UtopiaFest: Freaks Abound, Festival Jams In Hill Country Paradise
Photos by Jim Bricker
The fifth annual UtopiaFest wrapped up in the early hours of Sunday morning, and after a super successful weekend of music and revelry, we have all made it back to society ready -- actually, not so ready -- to take on the week. Four Sisters Ranch, the beautifully wooded Texas Hill Country venue just north of the quaint town of Utopia, welcomed nearly 2,000 kinfolk to enjoy two full days (three, if you made it out Thursday for the pre-party) of nearly nonstop music.
The festival, which was once just a dream for founder Travis Sutherland, has blossomed into its own animal, and for a few days in late September creates a true utopian experience among a lucky community of like-minded festivarians. This was the best Utopia yet, and even with the threat of bad weather looming over the weekend, there was nothing but good times to be had.
UtopiaFest had taken everything they'd learned over the past five years, and did the best possible job putting together this year's event. With rain early in the afternoon on Friday, and the threat of more on the way, the event still went off without a hitch. Every band scheduled was able to play their full allotted set times, and even though it took a few hours to get one of the two stages ready, by the time twilight hit, there were no issues.
Friday featured a varied mix of performers taking the two alternating stages throughout the day. While people were still arriving, getting their campsites all set up and rain-proofed, the Cypress stage got things kicked off with sets from Sid Fly, who is the only performer to play at all five UtopiaFests, and Austin's bluegrass group Whiskey Shivers who offered a great take on the classic Dillards tune "This Old Home Place."
L.A.'s Orgone were next, and with their spirited take on funky Afrobeat, the freaks started to come out of the woodwork to dance. Hooray For Earth cooled things off as the sun went down before famed Austin '60s psychedelic act Bubble Puppy brought all of the older attendees down from their campsites. The 'most feared opening act in rock' performed a burner of a set that came to a peak during their hit "Hot Smoke and Sassafras."
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Houston's very own Robert Ellis was next to perform and filled his set full of material from his soon-to-be-released new record. The new songs sounded fantastic, but specifically "Steady as a Rising Sun," a song he wrote and recorded with Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith for the new album; "Houston," the aptly titled ode to leaving and loving his hometown; and set closer "Sing Along" which served as a throwback to all of those drunken, sweaty Wednesday nights at Mango's and Fitzgerald's a few years back.
He's My Brother She's My Sister were next to perform, and even with my misconceptions about their being a folk group, their set turned out to be pretty great. They had an unbridled energy about them, and despite being all over the place in the looks department, their music never faltered.
Soon after, Brownout performed a few originals, which mixed funk, Afrobeat and Latin influences, before inviting out famed P-Funk founder and keyboardist Bernie Worrell for several Parliament songs including "Red Hot Mama" and "Mothership Connection" as well as a set closing version of the Talking Heads' "Burning Down The House." (Little known fact: Worrell played synths and the clavinet on the original recording of the Talking Heads tune.)
The night finished with a one-two punch of Blackalicious and Galactic. Hip-hop wasn't featured much during the festival, but with Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel in the place, that's all we really needed. Gab is one of the most underrated MC's in the game, and he proved his worth with 45 minutes of the clearest and quickest rhymes I've heard in some time.
Galactic, as always, were on point with the funkiest tunes of the weekend. Living Colour vocalist Cory Glover was particularly special, singing his heart out for the incredibly appreciative Utopians in attendance. Closing with a cover of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" was the perfect way to end the evening, sending the crowd back to their camps singing out the lyrics.
For many, thought, the night wasn't over. There was still plenty of music to be heard, and with the silent disco going off at the Arrowhead stage, people clamored to get their headphones in time to catch the late night entertainment. Meanwhile, an acoustic jam session featuring Whiskey Shivers and a few other pickers was entertaining a handful of people in a tent towards the back. Joined later by Robert Ellis for takes on "Tennessee Waltz" and "Ruby" among other tunes, the growing crowd ate up every second of it. It was the perfect way to cap off day one.
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Saturday morning came quicker than expected, and with the cool front from the storms the day before, it was the perfect weather to wake up to. As folks cooked away on their little grills, the music started with the Utopia tradition of bagpiper group San Antonio Pipes & Drums.
Ghosts Along the Brazos, Soniamiki, Residual Kid and Sucka Please were enjoyed by most from afar, as the sun started to warm up the grounds. Holiday were the first band to draw a bigger crowd, followed by the jammy Nadis Warriors who might have been a little more suited for the night time. With only so many slots, you have to fit them in somewhere.
Ume brought their brand of hard-hitting rock, with front woman Lauren Larson thrashing around both her hair and guitar. They had no problem pulling in quite a large crowd, similar to that of their set at Free Press Summer Fest earlier this year. Next was bluegrass legend Peter Rowan, who was a treat to see live. His "Twang and Groove" set went down just as advertised, and closed with the Old and in the Way tune "Midnight Moonlight" to the delight of the entire hillside.
Utopia vets Grupo Fantasma played a raucous early evening set, bringing out their Spanglish version of the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" for the second time that weekend. Brooklyn indie group Lucius were definitely the hippest band of the weekend, but their music was good for what they were bringing. The biggest surprise of the evening came from Max Frost, who brought a soulful and funky set of originals to the adoring crowd.
The Wheeler Brothers, from afar
The Wheeler Brothers, who are kind of UtopiaFest's unofficial house band, came to the stage a bit larger than life than ever before. They are somewhat celebrities at Utopia, which is apparent with both the size of their crowd as well as the attention they get when walking around the grounds. They killed their set too, which focused mostly on their recent release, Gold Boots Glitter, and also featured a spot-on cover of the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" to close out their portion of the event.
Aaron Freeman, better known as Gene Ween, played an all-acoustic set of Ween songs, including "My Party," "The Mollusk," "Birthday Boy" and "Chocolate Town" before bringing out Grupo Fantasma's rhythm section for a take on "Buenos Tardes Amigo" to close the set. The crowd seemed to lose some interest throughout Freeman's set, but then again Ween isn't for everyone.
Finally, the Cypress stage finished out the weekend with a performance by !!!. Pronounced "chk chk chk," their music can only be described by their name. Punky bass lines and super-danceable grooves supported singer Nic Offer while he worked the crowd both on and offstage.
The super-ambiguous Offer had energy for days, eventually dancing with as many people that could fit on the catwalk that was set up just for this set. One thing UtopiaFest has always done right is scheduling a great closing band, and not only did they follow that trend, but they brought the most fun band they've had to date.
UtopiaFest seemed to come and go in no time, leaving a serious taste for live music in my mouth that is yet to be satiated. Thankfully Houston has a bunch of good bands headed its way in the coming weeks. I will certainly be in attendance at next year's event, come rain or shine.
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UtopiaFest at Night
The friendliest folks from all over Texas became neighbors for the weekend, and were treated to one of the finest music events in the entire nation. We were lucky to have been treated to such a first-class event that featured such intimate performances from an incredibly talented list of musicians.
I already miss the hell out of you UtopiaFest, and am literally counting down the days until we meet again. 364...
Personal Bias: I was a Boy Scout and loved camping since I was a little boy. I have loved music just as long. The combination of the two is truly my utopia.
...And this guy.
The Crowd: Old and young, alike. Families, hippies, hipsters, country folk, frat boys, music nerds, band members, fun-havers, smiling people, smelly people, loving people, muddy people, painted kids, gorilla masked youngsters, washboard players, song singers, costumed ladies, men in tights, spacey prancers, hardcore dancers, hoopers, bubble blowers, disc golfers, butterfly catchers, kite flyers and grill masters. Oh, and those damn red ants.
Overheard In the Crowd: The incessant sound of some camp up the hill from us playing bongos, washboard and other various percussion shouting out songs until close to 7 a.m. Sunday. Other than that, just the sweet sounds of Utopia.
Random Notebook Dump: If you live in Houston, Austin, Dallas or San Antonio, and have not attended UtopiaFest, you are truly missing out. It's the event I look forward to most every year, and as long as it's a festival, I will be there dancing, camping and doing what I do. Thank you very much to everyone involved in the putting together of UtopiaFest, you all are the best! Big shout-out to Travis, his mom Kathy and the rest of the family that allow for this amazing event go on. You guys rock!
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