It only lasts two days, but Sweetwater's GearFest is the kind of event people talk about for weeks, months, even years after the last tent comes down and guitar is packed away.
That's because GearFest is a veritable smorgasbord of gear, a musician's mecca where an aspiring or even seasoned artist can find exactly what she's looking for, be that a crazy hot amp, a sweet drum kit or a rare, vintage six-string. Name the object of your musical lust and chances are very good you'll spy it at GearFest, either for sale, on display or being put to good use by one of your favorite, hard working heroes.
GearFest will take over Sweetwater's campus Friday-Saturday, June 17-18. Festivities will run from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. The largest open-to-the-public music trade show in the United States, GearFest has another significant claim to fame: all the festivities - including workshops, presentations, demonstrations and just plain jam sessions - are absolutely free. Of course, if you plan on springing for a new Fender Stratocaster or set of Zildjian snares, you might want to bring your wallet.
That dream guitar and fantasy kit won't necessarily cost you as much as it might in a traditional music store, as GearFest, in addition to diversity of merchandise and musician presenters, boasts some serious deals and discounts.
With more than 500 exhibitors taking part, GearFest brings some of the biggest names in the music industry to Fort Wayne's backyard, including Gibson, Yamaha, Audio-Technica, Sony, Gretsch, Rode, Bose, Epiphone, Vox and Denon. In addition to new equipment and gear, attendees can shop for gently used and downright antique items in the event's flea market, a perennial favorite for anyone with an eye for the rare.
Now in its 15th year, much of GearFest's offerings will be familiar to those who have attended workshops and seminars in the past and perused its dozens of tents and four semi-truck trailers' worth of merch. Don't forget, too, the free guitar and bass restringing services, $88,000 in gear giveaways, and a chance to get up close and personal with Neil Peart's R40 drum kit.
A new perk introduced just this year is overnight tent and RV camping within walking distance of Sweetwater. Spaces can be reserved online on the GearFest website.
According to Sweetwater founder and president Chuck Surack, something GearFest offers that many other trade shows do not is a chance for music lovers, do-it-themselves producers and gearheads to see and experience what is often only reserved for industry VIPs.
"GearFest is a unique event in the music retail business, where musicians and audio enthusiasts can come to see, hear, enjoy -- not to mention buy -- what is usually reserved for music-industry insiders at your typical trade show," he said. "We're particularly proud that GearFest has such a reputation that it is now bringing people from literally all over the world to Sweetwater's campus in Fort Wayne."
One of those people is Todd Sucherman, long-time Styx drummer and much sought-after session musician, who will play a 45-minute set to demonstrate the appeal and unique sound of Pearl drums at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Sucherman's appearance at GearFest, his first, came about as part of a lucky coincidence. Styx are playing the Foellinger Theatre June 18 as part of the venue's summer concert series (see feature story on page 5) so Sucherman had the time and opportunity to swing by Sweetwater and treat audiences to a little taste of what passionate pop rock, born and bred in the Midwest, is all about.
"Playing with Styx has been a tremendous, wonderful ride," he told me in a recent phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "I've been very fortunate to play with musicians who play and sing as well as they do, and who care as much as they do. They're many years my senior, but even so, they leave it all on the stage. They never phone it in; they never give a bad show. Whether it's the Staple Center in L.A. or a field in Nebraska, it's the same show, and that's an example of their leadership, of their Midwestern ethics. These guys could choose to coast if they wanted, but they don't. They fire on all cylinders all the time."
Sucherman joined the band on tour in 1996 and has been with them ever since. A lifelong Styx fan and a drumming prodigy (he picked up his first set of sticks at the age of two) Sucherman said he couldn't imagine a better career for himself than that of Styx drummer.
"I was three years old when their first record came out," he said. "I was 12 when I saw them at the Paradise Theater as part of their Kilroy Was Here tour. I'd never have believed back then that I'd someday be in the band. It's the kind of destiny you can't author for yourself. It's amazing how life turns out."
At GearFest, Sucherman plans to light up the kit, to wail on the drums, to entertain. He hopes there will be time for questions, but even if there isn't, those in the audience should pick up on Sucherman's philosophy and aesthetic rather quickly.
"I let the music dictate my choices. The important thing above anything percussive or trying to impress some small subculture of listeners is trying to make the music feel good, sound good, feel alive. My job is to be versatile. I can play all styles of music. Styx obviously demands a high energy kind of playing, but I can also slow things down. I love playing soft, too. It all depends on what's called for."
Like many musicians before him, Sucherman grew up in a musical household. His father was a big band drummer who put himself through medical school with his evenings behind the kit. If aspiring drummers take one thing away from Sucherman's GearFest session, it should probably be that hard work, persistence and mastery are what lead to success in an infamously fickle industry. Be the absolute best player you can be, be available, reliable, professional, and someday you might, like Sucherman, find yourself at Carnegie Hall, playing for Brian Wilson alongside James Taylor, Sting and Billy Joel.
"I think it also comes down to my Chicago toughness," he said, pointing out that such toughness is something he shares with his mates in Styx. "We show up early, we're suited up and ready to go, rain or shine, sick or health. We don't know any other way. I think it comes from braving the elements, you know? Dealing with the humidity in summer and the brutal winters. It creates a spirit of perseverance and inspires you to put yourself in the way of opportunity."
Chicago weather isn't that much different than Fort Wayne's. And who knows? GearFest, with its full slate of pedigreed performers and presenters - the list includes award-winning pianist Jim Brickman, Prince and Beyoncé drummer Queen Cora Dunham and Earth, Wind and Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn - just might be your priceless opportunity.