UTOPiAFEST has just made our list of the best music festivals in Texas. Imagine this: a full moon and starlit sky which is lighting up the trees and rolling hills, a cool evening's gentle breeze, a stage with good bands playing some tunes that are perfect for dancing in the soft sand in front of the stage, psychedelic stage lighting, and a fun crowd having a good time and enjoying the music - and that was just the first night! UTOPiAFEST is 3 days of diverse music on two stages, free camping, BYOB, good food, and lots of fun singin', dancin', and partyin' into the wee hours! The definition of utopia is "an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect" and that pretty much describes UTOPiAFEST.
We attended the 4th annual UTOPiAFEST which was held in late September just 7 miles outside Utopia on the 1000 acre Four Sisters Ranch. Where is Utopia you ask, well it's sandwiched in by Vanderpool (oh, never heard of it) to the north, Leaky and Concan (who?) to the west, Tarplay to the east, and Sabinal to south - all that doesn't really help much, does it? Then try this, it's 70 miles or so north west of the Alamo, 25 miles west of the Cowboy Capital of Texas, close to Rio Frio, and in some of the prettiest Hill Country in Texas. Utopia is a small town (don't blink or you'll miss it) best known for "7 Days in Utopia" which is a feel good book and movie with Robert Duvall about a golfer finding himself - now we need a sequel with Taylor Swift called "3 days at UTOPiAFEST" about the good times at this fun Texas Music Festival.
Four Sisters Ranch has been in the family since 1918, and the festival got started when the fours sisters (all accomplished singers) and Travis (one of the sons and a music lover with connections to a lot of Austin based bands) wanted to share this beautiful hill country ranch with friends and they decided that you can't have a party without a band, so they invited some musicians for the weekend. That's blossomed into three days of music with twenty four bands and musicians and around 1500 music fans!
Part of the UTOPiAFEST experience starts when you try to get to the Ranch - the Festival's website directions are good (ie, go .3 miles, cross over three cattle guards, turn left at the Y) and you'll see little orange arrows pointing the way through some scenic back roads and country farmland. Once you get there you need to decide where to set up camp - and there are no directions or designated sites, it's camp where ever you like! And all of the camping areas are close to the music. In fact, you might not even have to leave your site to see and hear the music.
In a natural amphitheater surrounded by trees, towering Hill Country peaks, campers and tents, and food and merchandise vendors are two stages - the Arrowhead and Cypress stage - all in an open field about 300 yards long by 200 yards wide. One stage is set at one end of the field and one at the other end and between the two stages are two large tents to provide some protection from the elements. In front of each of the stages is a large sand pit encouraging you to take off your shoes, let your hair down, and dance and groove to the music.
The music started on Friday around 4 and continued well after 2 AM and on Saturday the bands started at 2 and played until around 2 AM. Each set was 45 minutes and when the music ended on one stage there was a mass migration to the other stage where it started a couple minutes after the set on the other stage ended.
Most of the fans like to get up close and personal with the bands, which means the sand pits is where most of the action - dancing, singing, and having the most fun - tends to be. Chairs and canopies are prohibited within 60 yards of the front of the stage, so we set up our chairs and a canopy to protect us from the sun and rain about halfway between each of the stages. When the music stopped on one stage, we just rotated our chairs and cooler 90 degrees! Perfect! And we were right in the path from one stage to the next which resulted in some interesting people watching.
The music kicked off on Thursday evening at the pre-party with:
- Wild Child - 7 members playing everything from banjo to keyboards to guitars, drums, bass fiddle, and more and they seemed to be enjoying themselves and as happy to be at UTOPiAFEST as we were - sweet vocals and ukulele-driven acoustic music
- A Live One - four talented musicians with some wicked instrumentals and dedicated to covering the band Phish
Friday's schedule included:
- Sour Bridges - an interesting combination of Texas folk, Appalachian bluegrass, rock and roll and members playing multiple instruments plus earthy tones and tender back up vocals
- Hard Proof - 9 guys playing a variety of instruments that fuses sounds from sub-Saharan Africa with adventurous jazz and deep funk to stimulate your brain and move your feet
- Houndmouth - their poetry emphasizes foolhardiness and their soulful harmonies blend together to create a colossal electric sound with bouncy half-time beats, punchy guitar riffs, and a bit of facial hair
- Dana Falconberry - hailed by the Austin Chronicle as one of the city’s “most promising singer-songwriters” and “most arresting female vocalist,” she has captivated audiences with her powerful live shows and haunting recordings, receiving acclaim far beyond the reaches of her hometown
- Kaki King - named "Guitar God" by Rolling Stone, Kaki is a singer and guitarist extraordinaire that has gathered critical acclaim and fan admiration for her unparalleled guitar skills
- Dr. Dog - an infectious blend of folk, pop, indie rock and soul, inspired by The Beach Boys, The Beatles, David Bowie and Neil Young.
- Toubab Krewe - using instrumentation that includes a kora (21-string harp-lute), kamelengoni (12-string harp-lute), soku (Malian horsehair fiddle), two electric guitars, electric bass guitar, drums and African percussion, Toubab Krewe blends American and West African influences into a sound all its own
- Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaries - one hell of a voice which is so powerful that people call him “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”
- SORNE - a tapestry of humanism, calling upon hand-made instruments, ethereal voices, and poetic storytelling to forge a renewed sense of song
We just barely made it up in time for Saturdays line-up:
- Sons of Fathers - ear-catching melodies and rich harmony vocals
- Jitterbug Vipers - some call their music SWINGADELIC - vintage jazz and swing that's hot, sultry, and danceable with influences from Billie Holliday, Charlie Christian and Count Base’s rhythm section and the 30s & 40s Viper scene
- Digital Antique - an Austin instrumental rock band with classical to spaghetti western, unconventional time signatures and rhyme, myriad of percussive genres, plus a string quartet
- Ray Wylie Hubbard - one of those three-name Texas troubadours in the spirit of Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Billy Joe Shaver and over the years he has proven himself as one of the most original and consistent songwriters
- Flying Balalaika Brothers - a blend of Russian folk music, traditional world music and original musical pieces, they bring with them an old European street charm and gypsy punk antics in a style that can only be described as what happens when “Russian Caviar meets Texas Barbecue”
- White Denim - a rock ‘n roll four-piece band that is as unpredictable as they are prolific with music that draws from an unusual array of influences including psychedelic rock, prog, punk, jazz, garage, soul, dub, blues and jam fusion, with meticulous timing and unusual song structures
- Wheeler Brothers - a dynamic and high energy group with an engaging sound that combines the twang of Texas folk with Southern rock, Americana and the blues
- Victor Wooten - regarded as one of the most influential bassists in the world, he offers a range of styles including jazz, funk, pop, soul, gospel, and world music
- Ben Kweller - Ben's spent his career making a very uncool style of music—hooky, melodic, and sappy power pop
- Jimmy Herring - known for his limitless improvisations, he is skilled in multiple musical contexts ranging from classically song-driven rock to technically demanding jazz fusion
- The Werks - they incorporate psychedelic guitars, organ, funky bass and modern dance beats into their own musical form, referred to as “psychedelic dance rock.”
- Sid Fly - wide-ranging style reflects the musical climates of his background, a style that draws on Latin, Country, and Soft Rock
- Mexican Institute of Sound - part of a growing Mexican electronica movement, encouraging fusions of folk and more traditional music with modern sound
Thursday was outstanding with a full moon, lively fans, and a cool breeze - perfect for an evening of music. Friday started off cool and overcast which made it great for hiking, sleeping in, biking, socializing, frisbee golf, or other fun stuff. But shortly after the music started, it began to drizzle and then steadily got heavier and turned into a solid vail of rain for the rest of the evening. I was tempted to go back to the motor home to put on my swimsuit.
But the rain didn't stop the music nor did it send the fans scurrying back to their campsites. Umbrellas and rain gear suddenly appeared, shirts and shoes came off, and the fun continued. Even the young kids hung in there! And everyone got wet and muddy but still had a great time.
The UTOPiAFEST volunteers did a fantastic job of keeping the music going, the musicians somewhat dry, and the hay bales spread to soak up some of the worst muddy spots. You'll notice a lack of pictures after the 5th band on Friday - my camera kept fogging up and finally stopped working.
Saturday morning was overcast, there were several deep and mushy mud pits; the roads were slippery; all of the tents still had rain drops on them; wet clothes and muddy shoes were hanging off of trees, tents, cars, and improvised clothes lines; and one of the stage sand pits had turned into a dirt pit. But that didn't seem to dampen any spirits - groggy eyed campers were emerging from their tents with a yawn and a smile and a "let's do it again" attitude; you could smell wet clothes, coffee, and breakfasts cooking on grills; and the fun, games, and music started all over again. Saturday was cool with a few drizzles for minutes, followed by clouds and sun - and the music was great.
After the music stopped on the stages on Friday and Saturday night and the evening was starting to wind down, if you were still awake and ready to party, you could turn in your ID for a pair of headphones and party 'til the sun came up! You could groove to the beats of Austin's own, Henry + The Invisibles the Onemanphunkband, and more as you wander all over Four Sisters Ranch without disturbing any the the party pooping slumbering campers!
UTOPiAFEST is as much about the festival fans as it is about the camping and music. UTOPiAFEST draws an interesting mix of young and middle aged, kids of all ages, as well as some former hippies like myself. People watching is fantastic. This festival was very reminiscent of my hippie days and some of the music festivals we attended in the late 60's in California with outstanding music from the likes of Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dillon, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seger, Mommas & the Papas, Kingston Trio, and more. Plus, just like the old days, at UTOPiAFEST there was plenty of bare feet, flowers in the hair, long flowing hippie skirts, peace and "make love not war" signs, ponytails and long hair, tie-dye shirts, festival kids, funny smelling cigarettes, lots of wine and beer, hula hoops, free form dancing, and some interesting and unique headgear!
Before, during, and after the music everybody was having fun at UTOPiAFEST. Anybody that will hang in there until 3 AM for the music when it's pouring rain has got to be a true diehard UTOPiAFEST music fan and it's a testament to the quality of the bands that the majority of the fans stayed to the bitter end. The stage was always packed, lots of dancing, and lots of smiles and laughs.
UTOPiAFEST is very kid friendly and there were lots of them and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves. Some played frisbee, others playing the drums at the music bus or tried the hula hoops, some played in the sand while everyone danced around them, or they danced with the parents, played football, or sat and listed to the music.
Camping & Things To Do at UTOPiAFEST
There are a scattering of nearby options for lodging, but to really experience and enjoy UTOPiAFEST you need to camp. You can pitch a tent or park your rig in an open field, along the perimeter of the the stage area, under the trees, at the base of a rolling hill, or just about anywhere that suits your fancy on the 1000 acres. Under the trees or at the base of the hills are $300,000 motor homes, one to four person tents, 5th wheels, hammocks, a variety of trailers, air mattress, and more to house the campers for the weekend.
Water and electricity are not available and there are no designated sites but the camping is FREE and you'll find a spot that's ideal for you within a couple minutes walk to the stages. To keep the camping area free of cars, a couple different shuttles were waiting for you when you arrived - load up your gear and they'll take you through the camping area until you say "whoa, that's a perfect spot for us!"
Near the stage are hot showers and outhouses, both of which were kept pretty busy. You should be able to pick a site where you can see the stages and wherever you set up, you should be able to hear the music.
The campground is always alive and full of activity from shortly after 10 AM to a few hours before the sun rises - there is everything from games, to cookin', to pickin' and singin', to just chillin' and enjoying the scenery and camaraderie. There is a Family Camping area which theoretically should be quieter and more tame - but who wants that and there were only a couple of tents and RVs parked in that area!
Before the music starts you can get some exercise and hike to the top of the hills to experience some magnificent views, mountain bike the dirt trails, or take a scenic drive through some stunning Texas Hill Country. Or you can play the nine hole frisbee golf course that traverses up and done one of the peaks in back of the vendors. Or go horse back riding at one of the nearby dude ranches, play some golf where they filmed "7 Days at Utopia" or one of the other nearby courses, float the Frio river (or bounce along the rocks if the water's low thanks to the drought), shop for antiques in nearby Bourne, explore San Antonio, sample some wine at a local vineyard, or visit lost Maples State Park - in other words, you shouldn't get bored waiting for the music to start!
In addition, on Friday and Saturday, UTOPiAFEST has several ongoing activities, some of which include:
- the Music Bus and it's variety of drums to play as well as daily music workshops, impromptu lessons, and jam session
- morning and sunset Yoga with Black Swan including a full body, feel good Vinyasa Flow class
- advanced as well as an introduction to Disc Golf Workshop
- Rocksmith authentic guitar games that offers the only video game that teaches you to play any real guitar
- story telling with Lee Halie, a professional storyteller who entertained the kids with cowboy poetry, singing, and some really tall tales
- hula hoop demo and lots of hula hoops to use
- Graham Wilkinson Kids Show and more
UTOPiAFEST Fine Dining & Shopping
As you meander though the campground you'll smell breakfast sausage, hamburgers, and BBQ. But if you don't want to cook, there are several vendors just waiting for you near the stages. In the Food Forest (all the food vendors are clustered under the trees) and we had to choose from: Bison tamales and tacos from Bison Provision Company; excellent hand tossed fresh wood oven baked pizza from Fired Up Kitchen; BBQ sandwiches and sausage wraps (wow, superb!) from Double Trouble BBQ; Vietnamese sandwiches, fried rice, and Vermicelli bowls from Bahn Bahn; veggie wrap or pesto pasta from Dr. Rawsome; and more including chocolate, mineral shots, coffee, and ice cream. You shouldn't go hungry. Our favorite was the pizza from Fired Up Kitchen. The festival is BYOB and no alcohol is available for sale and make sure you load up before you get to Utopia because it is a small and dry city.
If you wanted a tie dye tee-shirt or long flowing tie dye skirt there were a couple of different vendors with a wide selection. You can also get a new frisbee, cowboy hat, rings and jewelry, art, and lots more.
After a hard day of dancing, or drinking, or sleeping on an air mattress that went flat you could also get a massage (only $1 a minute) to work out the work stress, loosen up the muscles for more dancing, or just a relaxing few minutes in the massage chair. Black Swan Yoga was there each morning offering Yoga classes for anyone who could make it up that early and needed to loosen up.
We had a great time at UTOPiAFEST and here are some of what we consider as highlights:
the picturesque ranch and stunning surrounding scenery
Ray Wylie Hubbard's great songs, sense of humor, and very entertaining set
watching the hundreds of kids having a fantastic time
camping wherever you wanted - all of which was just a short walk to the music
listening to some good music with a full moon on a cool Texas evening
meeting some new people and making friends who we're anxious to see again next year
the Wheeler Brothers set - wow, don't miss these guys if you have a chance to see them
when the rain stopped and the sun popped out on Saturday
the Jalapeno sausage wrap from Double Trouble BBQ and the pizza from Fired Up Kitchen
the volunteers who suddenly appeared with hay bales to soak up the mud
the diverse blend of music and genres over three days from trippy hippy music to jazz, bluegrass, swing, country, folk, funk, pop, soul, gospel, and more
One of the unique touches at UTOPiAFEST was when we looked up and saw a small airplane circle the stages a couple times and then on the third and fourth pass things started flying out the plane's windows and floating down right in the middle of where everyone was listening to the music. Hands went up and people started running to grab whatever was floating down - turns out it was panties with a ticket to next years festival!
Our thanks to Jamie, Travis, and Aaron who planned and organized such a fun event and made sure it was perfect; Onion Creek Productions who are the producers of UTIPiAFEST; and the hundreds of volunteers from the ticket takers to the sound guys to the stage hands to the clean-up crew for helping make it fun for the rest of us. See you there next year!