Fall is upon us, and while it might not feel like it outside just yet, it is closer than you think. With the onset of autumn comes the Great State of Texas' busiest season for music, one that finds festival after festival hitting almost every weekend. One event that I look forward to most every year is UtopiaFest. Located in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, this small gathering of like-minded music lovers has been very successful in its short life as a festival.
Now in its fifth year of existence, and third pulling national touring acts, UtopiaFest takes place on a gorgeous plot of land located just a few hours northwest of San Antonio in a tiny, no-stoplight town called Utopia. With a 2013 lineup consisting of headliners Galactic, !!!, Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween) and Blackalicious, among others, this is assuredly going to be the best year yet.
While it's always tough committing to something so far away, I assure you that the road trip is well worth it. This is one of the best places you could and should spend a late-September weekend, and if the following ten reasons aren't enough to get you to this one-of-a-kind event, than I guess nothing will.
10. The Lineup Utopia continues to impress year to year with a list of bands that can't be matched. The fellows who put on this event are true lovers of live music, which shows in the choices they make when putting their lineups together.
This year features a Thursday pre-party that is highlighted by experimental improvisors EOTO, which consists of both the drummer and percussionist from famed jam kings The String Cheese Incident. They should make for one remarkable dance party.
Friday is going to be fun from when the music starts at four in the afternoon until the final notes on the main stage ring out sometime after two in the morning. Featured are New Orleans funksters Galactic, hip-hop legends Blackalicious, former P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell & Brownout, He's My Brother She's My Sister, Orgone and a reunion set from '60s Texas psych-rockers Bubble Puppy. Robert Ellis, who you've most likely heard of if you've paid any attention to Houston music at all in the past five years, will also be making a late-evening appearance.
Saturday will feature a much bigger day of music, kicking off around 11:30 a.m. and going all day with the likes of indie dance group !!! (chk chk chk), Ween's Aaron Freeman, famed bluegrass picker Peter Rowan, Brooklyn indie darlings Lucius and a heaping helping of Austin bands including The Wheeler Brothers, UME, Grupo Fantasma and Max Frost.
9. The Silent Disco After the two stages officially shut down for the night, when they need to tone down the noise, the party moves over to the back of the concert field for the Silent Disco. If you haven't been a part of a silent disco and are questioning what it might be, feel free to give it a search on YouTube (or watch the video posted above). You'll have quite a laugh, and will immediately want to take part.
Basically, a DJ spins his beats to a group of people dancing away listening to the music only on a set of headphones. If you have a pair of headphones on, it's one hell of a party, but if you're a casual observer sitting outside the tent watching people dance away, it can be even more fun. This year's Silent Disco lineup includes Thievery Corporation's El John, Transcontinental Trip, Magick and Awak3n on Friday, and Magna Carda, Dumo, Dimitri's Ascent and Skylyne on Saturday.
8. No Overlapping Sets A festival lineup is only as good as the bands you can actually see while you're there, and while many an event these days packs as much talent as it can fit on a poster, Utopia focuses on bringing a smaller amount of bands so you don't have to worry about missing a single one of them.
It's a pretty novel idea that takes away all of the pre-event stress of trying to figure out your schedule that you get with bigger festivals like ACL, FPSF or Fun Fun Fun Fest. It also gives you a chance to take a load off back at your campsite if you're not necessarily feeling a band, knowing that the stage is only a few minutes' walk away when the next one comes on.
7. Camping When was the last time you went camping? It's probably been quite a while, huh? Well, let me tell you, there is nothing like sitting under the stars eating a s'more telling stories with your best friends, followed by getting cozy in your tent wrapped up in a bunch of blankets while the noise of crickets and the wind puts you to sleep. A bit different than a normal night in Houston.
Also, there is absolutely no phone or Internet service. I don't know when the last time you've gone without your smartphone but if you can answer that question, it's probably close to the answer I first posed in this blurb. Having no connection to the outside world, specifically social media, is so much more refreshing than you could ever guess.
6. The Stars I guess I could've lumped this one under camping, but I figured it deserved its own category. It deserves its own category because holy shit, have you ever seen the stars? Like, all of the stars and the Milky Way and planets and all of that? It's by far the coolest form of intelligent design out there.
Occasionally you'll get to see a star or two in Houston, but that's basically like going to a party with every single person you've ever known in the entirety of your life, but only getting to see and talk to two of them.
More reasons to love UtopiaFest on the next page.
5. The Venue If you've never spent any amount of time in the Texas Hill Country, then you're honestly missing out on something really great not too terribly far from you. The beauty that surrounds the venue is vast, and allows for a great hike up one of the many hills that surround the stages.
Once inside the grounds, you can set up camp pretty much wherever you see fit. Some folks take their tents and set them up as close to the stage as possible, others set out for a more private experience further away up the hill. Wherever you land, the view of the festival will be spectacular.
4. The Size Many festivals brag that they've eclipsed their previous attendance records, trying to constantly pull in more and more people year after year. Utopia actually does the exact opposite. One of its major selling points is that the attendance is capped at 2,000 people, so that everyone can enjoy their time without ever feeling overcrowded.
My favorite festivals over the years have been the ones that allow me to get as close to or as far away from a band as I need to without the hassle of trucking through tens of thousands of people. At Utopia, you can go to your campsite, eat a sandwich, drink a beer, saunter down to the stage area and make it to the front without ever touching anyone.
3. The Other Activities If you want to step away from the music and don't have anything to do at the campsite, there are plenty of other scheduled activities to take your time away. They have a huge disc-golf course which is a pretty popular attraction -- I know it's a pretty big reason one of my travel companions is going. There's also morning yoga, bike tours of the area, arts, crafts, jewelry-making and different workshops on sustainable lifestyles. They are even having something called Fossilpalooza!, which excites me just due to the name alone.
2. The People Wherever you go at UtopiaFest there are always smiling faces and friendly hello's. As soon as you pull up to the gate the staff make it as easy as possible, giving you every bit of information you'll need to know to make the most out of your festival experience.
The attendees are as cool as ever, too. It features a plethora of music and camping-loving folks from all over Texas enjoying uninhibited fun times. By the end of the weekend, a community feeling sets in and it makes it that much harder to head back into your real life come Monday morning.
1. BYOB I'm not sure what that says about me making this the No. 1 on my list, but it enhances your festival experience way more than you could ever know. Not having to pull out a wallet and put down $12 every time you're in the mood for a drink is a very nice feature.
Also, having the ability to drink what you enjoy, like some craft beer or a specific whiskey, rather than being force-fed some piss like Bud Light or Michelob Ultra is the best thing a festival could ever offer. Just make sure you bring a small portable cooler along, so you don't have to keep walking back to camp every time you want a cocktail.
Is that enough to warrant a trip to UtopiaFest? Join me this weekend for one of the best times you will ever have. It will truly be an utopian experience.
Find out everything you need to know by visiting the official UtopiaFest Web site, including the full lineup and set times. If you can't make it, I'll be bringing home a bunch of photos and words about the weekend for post next week. Stay tuned!
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