Absolutely perfect weather and a strong lineup of mostly roots-based music greeted attendees at the 10th Utopia Fest but the first at a new location near Burnet, on Friday afternoon and evening as festival staff worked to guide the event through some issues of transition to the new site.
With sunny conditions and temperatures around 70 giving way to starry skies and a cool evening, festgoers took in acts ranging from headliners Patty Griffin and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the real as well as Wild Child, the Deer, Kalu & the Electric Joint and more. Across a picturesque small lake, tents full of weekend campers lined the shore, with a pathway across an earthen dam connecting the campground to the main area with the two primary music stages.
Difficulties apparently arose with the shuttle designed to take non-campers from a satellite day-parking lot to the festival. Some who were waiting for the shuttle eventually opted to make the walk down to the grounds, a trek of more than a mile. A crowded car-camping area between the box office and the main fest entrance also appeared to be a cause of concern, with fest staff on the brink of closing entry to any further RVs by late afternoon.
The issues may have resulted from a late switch in Burnet-area locations. The fest site is Reveille Peak Ranch, about 10 minutes northwest of Burnet just east of Lake Buchanan. The initial plan was to hold it at Down in the Oaks, a private property a little to the east of Reveille Peak. The change happened just a few weeks out, no doubt resulting in some scrambling for festival founder Travis Sutherland and his crew.
But once folks got settled onto the grounds, it was easy to enjoy the atmosphere and the entertainment. Stages were placed at the upper and lower ends of an incline that served as the main festival area, a modest and fairly self-contained space that made it easy to bounce from one performer to the other. The music rotated between stages but never overlapped.
A half-dozen food booths served up grilled cheese, thai noodles, vegan curry, tacos, crepes and more on the northwest end of the grounds alongside a handful of craft vendor booths. VIP ticket buyers — who paid $500 compared to around $200 for the basic music-and-camping pass — got the best deal, with access to a spacious lakeside patio and a rooftop that included a spectacular view of the hill-country setting.
Griffin — performing in an acoustic trio setup with guitarist David Pulkingham and drummer/bassist Conrad Choucroun — was captivating, and Nelson's full-on rocking set with his band was a rousing follow-up. Just past sunset, musician Keller Williams teamed with Kansas City band the HillBenders for 45 minutes of Tom Petty songs done bluegrass style. As a singer, Williams was pretty pedestrian, but the HillBenders' instrumental prowess stood out, their dobro, mandolin and banjo licks casting Petty & the Heartbreakers' classic guitar riffs in illuminating new shades.
Back-to-back sets by red-hot Austin indie-folk group Wild Child and local folk-rock-and-beyond outfit the Deer made for a great late-afternoon transition into evening. Their stage placement was a bit puzzling: Wild Child is by far the more nationally prominent band, but they played the smaller of the two stages, with a 10-piece lineup that required three horn players to stand outside the stage canopy. To their credit, they didn't seem to mind; singer Kelsey Wilson beamed early in the set that "it feels so good to be home, Utopia!"
While the music was uniformly excellent, the published schedule didn't reflect some late changes. Nelson was slated to play at 8 p.m. on the smaller Arrowhead Stage and Griffin at 9 p.m. on the larger Cypress Stage, but their set times and stage locations ended up being flipped. Earlier, a 4:15 p.m. slot for Austin group Trouble in the Streets instead featured Kalu & the Electric Joint, who were on the schedule for 3:30 p.m. Saturday. A festival representative said Trouble in the Streets would play at 5 p.m. Saturday, suggesting that Austin band Hikes (scheduled for 5 p.m.) will move into the 3:30 p.m. Saturday slot.
So how is the new site working in terms of the fest's hopes to grow its audience by moving closer to Austin? That remains to be seen. Festival organizers had said in July that they saw potential to perhaps double the usual 3,000 draw at their former site in the southern end of the Hill Country, about three hours from Austin. But Friday's draw felt far smaller than that. Crowds were reasonably healthy for every set we saw, yet loosely packed enough that if you wanted to get up close, you could. That's great for festival attendees, but perhaps a problem for a festival that needs to sell enough tickets to survive.
Sutherland's brief speech on the Arrowhead Stage between the Griffin and Nelson sets indicated that it has been a struggle. "I promise we're going to work out some of the kinks," he said, mentioning specifically the shuttle issues. He asked folks to buy festival gear, and at the merch table, discounted earlybird tickets for next year's Nov. 15-18 fest were also being sold. Sutherland concluded that "to do it right, we've got to have resources."
A word to the wise, for Saturday or future fests: Although coming from South Austin offers the option of taking Highways 71 and 281 to Burnet, the headache of traffic that is Marble Falls almost certainly makes the more direct North Austin route via Highways 183 and 29 a better way to get to the festival.