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Chuck Ragan met Tony Weinbender in a Virginia basement in the mid 1990s.

The two were drinking cheap beer with friends, playing music and betting each other $1 to see who could eat the most saltine crackers the quickest.

Now more than 20 years later, Ragan and his band, Hot Water Music, are among those headlining the major punk rock festival in Gainesville that Weinbender built from scratch.

The three day festival, The Fest, kicked off Friday and is celebrating its 16th event. It features more than 300 bands and attracts thousands of music lovers from around the world.

Ragan, who lived in Gainesville and Micanopy while the band in its infancy, said he never dreamed something like The Fest was possible.

Weinbender, and the whole crew that runs Fest, have done something absolutely incredible to this community and to this town, something that a lot of us, when I lived here, thought was impossible, he said.

Following the band Friday night set at Bo Diddley Plaza, which included Chris Cresswell from The Flatliners and Dan Andriano of Alkaline Trio, Ragan sat in the plaza courtyard, hugging and chatting with old friends, a little choked up.

put this many punk rockers in the courtyard here, and they behave? No way, no way. No one would ever thought that would happen, Ragan said. used to skateboard around here and get kicked out of this place. doesn know many Fest shows the band has played, but said he’s glad to see the event supported by the community he once called home.

see what this has become is such an inspiration, and to me is testament to anybody out there that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and believe it and are passionate about it, Ragan said. anything can happen in your own community. who filled in for Hot Water Music guitarist Chris Wollard during Friday show, said he remembers when The Flatliners, a Canadian based band,
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played Fest for the first time almost 10 years ago. He said the event has been great for the band success.

first year we came to play Fest we slept in our van, he said. think one of our friends slept on the roof of our van. We didn know anyone. band other guitarist, Scott Brigham, said it’s now common for the band to see the same international fans at the event, as well as other friends in bands.

incredible to see how it has grown, not only as a festival itself, but how far its reach has grown, Cresswell said. like a family reunion. Flatliners and Hot Water Music both played mystery band sets Saturday. They thanked the countless volunteers who helped their sets go smoothly.

And although few bands can top Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace screaming for thousands of fans as she did Saturday night, Fest is about more than just the headliners and seeing how much Pabst Blue Ribbon the human body can hold.

Many Fest goers spend the weekend exploring lesser known bands, an acknowledgment that there are hundreds of bands, some based internationally, still looking to grow a diehard following in the United States.

Band members of The Decentes, a Spanish melodic punk band from Puerto Rico which recently released its album Alegoria Conceptual, huddled at Bo Diddley Friday night to discuss its Sunday show at Loosey band is enjoying its second Fest appearance and plans to do a half English, half Spanish set and said they love mingling with new fans at their shows.

now, to us, it like having a party where you haven seen your friends that you toured with, said bassist Paul Ryan. surreal. members said they left Puerto Rico to come to the event, but are thinking of family and friends back home, who are still struggling without electricity and food after Hurricane Maria.

try to be humble about it, Ryan said. you know there a lot of people that can’t smile right now. acts that played Saturday were Beach Slang, Hum, Iron Chic, Coffee Project, You Blew It! and Off With Their Heads.
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