About halfway between San Antonio and Utopia, my nerves really started to kick in. I knew the festival would be isolated, but not like this. As a suburban Orange County boy, I'd never experienced such wide open space and small town life. Looking back on it now, those nerves were silly misconceptions on what a festival in the middle of nowhere might be.

This year was the eighth annual UTOPiAfest. It's held on a portion of the Four Sisters Ranch about 3 miles out from the town of Utopia. The town consisted of a post office, a 2-pump gas station, a hunting/hardware store, general store, café... and that's about it. Most homes were tucked away or out on their own sprawling properties. While I can take too much of your time just describing the town and people of Utopia, this piece is about the festival.

It was held over the same weekend as ACL, September 29th - October 2nd. This means that there were people, mostly Texas natives, who actively chose to attend the family-friendly UTOPiAfest rather than the bigger, badder ACL. And attendees consistently choose this festival over others - year in, year out.

The festival grounds were nestled in a manicured meadow with grove covered hills on all sides. It was an oasis. There was an area for free tent camping, an area for car camping, and an area for RVs encircling the outskirts of the grounds. On the grounds itself were a few food carts, some merch tents, the two stages (on opposite ends of the meadow) and a fun tent for children to play in. There were morning hikes, yoga, and bike rides offered to all in attendance. The weather was warm, sunny, with just enough random breezes and cloud cover to keep you sane. The grounds were the cleanest I'd ever seen. Attendees actively separated their trash and recyclables, put their cigarettes in designated containers, and picked up any litter they saw without a single hesitation.

There are two undeniable factors to why this kind of festival works. First, attendance is capped at 2,000. They sold out and from what I could tell, those 2,000 included volunteers, staff, and bands. There is no intrinsic desire to make it bigger. With 2,000 people you get to know the faces you see each day; with 2,000 people, you feel more like a community; with 2,000 people, there is a variety of folks attending while still giving you room to breathe. The second factor is that the people there truly wanted to be there.

There is little to no cell service out there, and the attendees knew this. They chose to cut themselves off from outside influences and social media to enjoy a weekend of just being. Walking onto the grounds that first evening, I was greeted with genuine smiles and conversation from staff and fellow attendees. It was more than polite, southern hospitality; there's a reason this place is called Utopia. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was looking to relax and have fun.

Now, this is a festival recap so it's high time I got to the music. If you haven't been sold by my descriptions yet, this may convince you: no clashing set times. That's right. There are two stages and only enough artists to switch back and forth between stages so you can catch each set without a worry. And because of the audience cap, there is no bad seat or area to miss a note. Even when eating in the "food forest" at the food trucks. This means I caught every single set - from the small local band to the internationally known headliner. While I admit to the corniness of saying I wish I could write on every act, I really wish I could. But this isn't the time or place. So, here are the artists and bands that stuck out to me and put on outstanding musical expressions.

Thursday (Pre-party night)

For the night of the pre-party, the band that captivated the crowd was not a formal band at all. They are called the Utopia Players. They are a group of friends who are close pals with the festival founder. They get together and jam out and had never played before a live audience before that night. And they killed it. They played covers of Talking Heads, Prince, Sublime, and everything in-between. Their harmonies were tight, and solos fantastic. What set it above and beyond was that this wasn't just another gig to get through for them. They have all attended UTOPiAfest before and were playing because they love to play. That joy and love was absorbed by the audience and set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

Friday (Day 1)

ATASH: The folk band has won multiple awards in the "world music" category. And their performance explains why. With a mix of samba beats, flamenco guitar riffs that melted ears, and a string section making everything anthemic, the music was organic. The music called out to the hills and the hills echoed back in praise. And while the music drew you in, it was a statement from lead singer, Mohammad Firoozi, which resonated in every heart: "Look. Look how the sun shines on the Earth. And of it, it asks nothing in return."

Ruby & The Reckless: The best way to describe the sound of these young adults is alt-country gone art-pop. There were experimental pop vibes carefully strung throughout an edgy country sound at the core. The band received a grant to record an album and based on what I heard, that money was well deserved. There were moments where I had to remind myself that these musicians didn't look a day over 21; so fresh-faced and so accomplished. The lead singer/fiddle player made sounds come out of that fiddle I'd never heard before. The drums and keys were so tight-knit and purposeful. They even covered Erika Badu.

Calliope Musicals: This band was a local and festival favorite. I don't even know how to describe their sound and that's what makes it so great. They are poppy, with psychedelic guitars, and dance grooves for days. Their performance was an immersive art showcase. They had out of this world costumes and choreographed dances and movements that neither deterred from the music nor a crutch. The visuals and audio components worked in tandem to create a surreal experience that is permanently engrained in my brain.

White Denim: I have to admit, this was a band I'd been dying to see live for many moons. And even though I built it up so much in my mind, the boys didn't disappoint. Their brand of funkified, southern psych lit a fire under the feet of all watching their set. It was mind-boggling how their songs were so tight and polished, yet were still able to be free and go off on extended jams and fills. I couldn't help but get caught up in the moment.

Victor Wooten: I'd never heard of the legendary bass player before UTOPiAfest and now I wish I'd discovered him decades ago. For those who don't know, Mr. Wooten is the patron saint of bass guitar and there is nothing you can say to change my mind. I met a nice couple, Myles and Hillary. Myles hadn't seen Victor Wooten in 2 years and when he saw the master was gracing UTOPiAfest, he knew he had to come. The bass isn't an instrument that Victor Wooten plays; the bass is an extension of himself. The sounds and rhythms coming out of those speakers were otherworldly. It was just Mr. Wooten and his drummer, who was - and I cannot stress this enough - on point. The two could read each other's minds. And yes, while much of it has to be rehearsed, there were power issues that threw them for a loop and even jamming and improvising they were in tandem the entire time. There were tempo and time signature changes that would cause even the most seasoned of musicians to fumble. In short, if I accomplish anything in my life that is half as good as the way Victor Wooten plays bass, I will consider it a smashing success.

Saturday (Day 2)

Gracie Terzian: During soundcheck, I assumed that the set would be a "standards throwback". And while Ms. Terzian and her backing band did cover some classics, there was nothing standard about them. Gracie Terzian's voice is silk and immediately transports you to a smoky club in post-WWII Brooklyn or Chicago. While there were woozy, hazy moments, the drummer was there with fills and a backbeat that would make the atomic clock green with envy. Then, there was the guitarist - a virtuoso. His fingers literally glided across the neck of his guitar. There were moments I caught myself with my jaw physically dropped. I didn't quite know how to process it.

Big Thief: They stole my heart. You've probably heard Big Thief's name thrown around. Their debut LP, Masterpiece, was released this year to critical acclaim. Hearing them live will only cause you to love them more. This is a band that took a variety of influences and turned it into something all their own.

Man or Astro-Man?: This hard rocking group blasted the eardrums off of everyone in the best way. Sonically, the band brought a heaviness that was missing from many of the other acts at the fest. Performance wise, they have their shtick and it works; man it works. The bass player/frontman wore an orange astronaut jumpsuit and embedded an iPad into his bass for samples and replacing pedals. He spoke constantly about the "Chinese space program", riffing on a satire of conspiracy theorists. It was hard to tell if the band or the audience was dancing and rocking out harder. The frontman gave a pair of goggles to a small child at the foot of the stage. He ran around the crowd posing for pictures. At one point, he had a Theremin battle onstage. An all-around outrageously awesome performance.

Ratatat: Closing out the festival was Ratatat with an almost two hour set of in-your-face, danceable music. There were lasers, backing video screen, and insane guitar solos. It was impossible to not to find a smiling face in the crowd dancing and cheering along. In all honesty, most people were shocked that Ratatat played a small festival like UTOPiAfest. In fact, it is the only festival they will play all year. The duo have been relatively quiet, so for them to come out and give an ace performance to this crowd, instead of settling for an early evening timeslot at one of those goliath festivals, says a lot about their character. They didn't hold back and even played an encore.

In Conclusion

With a comparatively smaller attendance, it was uplifting to see band members roaming the grounds for both days. They mingled with attendees and no one stalked or pestered them. Everyone, for one weekend, was able to be themselves and enjoy some solid tunes and a relaxing time.

My biggest regret is that I didn't camp out. I didn't know what to expect and worrying about my camera equipment, I took a bit of a stay-cation and stayed at a B&B a minute up the road. And while I was grateful for a warm bed, private restroom, and an incredible home cooked breakfast each morning, I understand that camping and communing is part of the experience. Due to having to drive after spending 14 hours on the grounds, I missed out on the late night silent disco sessions and a slightly off-site area called 'Tank Good Times'. There, bands who played on stage sat around with attendees and played intimate acoustic sets.

UTOPiAfest gave me faith in concerts and festivals again. Anytime anyone acted "dystopian", they were called out; no one that I saw was put on blast, but people politely explained that certain behavior would not be tolerated - this was a good time for all. The people who attend UTOPiAfest and the amazing staff who run it want this. There are no major corporate sponsors. It's not about filling up the roster with the biggest names and seeing how many people you can cram into an area to increase your profit margin. This festival is about people. This festival has left a permanent mark on my outlook when it comes to how humans can be in a society. And for that, I am forever grateful.