For the 10th anniversary of Utopia Fest, organizers managed to pull off something magical: They made it seem like the first year all over again.
Named not because of any illusions about perfection but rather because it was held in the Southern Hill Country community of Utopia, the festival this year has moved north (and a little east) to a new location near the town of Burnet. That's a lot closer to Austin: What formerly was a three-hour drive from here now is about an hour.
Festival representatives said their surveys showed that the majority of attendees were coming from the Austin area despite the distance, so the move would seem to give them a chance at bringing out more people. Utopia's niche has been as a smaller event of about 3,000 attendees that draws quite a few repeat customers each year. The aim with the new, larger site is to perhaps double the size of that crowd.
A change of date might also work in Utopia Fest's favor. In the past it has been held around, or sometimes even on the same weekend as, the Austin City Limits Music Festival; the assumption was that Utopia-goers were seeking an ACL alternative. The first weekend of November, however, offers little direct competition, taking up a window that was once occupied by Fun Fun Fun Fest and its short-lived successor, Sound on Sound Fest.
Having two top Americana acts on the bill for Friday might help as well. Austin's Patty Griffin is a major draw in her home base, capable of selling out ACL Live. And Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real are riding a wave of momentum that began with the release of last year's acclaimed self-titled album and continued with a taping of the "Austin City Limits" TV show this past summer.
Now Nelson is in the headlines again for a move that could find him following in his father Willie's footsteps once again — parlaying music into a movie career. Nelson has only a small part in the new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga big-name remake of "A Star Is Born" — naturally, as a band member, along with his Promise of the Real mates. But his overall role was more integral.
Cooper has credited Nelson with coaching him on playing guitar and performing. He was brought on board as a consultant for the film after Cooper saw Nelson play with his father at the 2016 Desert Trip festival in Southern California.
Soon that role grew into not only the onscreen appearance but significant involvement in the movie's music as well. Nelson has a producer credit on the album's soundtrack, and he co-wrote songs with both Cooper and Gaga, who has a backing-vocal cameo on last year's Promise of the Real album.
Nelson and his band play at 8 p.m. Friday at Utopia Fest, followed by Griffin at 9 p.m. (with Rubblebucket and the Big Ol' Nasty Getdown following for festgoers staying late or camping on-site). Utopia presents music on two stages but with no overlap, so there's no need to choose between options like at larger events such as ACL Fest.
Some significant draws might bring out crowds earlier Friday as well. College faves Wild Child, one of Austin's hottest indie bands of the past few years, plays at 6:30 p.m., followed by Petty Grass, a teaming of singer-songwriter Keller Williams with Kansas City band the HillBenders for a set of Tom Petty songs played in a bluegrass style. Other Friday highlights include upstate New York punk-pop duo Diet Cig at 3:30 p.m. and several more local acts: folk-rockers the Deer at 5:45 p.m., electro-groove group Trouble in the Streets at 4:15 p.m. and pop duo Dawn & Hawkes at 1:30 p.m.
Saturday's lineup ranges all over the map stylistically. Northern California instrumental electronic collective STS9 caps things off with an 11 p.m. set following Medeski's Mad Skillet, the latest project of keyboardist John Medeski from prominent jam band Medeski Martin & Wood. Tennessee's Valerie June, an impressively eclectic Americana rising star, plays at 8 p.m., and several more Austin acts also get in on the action, including indie-pop ravers Calliope Musicals (9 p.m.), soulful horn-driven outfit Hard Proof (6:30 p.m.) and the worldly funk/blues group Kalu & the Electric Joint (3:30 p.m.). Oh, and there's another Nelson, too: Lukas's younger brother, Micah Nelson, plays with his band Particle Kid at 4:15 p.m.
A Thursday-evening pre-party for early arrivers features rap pioneer Grandmaster Flash in the 9 p.m. headline slot. And campers can take in more music on a late-night stage, with additional sets from festival acts after midnight all three nights (including the HillBenders on Thursday, Wild Child on Friday and Hikes on Saturday).