Ironfest returns for its seventh year with the same mission: to keep “Iron” Mike Davidson’s memory alive

The two-night event will feature 54 bands, a burlesque performance and a one-night reunion of Cincinnati rockers Banderas.

click to enlarge John Gerhardt works on music event Ironfest — in memory of his late friend — year-round. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
John Gerhardt works on music event Ironfest — in memory of his late friend — year-round.
Many Cincinnatians have probably seen John Gerhardt, even if they don’t necessarily know it. Whether he’s running the lights for a local band, helping set up and tear down gear at a local concert or just checking IDs at Japp’s, Gerhardt keeps himself busy in Cincinnati’s music and nightlife scene. He’s also a dedicated road warrior who has spent upwards of 300 days a year on tour, working behind the scenes with national acts like Against Me!.

Gerhardt has put in the time and knows just how much work goes into making a live event successful, which is what makes his single-handed planning and execution of the two-day music fest Ironfest so notable.

This year’s seventh-annual event, held Friday and Saturday at Newport’s Southgate House Revival, is the most ambitious yet. Gerhardt has assembled 54 bands for Ironfest VII, which will also feature a burlesque performance and a one-night reunion of Cincinnati’s infamous sleaze rockers Banderas after more than four years away from the stage. Gerhardt spends an entire year coordinating everything needed to bring the show together, and he does so almost entirely on his own and out of his own pocket, with only his phone and piles of notebook paper to bring it all together.

Ironfest is a daunting task for anyone to tackle, but Gerhardt’s reason for taking on the challenge is a virtuous one: pre-serving the legacy of a best friend, “Iron” Mike Davidson. 

“He was a larger-than-life legend — everyone that knew him spoke favorably of him,” Gerhardt remembers.

Davidson was a local musician, husband and father who passed away in 2010. He was also Gerhardt’s former roommate, bandmate and close friend. When discussing Ironfest, Gerhardt always circles back to the friend that he lost and the memories he has, making sure that Davidson is never truly forgotten. 

“I just want to keep his name alive,” Gerhardt says.

It was Davidson himself that gave Gerhardt the inspiration to start Ironfest in the first place, when a plan was set in place over drinks. 

“We were both talking about funerals and dissertations and wakes and we both were like, ‘Dude, if anything were to happen, don’t worry about going to the funeral or the layout, just throw a big party,’ ” Gerhardt says.

When Davidson passed, Gerhardt was on tour with Against Me! and the band immediately offered him a plane ticket home, which he declined; Gerhardt knew that his friend would want him working instead of losing himself in grief. Their earlier conversation also prompted Gerhardt to change his yearly Nacho Fest show to Ironfest, as a remembrance of Davidson.

One of Ironfest’s charms is just how astonishingly cheap the show is to attend. Tickets are $5 a night in advance; T-shirts are sold for $5 as well, hoodies go for $10 and pizza is brought in each night with slices going for a donation. Gerhardt cuts the costs of everything involved to the bare minimum. 

“I’m not trying to capitalize off my friend’s death, I’m just trying to make it fun,” Gerhardt says. “If a shirt costs me five bucks to make, I sell it for five bucks. If it costs $5.75, I sell it for five bucks. I try to keep everything dirt-fucking, almost-DIY cheap.” 

Gerhardt has kept this principle consistent across the board, often covering the upfront costs of merchandise, promotional materials and everything else needed to put on the show on his own dime.

The amount of time that Gerhardt sinks into Ironfest preparations stack up to his financial sacrifices as well. They never truly stop; the planning of the next year’s Ironfest begins during the current year’s show, with Gerhardt taking mental notes of all the things that do and don’t work with the latest iteration of the event. After that, Gerhardt says, “The first thing is I make sure I want to do it and I can commit to it. If I can’t commit to it, it’s not worth it. If I can’t do it the right way, I don’t want to do it.” 

Gerhardt recruits local and regional bands to bring together hard-working bands from all genres and create a lineup that any music fan can get excited about.

Once the band’s dates are set and the lineup is locked in, Gerhardt begins what is possibly the hardest part of Ironfest planning:  finalizing set times. 

“I literally have notebooks filled with bands and scribble marks and gibberish,” Gerhardt says. 

Each band’s requests for time slots, dates and stage preferences all factor into Gerhardt’s decision-making, as does making the show’s flow varied. Take, for example, this year’s pairing of 500 Miles to Memphis’ acoustic Country set followed directly by Hide’s caustic Industrial assault. Gerhardt says, “I try to marry some things together, but I try to keep it night and day in some areas.”

Gerhardt is quick to make it clear that Ironfest isn’t competing with the other large music festivals in town. In his eyes, Ironfest will always be where he can bring friends together and remember Davidson. 

“As long as we’re having fun and I tell you about Mike, I don’t give a shit,” Gerhardt says. 

Every piece of merchandise, every band put on stage, every element of promotion is all meant to keep Davidson’s memory alive. Gerhardt knows that not every Ironfest attendee knew Davidson or even the story behind the fest’s origin, but he carries on just the same, if only to commemorate a man that meant so much to him.

“(Mike is) essentially all that matters about it. At the heart of it all, I’m doing it for him and his daughter, Bailey, and with the blessing of Heidi, his wife,” Gerhardt says. “I wish I was still doing Nacho Fest and Mike was alive and Nacho Fest was on a Thursday night in the Revival Room at Southgate House and 30 people showed up. I wish that’s what this was. This is all by complete accident and by tragedy that he passed away.”

With his seventh show on the horizon, Gerhardt has no plans on quitting; he knows that Iron Mike would’ve wanted to keep the party going. “Everyone’s there for Mike, one way or another,” Gerhardt says. 

And as long as that stays the same, chances are Ironfest will be sticking around as well.

IRONFEST VII takes place Friday and Saturday at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: Click here for a look at each night's lineups.

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