UtopiaFest: Freaks Abound, Festival Jams In Hill Country Paradise

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."

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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Jim Bricker