I first heard about Utopiafest this past summer during a chance encounter with its publicist at Mohawk. The meeting was brief and the information given was as well, but I now look back on it as something that was just meant to be. I’ll explain.
I arranged a meeting with Travis Sutherland, Utopiafest’s founder, and his associates from Onion Creek Productions in August. While interviewing them about the lineup, the hurdles of organizing the event, and the seemingly miraculous way it was all falling into place, my interest began to grow in just how this would all come to pass. Would it just be a small festival with a handful of great performances, or would it be wild and raucous? As it turned out, it was neither. That isn’t a disparaging statement. In fact, the festival changed almost all my preconceived notions of what a music festival is.
Utopiafest was billed as a two-day festival but, if you were willing to shell out a little extra cash and arrange time off from work, you could show up a day early and stake out your camp. I arrived that Thursday, having driven through some of the most beautiful highways in the entire state, and followed some signs befitting a birthday party or garage sale to the Sutherland ranch. To say that the location was remote would be an understatement.
After parking my car I took in the scene of the festival grounds, which were still being put together. The Sutherland ranch is located in the heart of the most “hilly” part of the Hill Country, with steeps grades and sweeping valleys aplenty. It was in one of these valleys on the ranch that festival was held. I marveled at not only the view, but at Travis’ clever use of the land. The valley effectively made a natural amphitheater. Sounds could be heard clearly from the festival grounds all the way to the hillsides where the designated camp grounds were. With this on my mind, I trekked up the gentle slope of grounds and began setting up my tent. Shortly afterwards, I met two high school students who would prove to be the heart and soul of the festival.
While wandering the grounds, I had noticed the two students lazing about in front of their tent and watching the shadow of the hill crawl across the valley. They said hello and waved me over to them. Ever the social butterfly, and some would say magpie, I obliged their invitation and joined them. Their names were James and Chris, and they had come all the way from Castroville to see the bands on the line up, SORNE in particular. We sat for a long time and wound up getting to know each other in the way that music fans often do, discussing bands, albums, and live shows. As we continued, more of our “neighbors” came around and introduced themselves.
By the time that the evening’s opening music acts were about to play, we had already formed a small community unto ourselves. Everyone knew each other’s names and hometowns, whether or not they had attended previous festivals on the ranch, and what they were hoping for this year’s opus.
En mass, we ventured down to the festival’s permanent stage and, after a brief greeting from Travis, we were treated to a set from Wild Child. I’ve seen Wild Child play before, but there was something different about this performance. There was a sense of abandon in their playing.
A wild (pun unintended), rollicking, quality to their music that I had not heard before. They killed it and everyone knew it. The bar had been set high right at the start. Wild Child left the stage and the audience was greeted by A Live One, a Phish tribute band. I had scoffed at the notion of paying tribute to a jam band, but the members were amazingly good. It was almost like being at a Phish show, but lacking the overwhelming stench of patchouli and body odor. I watched most of the set and retired to my little tent for the night.
The morning began bleak and grey. A cool front was coming in as the washout of two tropical storms marched towards central Texas. James and Chris were cooking an enormous breakfast and offered to feed me as well. I had hoped to survive off of food vendors, but none had set up shop just quite yet. The boys would continue to treat me to meals for the weekend, for which I am still grateful.
The bands didn’t start until four that afternoon, which left most of us to discuss the constant influx of new attendees, the bands (yes, still talking about the bands), and how best to handle the oncoming deluge that evening.
Finally, the bands began playing. The first day kicked off with Sour Bridges. I had never seen them before, but was thoroughly impressed with their mix of rock, pop, and bluegrass. If you haven’t seen them, I’d highly suggest you check them out. Then it was on to the other stage where Dana Falconberry and her band knocked it out of the park. In fact, everyone gave stellar performances that day until the rains came in and began pouring down on us. Houndmouth, a band that usually blows audiences away with their blend of soul harmonies and country-esque licks, seemed lackluster due to the turbulent conditions. With the rain coming in sideways, the larger second stage had been shut down and ALL the remaining acts were sharing the same stage. Even then the weather inhibited Charles Bradley’s INCREDIBLE soul act when unspecified lighting problems temporarily shut down his set. Bradley was a trooper, though, and came back with a vengeance once the problem was resolved. There was, however, another problem to arise.
One of this year’s highlight artists was Dr. Dog. Now, don’t get me wrong, Dr. Dog is an awesome band and they proved it that night by putting on one of the most spirited sets of the entire festival. What was wrong were the fans in attendance. By this point the area in front of the stage was a quagmire of mud from the decidedly heavy downpour. Walking through it with shoes was nearly impossible, so many of the attendees went barefoot, me included. It’s important to note that there had been a great deal of stress placed on keeping the land free of litter. There were recycling stations and trash cans placed all over the grounds and the space had been kept surprisingly free of litter. It was during Dr. Dog’s set that my foot bumped into something in the mud. It turned out to be an empty bottle of liquor. I then became aware that there were dozens of bottles and cans strewn around me and, after the band finished and their fans left the area, completely uninterested in the other bands, I found that the entire area had been filled with more metal and glass than a demilitarized zone. And while I did enjoy SORNE’s set afterwards, I found myself a little upset at the lack of consideration from Dr. Dog’s fans, most of who were already leaving.
The rain continued through the night and only subsided just before dawn as the cool front moved through. The clouds passed and we were all greeted with a beautiful morning sun that dried the earth surprisingly quickly. As Sid Fly took the stage, people were out having the time of their lives. Parents and children hulahooped, quasi bohemian girls cartwheeled for no other reason than to do it, and everyone enjoyed Fly’s Americana infused music that sounded like it was being sung to you on the porch of a farm house.
The day had an awe inspiring line up of artists. Ben Kweller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Mexican Institute of Sound all had amazing performances, but it was the smaller stage that had the fire. Bands like The Wheeler Brothers, Digital Antique, Jimmy Herring, and The Jitterbug Vipers absolutely stole the show. There was one band that really stood out from the rest. Hailing from Mexico City, Plastics Revolution was playing their first show in Texas at Utopiafest. Claiming to be a party band inspired by The Flaming Lips, they proceeded to burn down the stage with a sound that also incorporated elements of Modest Mouse with just a hint of Mumford and Sons. The crowd was lost in vibe they produced.
The night closed with The Werks and their danceable technical-prog-rock which even made my stoic and jaded bones roll a bit. This was no small feat.
As James and Chris cooked breakfast for me, I mused on what I should write about this festival. It had been immensely fun, but why? As I talked to my new friends, it occurred to me that, while I had seen some amazing bands play even more amazing music, it wouldn’t have been the same if I had not met these people around me who had just days ago been complete strangers. It’s this that rests at the core of Utopiafest: The people. Travis had told me that the festival seemed to attract certain kinds of people who were friendly and generally had an optimistic view of the world. In that moment, when a couple of kids who had ditched school to come to a music festival, handed me a plate of eggs and sausage with no thought of being repaid, it hit me: The music is secondary here. It was something to gather around but it was never the point. The point was to be around truly kind people who you could enjoy the music with. That was what made the weekend so amazing.
With this in mind, I promised myself that I would return for Utopiafest 2013. Travis Sutherland and the Onion Creek guys are on to something really special.
Written and Images by Clayton Hodges (firstname.lastname@example.org)