Hung Heart perform at the inaugural Feedback Fest (Credit: Christina Preiss)

Whether it’s onstage at a bar in OC or at a biker fest in South Dakota, Well Hung Heart are used to standing out, or in most cases, not fitting in. Over the years, the skill of embracing their rock oddity has become a way of life.

“We get told we’re not heavy enough, we’re too heavy, we’re too punky or whatever,” says blue-haired front woman Greta Valenti. “Nothing against any bands that fit into a genre bracket, but there’s a lot of stuff out there that doesn’t.”

As rock finds itself becoming progressively marginalized by the mainstream, the time for inclusiveness and diversity is now. That’s exactly why the return of Feedback Fest, an event Valenti and her husband/guitarist Robin Davey started in 2016, is designed to give rock fans a breath of fresh ear.

“When we started Feedback Fest in 2016, there were a few rock acts around; there was still mostly a lot of indie stuff going on,” Valenti says. “Now, I feel like even over the past few years there’s so many acts that play rock music and so many diverse acts that I feel like people don’t get to see or aren’t included in most rock festivals.”

It’s definitely not that way everywhere, especially for females. Last month the band was on tour at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip Concert and Race in Sturgis, South Dakota, one of the largest events of its kind in the U.S. Now on their fifth trip to biker country, they’ve earned themselves a rep for being among the hardest rocking West Coast representatives of the festival, which earned them a slot on the mainstage this year opening for Foreigner. Still, Valenti and bassist Danielle “Chip” Lehman had to deal with occasional bouts of sexism.

“When we were backstage before playing the mainstage a woman came up to us and asked, ‘Oh, are you girls dancers?’ We’re like, ‘No, we’re in the next band,’” Valenti says, taking the woman’s boneheaded comment in stride. Changing people’s perceptions about the limitations of rock, whether it be gender, style or the message of the music was a major inspiration behind Feedback Fest.

“People are so into pigeonholing things but with this festival everyone can be involved. We wanted to have really diverse acts in one place because entertainment is entertainment,” Davey says. “I feel also that rock music is making a resurgence, but it’s so wide-reaching that we really wanted to show the depth of it.”

From where we’re standing, it seems to be a mission accomplished. This year the fest will be headlined by punk legend and Chicana feminist icon Alice Bag, who released her second album, The Blueprint, earlier this year. Aside from matching Valenti’s blue-dyed haircut and boundless energy at age 59, Bag is also known for being punk’s most approachable activist for feminine equality (evidenced in songs like her recent single “77,” highlighting the wage gap between women and men).

Well Hung Heart also look forward to joining wacky rockers Big Fun, the spaghetti western glam metal trio of Bella Novela, spooky hard rockers New Evil, and a DJ set from the Brit-rock McGarry twins also known as Pop Noir. The host slot is filled by the mother of rock oddities, the guitar shredding drag queen Mrs. Smith. She’s often billed as the world’s most unlikely guitar shredder, but is equally adept at splitting sides with her brand of irreverent comedy. “She’s like a cross between Dame Edna and Steve Vai,” Davey says.

The common thread of the lineup this year is that it showcases the soul of locally booked festivals that aren’t simply the product of streaming analytics or backroom deals with high-powered agents. In the nebulous world of internet and social media fame, it’s hard to tell how many bands are simply the product of manufactured hype. For that reason Valenti and Davey, along with the Wayfarer’s talent buyer Eric Keilman, were adamant about choosing bands they were genuinely excited about and that they knew could draw a crowd in real life.

“You find out more and more that these numbers that people are selling bands on aren’t real and it’s frustrating when you’re working to build a legitimate audience,” Davey says.

Greta Valenti of Well Hung Heart (Credit: Christina Preiss)

Well Hung Heart remember opening for plenty of bands that touted amazing streaming figures and a staggering amount of social media followers only to find out they couldn’t deliver the goods in a live setting.

Aside from just booking bands they figured could draw a crowd, the local fest’s commitment to keeping the spirit of inclusiveness at the forefront meant it had to go beyond numbers. It was also about making sure they could represent their genre with a wide spectrum of male, female and non gender conforming musicians. Santa Ana-based organization Queer Traffic, which provides chill, nomadic social spaces for the LGBTQ community, also signed on to be a part of Feedback Fest; they are just as welcome as big sponsors like KROQ, Jameson and Pabst Blue Ribbon who’ve been supporting the fest since it was announced.

“If people weren’t as supportive as they have been it would just be another show,” says Valenti, whose band is a regular mainstay on KROQ host Kat Corbett’s weekly show Locals Only. “But I think everyone’s been super stoked on it.”

More than the sound that’s brought the band their success, Feedback Fest is a reflection of a notion they’ve subscribed to all along—persistence, originality and community are a band’s greatest allies.

“We operate outside of the music industry and the festival circuit and built Well Hung Heart in an outlying sort of way,” Davey says. “Going to places like Sturgis where we’ve played for five years, we went back again and again and now they put us on the mainstage. We just go on the audience reaction that we get. We’ve been to Sturgis five times and the audience reaction has always been amazing, but sometimes it was a tiny stage at midnight to 20 people.”

Greta is quick to add that a few years ago, one of those people was the owner of the Buffalo Chip fest. “We didn’t even know he was watching us and he was like ‘They’re great; bring ’em back!’ So stuff like that happens,” she says.

Could the next great local rock band be discovered at an event like Feedback Fest? It’s definitely not out of the question. As the future of festivals starts to veer towards smaller boutique style events, it’s possible that the magic of fests like the now-defunct Warped Tour could be reborn in another grassroots style rager that’s still waiting for its turn to explode. Of course that’s the beauty of rock and roll, and why, despite the way the system is set up to tip the scales toward the establishment, the little guy is always out there, ready to make some noise. Even in the heat of summer festival season, Valenti and Davey know that what they’ve created is something special.

“There’s so much going on and people are on vacation and stuff so hopefully it goes well,” Valenti says. “But we won’t know until that night, we’ll see who shows up.”

Feedback Fest with Well Hung Heart, Alice Bag, Big Fun, New Evil, Bella Novela, Pop Noir (DJ Set) and Mrs. Smith, at the Wayfarer, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 764-0039; Sat., 7 p.m. $12-$15. 21+.

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