Perfecting Utopia

Slamgrass, Screaming Eagle soul, stuttered rhythms, and sweet pop shock Utopia Fest

Travis Sutherland
Travis Sutherland (photo by John Anderson)

Travis Sutherland registers his annoyances with music festivals: "The claustrophobia, waiting in line, being price gouged at every level, dealing with Wookies and permafried people, having to choose between artists, losing your group of friends, and, most of all, poor viewing and listening experiences.

"I don't want to watch my favorite band on a Jumbotron from the second row of speakers."

The 30-year-old Austinite is founder and "Chief Experiential Architect" of Utopia Fest, a weekend camp-out devised as the antithesis to music fest frustrations. At Utopia, no music overlaps, you can bring your own food and booze, and the attendance is capped at 2,000, so you never have to wait in line. From third grade until high school graduation, Sutherland grew up in the tiny hamlet of Utopia – 116 miles southwest of Austin – and in 2009, he began staging music festivals in a stunning green valley nestled on his family's 1,000-acre ranch.

"In the beginning, I didn't have any grand vision – no master plan. I was just wanting to give my family and friends in Utopia the opportunity to experience live music because I never saw a real concert until I was 18," he recalls. "The other side of it was wanting to give people in Austin the experience of true nature and the outdoors. A lot of people don't know what a special place it is out there, where there's no sign of civilization."

Utopia Fest's first two iterations attracted a few hundred people. In 2011, Sutherland partnered with Austin multimedia creatives Onion Creek Productions, who helped cultivate Utopia into the vibey cultural attraction it is today. Sutherland's core philosophy remains unchanged.

"Keep it simple and small, make it the best experience for everybody, and focus on the music."

Utopia 2015 begins Friday with a pre-party featuring slamgrassers Leftover Salmon then rolls through the weekend with elusive local mood muses Explosions in the Sky, emotive soul king Charles Bradley, future-pop gals Tune-Yards, beatsman RJD2, art freaks Man Man and Of Montreal, deep songstress Valerie June, and Houston dynamos the Suffers. Austin's ranks represent via Wild Child, Chipper Jones, Riders Against the Storm, Holiday Mountain, Sip Sip, and Hard Proof. Sutherland's pick as breakout act: Canadian folk trio Les Hay Babies.

"Since we're not trying to draw tens of thousands of people, our criteria can be centered on awesome bands that are going to blow people away instead of what's going to be commercially viable," notes Sutherland.

Utopia Fest tickets ($199) are still available. Discounts available for groups (buy five, get one free) and families (kids' passes are $20).

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Utopia Fest, Travis Sutherland, Leftover Salmon, Wild Child, Tune-Yards, Charles Bradley, Explosions in the Sky

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