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Festivals are everywhere, every weekend, for every type of personality. There are music festivals, art festivals, food festivals, and everything in between. If you have a favorite past time, there’s probably a festival dedicated to it.

I’ve attended the larger festivals numerous times and while they offer attendees the chance to see some of music’s biggest names mixed with up and coming artists, they also are a great source of stress. To get from one main stage to the other is an odyssey-sized journey. Then you have to make the hardest decisions all weekend. Who do you see? Who do you not see and regret it later? Where do you lie down to give your feet and soul a break? And don’t even get me started on the “festival fashion.”

Fortunately, myself and my roommate/ANON photographer, Alex, got to attend a festival this past weekend where there is no music overlap, the audience is capped at 2000, and you have a small yet beautiful setting to explore. UTOPiAfest is located in the small community of Utopia, TX. There’s hardly any (or in my case none) cell service, the artists roam the grounds with you, and festival-goers camp out in the Texas hills surrounding the festival grounds.

As we drove down the winding roads, through hills, passing by lounging livestock on our way to the festival, I had no idea what to expect from the weekend. The festival takes place at the Four Sisters Ranch which is privately owned by Travis Sutherland and his family and is completely secluded. We pulled up to the ranch entrance and were happy to sit in line for parking as a thunderstorm unleashed onto the grounds. Luckily by the time we had made it through the mud and into our parking spot, the rain had cleared and we were ready.

The first thing I noticed when we got to the actual festival grounds was how breathtakingly gorgeous the backdrop was. The stages and tents are located within a valley, with clear skies and not a building in sight. When we arrived the music had already begun and right away we could feel that this was like no other festival. It felt more intimate, open, and it was clear that nobody cared if you’d showered, what fashions you were sporting, or how early you started drinking.

 

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The first act we saw was a band called Sucka Please. Alex and I had talked about this band in length before the festival solely on the coolness of their name, and they did not disappoint. First off, their badass female bassist killed it and she was drinking wine out of a to-go wine glass. They were funky with a little Texas twang and the perfect set to prepare us for the rest of the weekend.

After seeing our first bit of music we walked around so we could figure out the lay of the land, and more importantly, find out where the food was. After located the Food Forest and eating what I can only describe as the world’s most perfect avocado fries from the Tailgate Bistro, USA trailer, we ventured over to see Sour Bridges’ set. The entire band was decked out in western ware, including a suede fringe vest, worn out cowboy boots, and hand stitched button ups. Their sound was very Texas honky-tonk with a flare of folk that comes from the vocals. The whole band put on an enthusiastic performance but it was the lead singer’s infectious smile and stage presence that made my feet move and my body sway. Throughout the weekend I continued to see the singer walking around the fest with muddy bare feet and that same smile as he listened to other artists. One of the best parts of the festival was that the artists were there supporting each other and enjoying the music right along with us.

We ended Friday night with Father John Misty, AKA Joshua Tillman. Tillman came through the doors at the back of the small wood frame stage, greeted us, picked up his guitar, and began his set. The beauty of this festival is that we could see a performer like Father John Misty in such an intimate setting and we didn’t have to wait at the stage all day to get a good spot or get squeezed up against the gates in front of the stage. I was resting my arms on the stage, not a metal gate 15 feet back and 20 feet down, but the actual stage, merely a few feet from Tillman. His voice was more powerful than on any recording and his presence was mesmerizing. He made intense eye contact with individuals in the crowd, swayed his hips like I’ve never seen a man do (not even Elvis), and casually joked with the crowd. His set included some of his already released music mixed in with some new material. He asked the crowd if they wanted to hear a bonus version to “Everyman Needs a Companion” (well, of course) and played a new song about the worst night of his life, which had the entire crowd laughing and smiling. During a quiet performance of “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” he sarcastically noted how “existential” the balloons being passed around in the crowd were. When one made it to the stage, he dramatically popped it with his pointed black boot and continued with the song without missing a beat. His whole set can be summed up by the words of another fan in the crowd, “I’m having so much fun.”

 

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On Saturday morning we pulled our muddy boots from the day before back on, chowed down on some breakfast tacos, and headed back out to the festival. The mud from the day before had mostly dried up and the weather was a welcomed crisp cold. The music hadn’t started yet but we saw a crowd gathering under one of the large tents on the grounds so we walked over to investigate. There, a group of kids that couldn’t have been more than 11 years old were playing a set of rock covers, and playing them well. People just getting up from their tents trickled into the space and we all watched with wide smiles as the kids covered Modest Mouse and The White Stripes.

We then headed over to see our first stage act of the day, Crooks. They’re a band out of Austin that takes country back to its gritty and raw roots. Their stage presence was crazy, energetic, and so rock ‘n’ roll. The stand up bass player whipped his hair ferociously, the accordion player was a true rock star on the stage; I didn’t ever think I would say that about an accordion player but he killed it. The singer’s voice was passionate, raspy, and everything I like about real country music.

With no music overlap we were really just going back and forth between two stages with food breaks sprinkled in and next up for us was Ruby Jane. She’s 19, she’s toured with Willie Nelson. That’s WILLIE NELSON. And she’s a fiddle-playing prodigy. Her voice is innocent and sweet, yet mature and experienced. In between her guitarist busting out an incredible scat singing-filled solo and an insane cover of Alt-J, Ruby Jane and her young band delivered a truly impressive set.

After Ruby Jane we took a little break, got some food, sat down and just people watched, which is one of my favorite past times, especially with the eclectic groups surrounding us. Then we headed over to see Holiday Mountain. I had listened to them a little bit in preparation for the fest and was super excited to dance to their weird and catchy sound. They were bright in sound and apparel, their lead vocalist Laura Patiño had crazy, infectious energy and electrified the whole crowd with her voice and synthesizing. At one point she came out into the crowd and jumped into one of those human sized hamster balls and it was wonderful. I overheard the lead singer of Sour Bridges say, “I never know what she’s gonna do, I love it!” Me too dude, me too.

One of the artists we had seen walking around the grounds the most was Wild Child. Their set started at 8:45 and you could immediately feel how at home they were. They fed off the crowd and played an absolutely joyful show. Their sound makes your heart flutter and your soul smile and I don’t care how cliché that sounds because it’s just the truth and as their lead vocalist Kelsey Wilson said, “never apologize, never explain.” Their lovely set ended with a little girl in the front row named Julia joining the band on stage and singing along with Kelsey during “The Tale of You & Me.” I think it’s impossible for Wild Child to play anything less than a stellar show.

The very last band we saw was Warpaint. These women are my goddesses and I fan-girled hard, sang every word, swayed my hips when they asked us to do so, and wished I could play an instrument just to be a part of their cool girl club. I would play the kazoo to be in this band. They have a sound that makes you move, close your eyes, and teleport somewhere else. During their performance of “Drive,” I shut my eyes, and I swear I could have stayed in that feeling forever. It was the perfect way to close out the weekend.

 

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Unlike every other festival I’ve attended, Utopia didn’t leave me exhausted and overwhelmed. On Sunday as we drove back to Austin and I watched the rolling hills turn into tall buildings I felt rejuvenated and relaxed. So thank you oh so very much UTOPiAfest for the escape.