Growing Crowds Can't Spoil UtopiaFest's Blissful Vibe

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During Aaron Behrens & the Midnight Stroll's Friday-evening set, while the dancing crowd was surrounded by the darkened hillsides that surround UtopiaFest, the singer said, "I don't feel like we're a part of any continent or country, I just feel like we're floating in space." That sentiment wasn't too far off from the truth, and seemed to be shared by the multitudes of new faces who took roost in scattered campsites throughout the festival grounds.

That seemed to be the theme of the weekend, too. While all those who had experienced UtopiaFest before were there, this time they seemed to had brought their friends. And their friend's friends. And their parents and kids, too. UtopiaFest was a noticeably larger animal this year, which became evident before the festival reached capacity Saturday afternoon.

But while there were more people, it wasn't too many people, rather the perfect number and mix of folks. Just enough to call it a success, and hopefully put a little money in a few people's pockets to ensure an even better even next year, but not too many to spoil that small festival experience UtopiaFest has provided for the past six years.

A few things were different upon initial inspection, this year. The addition of more RV and car-camping space made the parking lot a bit further away for those hauling in their equipment. While that might've seemed like a pain in the ass at first, several trucks and trailers helped out the process, making the trek a bit easier for those folks.

The car campers and RVs took up one whole side of the festival grounds, while primitive campers took over the hill and other surrounding areas. The grounds were nearly the same as years previous, but with many more activities and food options this year. The alternating stages have certainly come up in the world of lighting and sound over the years, but without sacrificing their quaintness, giving crowds the ability to get up close and personal with their favorite acts.

A hard rain came again this year, marking its third year in a row of affecting the festival. Friday night's shows were delayed midway through the Wheeler Brothers' (Utopia's unofficial house band) set, when a string of thunderstorms sent folks back to their camps.

After about an hour, though, and down from two stages to only one, the music restarted with a gorgeous solo acoustic set from Father John Misty that was bit abridged, but still on point. He gave way to another short set from the Wheelers, who opened with a spot-on cover of Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In the Sky" and brought a whole bunch of energy back to the night after the delay.

Grateful Grass continued on with a set of bluegrass covers of Grateful Dead songs. Featuring Keller Williams, who played a solo set at the pre-party the night before, as well as Yonder Mountain String Band's former mandolin player Jeff Austin and famed Jerry Garcia collaborator David Grisman's son, Sam, the group did justice to the famed Dead catalog, including a set-closing version of "Scarlet Begonias" that had a lot of the crowd singing along.

Changing up the pace, Behrens & the Midnight Stroll brought some funky, danceable rock to the late-night crowd. While all the families were settled into their tents and RVs for the evening, the younger crowds were just getting started and Behrens provided the soundtrack. Also known for fronting Austin's Ghostland Observatory, Behrens didn't hold back either, giving his all with the new group during his time onstage.

Closing the night was Austin funk group Brownout, who have been a staple at UtopiaFest for a few years now. While they had a chance to show off a few of their own songs, the real treat of the night was when they brought out GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan for a set of Liquid Swords material and assorted solo and Wu material. Playing until well after 2 a.m., the rapper easily turned in the show of the evening.

After the main stages shut down for the evening, most folks called it a night, but those who still had that drunken swagger found their way to either the acoustic stage on the hill or the silent disco for some late-night jams. From what I heard, they seemed to have been a bit crazy, but this tired soul had one two many whiskeys and had to pack it in while the moon was still high in the sky.

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Saturday started off real slow, both at our camp and throughout the entire festival. You could tell most people had had a little too much fun the night before, and were feeling the effects during the cool morning hours.

It's both a blessing and a curse to have the BYOB rule. It kicks ass while it's happening, and can save you a ton of money if you like to kick one back, but it can call for some pretty painful mornings if you end up taking full advantage of it. I myself have spent at least some portion of the past four Utopia Saturdays fighting off a hangover, and this year's might have been the worst.

So apologies to the first group of bands who played because I couldn't find it in me to make it down to the grounds to check out your sets: Borrisokane, Crooks, Ruby Jane, Hikes and Eric Tessmer -- however, what I did hear across the grounds sounded pretty good. Someone (Ruby Jane, I think) even did a great cover of Alt-J's "Tesselate" that was perfectly executed and just original enough.

Cilantro Boombox were infectious, and had the right sound and energy to rid festivalgoers of their collective hangovers and get up to dance. I'm still not sold on their names, but the Latin/hip-hop/indie/roots mix they were working with sounded great. Followed closely by the soulful rock sounds of Memphis' Star & Micey, the day was starting to move along perfectly.

Billy Joe Shaver, who has entertained the Utopians before, played a rousing set of original country tunes before making way to the indie-dance grooves of Holiday Mountain, another repeat act from last year. But the most unexpectedly great set of the weekend came from Benji Hughes. There wasn't much expectation leading into his set, but his baritone was instantly satisfying as soon as it hit the speakers.

Then I saw where that beautiful voice, a mix between Leonard Cohen and The National's Matt Berninger, was coming from, and it was the most unexpected twist of the weekend. Resembling most closely a heavier, beer-drinking Leon Russell, Hughes' appearance personality did not match his tone of voice.

Wild Child were up next, and while the Wheeler Brothers are the festival's unofficial house band, Wild Child are pretty close on their heels for that title. The band members were spotted running around the festival all weekend, enjoying it as much as the rest of us punters.

Warpaint took the stage an hour earlier than scheduled, switching spots with Kishi Bashi. No one ever really explained it, but that's kind of the MO of UtopiaFest. It's a very no-rules, go-with-the-flow type of event, and despite a few folks probably being a bit confused by who was onstage, the lack of overlapping sets made it not that big of a deal. And soon enough, Warpaint had everyone in the palm of their hands with an impressively rocking set.

Kishi Bashi, who is somewhat of a prodigy, wasn't too shabby either. Never letting the energy down from his set, he kept his crowd quite captive throughout. Finally it was festival headliner Cold War Kids' time to take the stage, which they did with a fury. It's been a while since they've made a stink in the world of music, but after seeing this set, I'm sure it wont be long until they're back on the scene.

The final main-stage spot of the weekend belonged to none other than Dan Deacon. One part DJ, one part vocalist, one part motivational speaker, Deacon led everyone through an interactive and comedic set of his originals, all coming to a head with his "Wham City." Suddenly the crowd found itself on either side of center being led in an interpretive dance by folks on shoulders in the middle.

One thing that UtopiaFest has always done right is scheduling, and they couldn't have done any better than Deacon for the weekend's final act. His set was erratic, interactive, emotional, raw, gritty, dancey and most of all fun as can be. Which could also be said for the entire weekend as a whole.

My only complaint is that the festival came and went way too fast. It's the perfect weekend of music, camaraderie and just the right amount of debauchery. It just works so well, mainly because the positive vibes that start at the top with the people who run the event.

Everything was put together so well this year, and even with a little bit of rain (what's UtopiaFest without a little rain?!), it seemed to go off without a problem. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and for a couple of days under the stars and rain showers, we were afforded a true utopian experience. Now on to planning for next year...


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