In the heart of Texas, nearly two decades ago, Travis Sutherland had a vision to bring a different festival experience to music fans accustomed to loud, over-stimulating and often-times overly expensive events. Taking into account what he found was missing at festivals he attended, Sutherland created a manifesto that ultimately became the backbone of what UTOPIAfest would be built upon:
We believe an ideal music festival should be experience-centered. One set in beautiful, natural surroundings where the positive energy from the land is palpable. A place where you find and meet more friends than strangers. We think it should be more meaningful than just watching a show. It should be a place where individuals and communities grow and learn. Participants should feel free to be and express their truest selves, and contribute to the experience. They should be able to be in front of the stage, or have plenty of room to dance. They should be able to see the stage from camp, or be isolated from the crowd. Camping and parking should be free. We see fences getting in the way of a good time. There should be no music overlap – music bleed or hard choices between bands. There should be performances where the whole audience is absolutely attentive, engaged, and phoneless. At such a fest you can play a round of disc golf, attend a workshop or yoga class, or go on a bike ride before you see the first set. The experience should be accessible to all ages, and enjoyed with your whole family. You should never have to feel crowded or wait unreasonably long in a line. We believe you should be able to bring your own beer and cook your own food. We believe a music festival should be seamless, effortless, and timeless.
Utilizing this manifesto, Sutherland eyed on a large plot of land that his family owned in aptly-named Utopia, Texas and thus in 2008, the first UTOPIAfest came into existence. I actually attended and photographed my first UTOPIAfest in 2017 on behalf of QRO Magazine (QRO recap) with open eyes and an open heart. Not exactly understanding what to expect, UTOPIAfest set the tone and hit the mark for everything I wanted when I attended a festival: affordable, low-key and lots of options to do just about anything – not just listen to music.
The 2017 iteration of UTOPIAfest was sadly deemed the final year of the festival at the private family ranch Sutherland had cultivated just south of San Antonio in Utopia, Texas at Four Sisters Ranch. The following year, the festival moved to its new home in Burnet, Texas, Reveille Peak Ranch (RPR). Since developing into a new mountain biker since the last UTOPIAfest in 2017, partly due to the partnership that UTOPIAfest had with REI to provide no-charge bicycle demos to festival goers, I am no stranger to RPR. In fact, I had been to RPR earlier this year to help facilitate a new mountain bike clinic with a group of women cyclists.
(Author note: I wasn’t able to attend Thursday or Friday UTOPIAfest this year, which would be my biggest regret of the weekend).
Due to the huge storms that blew through the area Friday night, all programming for that evening had been cancelled. However, an entire final day and night of programming was still available to all festival goers Saturday. Immediately after check-in, I was fully immersed and able to take in the sights and sounds of the slightly storm-weathered festival, including a rousing early performance by San Antonio Pipes & Drums, a long mainstay of the UTOPIAfest experience.
There were several two- and three-piece acts that went on during the daytime that I wasn’t super familiar with, but knowing Sutherland had curated bands he truly loved as well as previous UTOPIAfest acts, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. I really enjoyed the two-stage format with no overlapping bands, meaning I could watch every performance (as well as) hear them clearly. This is always a highlight of ANY festival for me: getting to enjoy ALL of the music.
As the spring daytime lingered into evening, a few acts I am familiar with took the stage, including Austin’s The Black And White Years. I am a long-time fan of this high-energy act who admitted that they hadn’t performed live since 2019! Their constant disco-fueled set had everyone in attendance ready to dance away the rest of the evening. New York’s TAUK then took over on the opposite stage, fielding arguably the largest audience all day. TAUK’s instrumental-only fusion style felt right at home at UTOPIAfest; Sutherland had introduced the band as one that he had always wanted to book to play UTOPIAfest but had never been able to attend until now. TAUK backed up Sutherland, admitting it felt good to be in Texas and they would be back to Texas in the fall, just as fireworks set off in the distance overhead.
UTOPIAfest, like all unique festival experiences, is best experienced in person; it easily blurs the line between hippie and burner culture and fanatical, dedicated music fans. Everywhere you turn at the fest, you might find barefoot children bouncing about whilst geared-out mountain bikers weave slowly around them. At another turn, you might see a couple walking out of the meditation tent or a group heading towards the yoga domes, ready to get their day started. If yoga, mountain biking and meditation aren’t your style, there is a disc golf course available, horseback riding, nature walks on-the-hour and even a Saturday evening bonfire, complete with fearless fire dancers.
The best part of UTOPIAfest, whether the festival is at Reveille Peak Ranch in Burnet OR Four Sisters Ranch in Utopia, is the natural surroundings of the outdoor environment in which you are fully immersed in. Although a DIY-ethos festival such UTOPIAfest takes a large effort and year-around planning to produce, the promise to the UTOPIA manifesto remains up front, reminding all UTOPIANs that you should dance with abandon, use common sense and above all, respect the ranch and leave no trace.
Although this was the final iteration of the partnership with RPR, UTOPIAfest has spun off a few smaller, more intimate events to coincide with two upcoming natural phenomena that will both be visible from Utopia, Texas. The Four Sisters Ranch will be epicenter of the ‘Great Texas Twoclipse’, where the paths of totality for the Annular Eclipse of October 2023 and Total Eclipse of April 2024 will form an ‘X’.
The future of UTOPIAfest is unknown past these two events, but Sutherland promised all attendees that “This is just the beginning…” One thing is for sure, is that every festival should aspire to grasp what UTOPIAfest has curated so well, a utopian way and festival where people share their passion and always find themselves amongst their UTOPIA family.
-words & photos: Jessica Alexander