Utopia Fest Ignites

Musical campout burns bright

Saturday night, gunpowder ignited Utopia Fest. Fuses sizzled, rockets shot overhead, and, with a pop ... pop ... pop-pop-pop, blazing chemical reactions flowered high above the stage, lighting up the already starry panorama.

Explosions in the Sky (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The unexpected fireworks display proved a singular moment for Utopians this past weekend. Explosions in the Sky had just swelled to a finale – one last triumphant crescendo – when the wicks began burning behind the stage. The pun was obvious, but few had seen it coming.

Certainly not the old man passed out in a camping chair, who was jarred awake by the blast with such a shock that he pressed his fists over his ears in terror. Looking up, a look of wonderment then spread across his face. For him, EITS’ chromatic, post-rock instrumentals had been a sleepy choice for a headliner in the wake of an afternoon buzzing with euphoria.

Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson (l) joined Holiday Mountain for a duet with frontwoman Laura Patino. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Austin future-pop duo Holiday Mountain pulled out all the stops with a bombastic set featuring cameos from Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson, supreme violinist Ruby Jane, Sip Sip, and bikini clad dancers. Of Montreal countered with dashing art rock replete with top-notch theatrical ballyhoo. Leftover Salmon spawned hippie Hee-haw.

Even if EITS’ tranquil sonic brushstrokes required patience compared to the anterior hysteria, die-hards by the hundreds stood hypnotized in front of the stage throughout their hour-long performance. The Austin quintet hadn’t played a gig in central Texas since opening for Nine Inch Nails in San Antonio two years ago, and Utopia had been courting them twice that long. The band made it worth the wait, executing skyscraping arrangements that unwittingly soundtracked a group of pyros spinning fire next to the stage.

On the first of the festival’s two full days of music, few of the roughly 2,000 attendees checked into their tents after the main stage closed down, opting instead to stay high on Utopia’s late-night programming. Silent Disco, a dance party amplified exclusively through headphones, ended up a wash due to technical difficulties, so the masses trudged up a hill to the Goodtimes stage. The mini amphitheater, curated by the same group that enlivens Old Settlers’ campgrounds each spring, hosted performances on a tiny, torch-lit platform.

Those concerts relied on a collective vow of silence. Anyone who spoke was reprimanded with a chorus of “shhh” from the audience of 200 hanging on every word from Grace Park, who, in tandem with Roger Sellers, fronted avant-folk quintet the Deer. The San Marcos/Austin group captivated the crowd with genteel mystique and wordy verses that unfolded into tidy, ear-worming choruses.

A few adversaries, embittered by the contract of quietude, stood off to the side and yelled “peeeenis” while the band played.

Happily, the most repeated phrase on Saturday night, more so even than “Do you know where that guy with the molly is?” was, “Wow, look at the stars!” The celestial sphere’s pinholes, truly stunning out in the hills of Uvalde County, kept concertgoers company until both were run off by the morning sun.

Man Man (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Les Hay Babies (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Shakey Graves (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

There were still reasons to look upward the following day. A single-engine plane flew over the festival grounds while Philly eccentrics Man Man beat out their Zappaesque neo-doo-wop, raining Utopia Fest merch onto the crowd. That was shortly before the evening vibe peaked during a performance by French-Canadian indie folkers Les Hey Babies. The New Brunswick girl group cast a spell over an audience passing space bags full of wine with a trio of lead vocalists executing fetching harmonies and surprisingly gritty songwriting.

The sun set on Wild Child, one of several Utopia acts managed by the festival organizers. The local pop troupe showcased well-worm jovials plus songs from their upcoming sophomore disc Fools to an enormous, loving audience. Super producer RJD2 followed, turning the dirt into a dance floor and suffering from a nosebleed mid-performance. Utopia Fest Creative Director Aaron Brown took center stage to inform the audience that “some times magical things happen at Utopia Fest.”

Enter unscheduled performer Shakey Graves, who added to the surprise by cranking up the gain on his amplifier and manhandling his guitar with brutal abandon in logging Utopia’s heaviest set.

Tune-Yards’ powerhouse closer “Bizness,” a vocally impossible collision of Afrobeat, Nina Simone, and eclectic indie pop, could’ve provided the perfect ending for Utopia’s final night, but there was a grander finale in store. Late-blooming soul vocalist Charles Bradley, who’d provided Utopia Fest with a landmark performance in 2012 when he balled pure emotion during a rainstorm, had returned.

Charles Bradley (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

“I’ll never forget that. I saw you getting wet and I just jumped down into the mud,” Bradley told the gathering, adding that he remembers getting mildly electrocuted by a wet microphone during that performance. “It was the shock of my life, but you know that’s alright because it was a shock of love!”

For the next hour, Bradley reached into every chest, plucking heartstrings in perfect harmony. His message of love, both sensual and peaceful, resounded in the vibey valley where festers danced, drank, and hugged to his stirring squalls. As his glittery suit disappeared through the stage’s backdoor and the band played on, round after round of mortars discharged, illuminating the country sky and unifying the masses in one last exceptional moment.

Full photo gallery.

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More Utopia Fest 2015
Utopia Fest Announces Lineup
Utopia Fest Announces Lineup
Explosions in the Sky, RJD2, Tune-Yards headline

Kevin Curtin, April 27, 2015

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Utopia Fest 2015, Explosions in the Sky, Holiday Mountain, Wild Child, Leftover Salmon, Tune-Yards, Charles Bradley, Of Montreal, Grace Park, Roger Sellers, The Deer, Man Man, Frank Zappa, Les Hay Babies, RJD2, Charles Bradley, Shakey Graves

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