People, Not the Place, Make This Festival a Utopia
UtopiaFest's triumvirate of land, music, and people takes shape
Smoke signals welcome me to the future site of UtopiaFest. It's early October – more than a month out from the 11th annual gathering – and I'm behind the wheel of my big, old, white van, rumbling down a dirt road inside Reveille Peak Ranch in western Burnet County. Pulling into the grounds, where organizers are clearing brush in anticipation of 2,000 campers and performances from 40 acts, black clouds plume over the tree line.
Just a controlled burn, I presume. Right then, two whimsical fire trucks – volunteer squads from Cassie and East Lake Buchanan – roll in to acknowledge that a nearby field's gone ablaze. Following my big, old, white dog Momar through a valley, we arrive at a large patch of scorched dry grass and smoldering prickly pear cactus.
There stands Utopia founder Travis Sutherland – unfazed. He's endured more daunting emergencies over the last 12 months, and turns away from the fire.
"Ready for a tour?"
Sutherland guides us into the nexus of UtopiaFest's 2019 footprint, where two clusters of enormous wooden poles jut out of the ground toward the sky. They're the beginnings of the event's two primary platforms, the Arrowhead and Cypress stages, which sit side by side. In Utopia, music never overlaps.
As such, attendees aren't faced with choosing between the cinematic dream quest of Austin's Shakey Graves (Sat. 16, Cypress stage, 10pm) and Jay Farrar's plaintive alt.country touchstone Son Volt (Sat. 16, Arrowhead stage, 8:30pm). Nor will they have to pick amongst earthy Afro-groovers Toubab Krewe (Fri. 15, Cypress stage, 7:30pm) and splashy R&B rock quartet Nth Power (Fri. 15, Arrowhead stage, 8:30pm).
Count no overlapping music among the philosophical tenets that make a music festival worthy of being called Utopia despite a move away last year from its namesake village, three hours southwest of Austin. Alternative to everything people hate about such outdoor convergences, Utopia is first and foremost uncrowded. Attendance caps at 2,000, there are no fences, no glaring corporate sponsorships, camping is free, and you don't have to shell out $8 for a beer.
In fact, concertgoers are free to bring their own consensual beverages.
Distinctions reveal themselves equally in the lineup. All three nights pull headliners from ATX, including Thursday's top-billed Utopia Players (Thu. 14, Arrowhead stage, 10:30pm), a jazz/funk/fusion/Afrobeat superjam led by Golden Dawn Arkestra front-alien Topaz McGarrigle. Unlike the average fest, Utopia continues to present a gender-balanced roster. Soul-injecting guitar guru Jackie Venson (Sat. 16, Cypress stage, 7:30pm) highlights action on the fest's peak day, which also includes haunting songwriter Erika Wennerstrom (Sat. 16, Arrowhead stage, 5pm) and ethereal space pop unit Night Glitter (Sat. 16, Arrowhead stage, 3:30pm).
As we stroll the Hill Country acreage, Sutherland exercises my imagination, pointing out where all the festival features will be: a geodesic dome here, a silent disco there, tents everywhere. The disc golf course sits yonder up that ridge.
Last year's UtopiaFest also took place on this land, but in a totally different section. Reveille Peak Ranch exists as one of those sprawling, multi-use properties you only see in rural Texas. It's a popular mountain biking destination, a scuba diving hot spot, and local law enforcement occasionally uses it to practice blowing shit up.
A more established, lakeside portion of the ranch availed itself as a last-minute landing spot for the independent fest, but organizers found it too cramped and developed – not to mention that the satellite parking led to long waits for entry. In bushwhacking their own encampment, Utopia reclaimed the agrarian feel of the original Uvalde County grounds. The way Sutherland describes moving three times in 12 months evokes a Homeric journey.
"Last year, we were in the boat out in the ocean and we had to go through storms," he offers. "The beach is the first place we landed. Now, we've gotten to explore the land and find the spot we're supposed to be."
Always Grow Organic
Leaving home remains a significant and sometimes difficult milestone in life. The same goes for returning.
Sutherland grew up in the tiny hamlet of Utopia before migrating north to San Marcos and Austin. Music revolutionizes existence something fierce in Central Texas. By 2009, he resolved to unite his past and present by bringing new friends back to his homeland: the Four Sisters Ranch.
"I'd been gone long enough from Utopia to understand how blessed I was to have it in my family," he recalls. "I wanted to bring this amazing music I'd found back to the people of Hill Country, and I knew just enough bands that I could convince to play in the pasture for next to nothing."
Utopia germinated that year with humble headliners that included Thrift Store Cowboys and Cellus & the Loose Grip playing to 200 of Sutherland's friends, neighbors, and cousins on a gooseneck trailer. The setup: make-do. The vibe: immaculate. By year three, with his organizational circle having grown to include Onion Creek Productions operators Aaron and Jamie Brown and trusty creative ally Wayne Dalchau, some 1,500 attendees unpacked their tents.
Utopia's triumvirate of land, music, and people had taken shape.
The hills and meadows of Four Sisters became a favorite annual pilgrimage for Austin bands and fans. The fest drew a family-friendly crowd devoid of the dark wooks that plague jammy music gatherings. Meanwhile, Sutherland emerged as a notable booker.
His ability to scout emergent national talent continues this weekend with uplifting, Stax-signed soul and blues crew Southern Avenue (Fri. 15, Arrowhead stage, 5pm) and Mikaela Davis (Sat. 16, Arrowhead stage, 6:30pm), whose lyrically dense compositions are underpinned with aggressive harp plucking. Naturally, the roster mostly populates loyal locals who've grown with Utopia.
Transcendental indie-folk outfit the Deer (Fri. 15, Cypress stage, 5:45pm) has long been a fixture. So has Wild Child's Kelsey Wilson, now showcasing superbly grooved-out R&B project Sir Woman (Thu. 14, Arrowhead stage, 9:15pm). Another notable headliner returns in Brownout (Fri. 15, Cypress stage, 10pm), the high-powered Latin rock locals having logged memorable Utopia collabs with Bernie Worrell, GZA, and Gene Ween.
Accelerated growth became an issue when Utopia left the nest. Last year's ill-advised partnership with Brandon and Patrick Harrison, offering to house the festival on their Burnet County farm, came with pressures to increase attendance, kill the longstanding BYOB policy, and book a costly lineup headlined by STS9.
Sutherland uses the term "myriad of regrets" when looking back at everything that went wrong last year. Tickets sold slow, Patrick Harrison's demeanor alienated collaborators, and Utopia overlapped with deer hunting season. That, along with concerns about traffic and the influx of Austin hippies, elicited an uprising of angry countryfolk.
A group of nearby residents hired a lawyer to thwart the festival, and over 100 citizens showed up to a town hall meeting and jeered Sutherland. After that, the Burnet County sheriff wasn't eager to grant a mass gathering permit. Comment sections of local news bulletins filled up with anti-Utopia vitriol from residents protective of their peace and quiet – some more concerned with quiet than peace.
"Every time we'd get near a fence, we'd hear a gunshot," Sutherland recalls about a day last September when they were getting the farm ready for the fest. "I thought maybe they were shooting targets, but it kept happening. Then, we were all sitting down, talking, and we hear a blast. Pellets rained down all around us.
"At that point, I decided I'm not bringing anyone I love out there."
One month before gates, Sutherland broke off his partnership with the Harrisons and moved Utopia to Reveille Peak Ranch, where it ran as scheduled with all the promised bands. It proved a miraculous, if imperfect, outcome. The budget had doubled, but attendance hadn't, so Utopia lost big.
"The biggest thing I learned in that very expensive education is to stay the course and stick to your gut," confides Sutherland.
Let the Goodtimes Roll
Our walkabout's gone off the beaten path. Such is the nature of today's destination: Goodtimes Grove, where artists give unamplified performances to hushed audiences between 1am and 4am. Cody Johnson warmly welcomes us, pouring a bowl of water for Momar and unfolding camping chairs for the humans.
Hosting these magically dark and weird, middle-of-the-night sets is Johnson's artistic expression. They began in the backwoods around Old Settler's Music Festival in 2005, and while it quickly caught on with artists, audiences, and a tight-knit squad of Team Goodtimes volunteers, the event remained more tolerated than embraced. Conversely, Goodtimes fan Sutherland cold-called a reluctant Johnson in 2013.
"I fuckin' loved it," recalls Johnson of witnessing the Utopia crowd party in the hard rains of that year's fest. "It changed me forever, seeing what a rad festival could be like."
Since then, Goodtimes has become a staple of UtopiaFest. This year, Johnson spent a day roving the ranch to find the most enchanting setting for the installation. That turned up a gently inclining clearing under the twisted limbs of a grandfatherly tree, where artists like shapeshifting indie songcrafter Matthew Logan Vasquez (Thu. 14, Goodtimes Grove, 1am); progressive violin, dreadnought, and drums combo Jon Stickley Trio (Sat. 16, Goodtimes Grove, 1am); folk heat-seekers Fruition (Fri. 15, Goodtimes Grove, 1am); and Shakey Graves (Sat. 16, Goodtimes Grove, 3am) perform in unparalleled intimacy. For Johnson, Utopia's embrace of Goodtimes is both familial and existential.
"I wouldn't be doing this crazy late-night thing if it wasn't for their love," he says.
After the white-knuckled adversity of last year's double relocation, Sutherland sent out an email to the UtopiaFest community – part thank-you, part apology, mostly a treatise on sacrifice: "It means bargaining with the future, setting aside resources, and forgoing instant gratification, in favor of a better future," he wrote.
What happened thereafter reaffirmed that the fans, friends, artists, bands, and families orbiting Utopia not only believed in its future, but in their roles in it. Donations rolled in, volunteers stepped up, and fans bought early-bird tickets. Sutherland staged an intimate mini-fest, dubbed Sweet Party, at the old Four Sisters Ranch, attended by 500 campers and musicians that made a "pretty good dent in the debt."
More so, it strengthened the communal energy that's palpable leading into this week's festival, which in all ways feels like a return to Utopia's roots.
"The thing that's kept Utopia going is that volunteer spirit," Sutherland tells me. "It started as a family thing, and it grew into a community that feels like a family."
Utopia Fest runs Thu.-Sat., Nov. 14-16, at Reveille Park Ranch in Burnet County. Find tickets, scheduling, and camping information at www.utopiafest.com.