Day One: First Impressions
Two and half hours away from the Live Music Capital and at least 15 miles away from what some may call “civilization,” I settled my decade-old Korean luxury car in between the mountains, trees, and dust – in Utopia, TX. Just as I’d unpacked the first set of luggage, I saw my fellow bandmates drive through with the vehicle we (a certain 18-member group) share with Mother Falcon – a van affectionately titled, “Kill”. Walking from my car to Kill gave me a chance to drink in the atmosphere in Utopia: shirtless & dreadlocked staff setting up the stage, children screaming and running around the camper parking area, funny smells and then finally – the Raw Paw tent colony. I’d been told by KUTX’s Elizabeth McQueen that in the prior year, Utopia Fest was enjoyable other than the late night noise produced by Raw Paw…but I dismissed this as I caught sight of my musician buddies and set up my tent (using the classic rock-as-hammer Neanderthal method to push the spikes into the dried earth). I turned my phone off and dismissed the concept of time and cellular communication; either I was about to be the first victim in a rural setting horror movie or I was officially on vacation.
Once the Sippers had set up shop, we piled into Kill and set off for sound check…at the wrong stage. No matter! We piled the lot of us back in, drove around to the Arrowhead Stage and managed to finish our sound check with 15 minutes to spare before our scheduled start time.
Luckily for us, the artist tent was right around the corner and we got to enjoy some carbonated biofuel before our performance, which was to kick off the festival at Dusk. Though there were only a few people in the crowd during sound check (including a woman in very high spirits who couldn’t refrain from expressing herself with tambourine – usually not in time with the music) by the end of the first song we’d drawn a dense mass of people.
As the sun went down and dusk devolved into night, the energy from the crowd and lights funneled through the music – resulting in a lot of fun. I knew that if this was the beginning, I was in for one wild weekend. KUTX’s Taylor Wallace may not have been as enthralled…
Night One: Deflation of the Body Snatcher
With a great performance behind us, the Sippers were ready to let loose…but I still had to at least pretend to retain my journalistic integrity. I stopped by the artist tent for hydration and then showed some love for my pals in Sphynx with the rest of the crowd. This is when I began having to respond to strangers’ exclamations of “Sip Siiip” with “Sip Siiip!” like it was a “Flash”-“Thunder” countersign-password exchange. Drat! If I was going to observe these festival goers in their natural environment, I had to disappear from the spotlight for awhile. Sphynx wrapped up their deliciously retro set and as Leftover Salmon began to win over the more inebriated members of the crowd, I ducked out towards the Raw Paw campsite. During my walk across brush in the darkness, I took a nasty spill (some may thesaurize this as a bad trip) on a log that incapacitated me for about 15 minutes. The moment I felt well again, I was determined to find my Sippers. I found them, or at least I found the remnants of them…I immediately noticed something was off – my bandmates, my Sippers, weren’t drinking. None of them were even holding beer (this went directly against our mantra, logo, and band name). Instead they were huddled around a half-deflated balloon with a miniature light bulb inside.
Rather than inquire as to what was going on, instead I was privy to discussions of “Egg” – what my astute and temporarily-philosophical Sippers had named the illuminated latex entity. Egg was asked for guidance and soon one of our keyboard players had become the High Priest of Egg, the Medium responsible for channeling the balloon’s internal word. Aside from the High Priest, these people were not the same folks I’d made music with. They seemed possessed by an unseen substance – perhaps it was this Egg. I made sure to keep on the outside of the circle to avoid my fear, that I would become one of them. Outsiders occasionally walked into the circle and picked up the balloon, eliciting hasty responses of “Whoa, whoa whoa!” and “We don’t come into your church and **** all over your altar!” With Egg losing its disciples (Including the High Priest himself denouncing Egg) and rumors of a spirit-enhancing teepee at the edge of the campsite spreading throughout our circle, one of our vocalists disappeared while chuckling to himself. Now one of us had officially been abducted by Utopia – the rest of us had to try and stick together if we were to survive the night.
Egg was dead and we’d lost a vocalist to the wilderness. The stars were out and miles away from light pollution, the folks running the stage lights began to have some fun. Relying only on the sound of crickets and late-night conversations, the technicians splayed their high-powered spotlights across the star-filled night sky in varied patterns and speeds. The initial reaction by those in my immediate vicinity was that of awe, and it wasn’t long before I saw groups of hippies migrating towards the festival grounds – much like how mosquitoes cannot resist the siren light of the bug zapper. I felt a desire to follow them, knowing I’d either witness immense astonishment, disappointment, or a need to visit what I can only hope was referred to as the “freakout tent.” Instead I decided to stick it out at Raw Paw Central, which turned out to be a great decision once the stage lights coalesced on the top of the otherwise pitch black mountain. Discussions popped up – “It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark!” “No it’s like Close Encounters of the Third Kind!”
Whatever Steven Spielberg movie it reminded people of, there was an instant determination to get to that point on the mountain. Clothes disappeared and I lost half of my band to the forest. At this point I thought it may be best to just call it a night…when I was hit by a red strobe laser. No sooner than I could say “Predator” was I whisked away by a handful of band members on a dead-silent alien hunt. The way the starbeast was described was horrific, but I’d speculated that it was no more than someone with a laser pointer who’d found his calling in the wilderness. Regardless, we never did find the alien so we’ll never know for sure.
My body was tired. My mind was tired. I’d seen some stuff that night…It was time for sleep. A cool breeze swept the night, the stars were out, it should have been so pleasant. Except for the fact that hours before – Yes, I had decided to place my tent at the Raw Paw campsite. It hit me like a ton of bricks: I should’ve listened to McQueen…Though these familiar human beings had returned to their bodies (and the extraterrestrial influence had evaporated) by about 3 in the morning (keeping in mind, time was relative without a watch or cell phone), they had reverted back to their loud, drunk selves. I took a long walk around the otherwise quiet festival, sat on my car to look at the sky for a while, trudged back to the now-quiet Raw Paw camp and was instantly asleep.
Day Two: Fears of the Sun
I’d fallen asleep with the bottom of my tent unzipped and my feet sticking out. When I awoke my feet were cool. I could not say that for the rest of my body. As I debated whether or not to empty a cooler on my head, a bee invited itself into the tent. Armed with little other than a muddy, caked pair of socks, I sat in silence as the bee danced around the tent interior, each buzz reminding me that I was in fact, out in nature. After ten minutes of silent observation, the bee was dealt with (I apologize to any Buddhist, Hindu, and Jainist readers – after all, I’m only Texan), I drank a bottle of room temperature water and fell back asleep. In between states of full consciousness, I heard our vocalist return to camp, talk briefly about the madness he’d witnessed and experienced the night before, back up his bags, and leave with another vocalist. Shortly afterwards, the folks at Raw Paw began stirring and the entire camp was up within an hour. The Sippers and I regaled tales of the previous night and decided to use our divine meal tickets. None of us had managed to see that “The Sun” was on the lineup all day Saturday, and once we were within 20 feet of a bathroom, bar, and buffet, we had little desire to go anywhere but the hospitality area. Underneath a promotional Red Bull tent, large blocks of ice were passed around the circle so people could cool themselves. Once the Sippers had depleted the bar’s Bloody Mary supplies, it was a countdown until the live music started up once again.
Hours passed as the ice turned into a cocktail of water and sweat against people’s skin. Any of the prior night’s dreams of scaling the great forested mountain were squashed by the sun’s rays. An occasional breeze would sweep under the tent and it seemed like the day may eventually become cooler, but underneath a cloudless sky and a stagnant state of heat, the tent was our only sanctuary. Just when I thought about heading back to the tent, I heard something that sounded like a heavily-distorted guitar warming up. The position of the sun was pretty much my only reference for time…was music starting already? It got louder. Then I saw it. A small plane (which I speculated at the time to be a Cessna Skylane) was flying around the festival grounds and dropping…something. It got lower and lower with each pass. What the heck was that? Someone came to the Red Bull tent, their friends rejoicing in the distance. Panties. They were panties that were falling from the sky. Utopia Fest just performed an aerial Panty Drop. Someone knows how to really enjoy free time with their aviation hobby…
As if on cue, bagpipes filled the void left by the departing Cessna. It was like a swan song to the passing of decency and a reminder that – yes – you’re at an all-weekend camping music festival. Though I saw droves of people head over to the Cypress Stage for Sid Fly, the sun had us shackled only within the reaches of the Arrowhead Stage. It wasn’t until Kupira Marimba began playing that I felt my musical fancy being once again tickled (though with the tropical nature of their music, I could’ve used a steady breeze rather than blistering heat). I could see how many people were showing up for the first time – many of them wide-eyed and eager to embrace the heat. As “festival girls” scurried to the stage, one of our trumpet players was overcome by an unseen force and he left the tent to pour his hard-earned funds into merchandise – transforming him into, well, whatever this is…
The ice was still being passed well into Chipper Jones and by the time Hard Proof went on, it was finally becoming bearable to actually go out into the festival grounds. Now donning my beloved Sip Sip jersey (resulting in considerably more “Sip Siiiip” exchanges with strangers), I got caught up in conversation with Laura Patino and Zander Kagle from Holiday Mountain. I was informed at that time that I was to share the stage with Holiday Mountain that night, along with the other horn players from the Sip. Would I be playing with them? Heavens no! We were merely to appear onstage as hypemen. I met with two of our sax players, who both agreed that it would be fun to swap instruments for our onstage “performance.”
Night Two: Night of the Loving Friends
I’ve never played saxophone. The only times I’d ever held a saxophone prior to Saturday night was just out of courtesy for a fellow Sipper tying their shoe or grabbing something else. I was given a crash course on holding a saxophone and then gave what little instructions need to be given for properly holding a trumpet (put your right hand fingers on the keys, and uh…just don’t drop it). As night fell, Laura used contact lenses to transform herself into a lizardwoman and I felt like I was now ready to be part of a Holiday Mountain show.
What more can I say? Some of my best buddies and I did some ridiculous choreography and “horn-synced” a 45-minute set. Luckily, there were some other musicians actually playing music with Laura & Zander: Ruby Jane and Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson hopped up and rocked out on fiddle and vocals, respectively. By the end of the set there were about a dozen people dancing onstage, I couldn’t stop smiling, and the night truly seemed young.
After we packed up our horns and received a sling of pseudo-compliments on our “skills,” we grabbed some 24 oz bottles from the cooler (despite the “NO GLASS BOTTLES” warning displayed at the entrance) and went to drop off our gear at Raw Paw-land. Somewhere in the midst of Of Montreal, I dropped my glasses and couldn’t find them for the remainder of the night (and in my relaxed mindset, I failed to acknowledge the possibility of visiting the Lost & Found tent). I gave up after a considerable amount of searching, managing to catch the fireworks at the climax of Explosions in the Sky – resulting in some exaggerated reactions from the more ecstatic members of the audience. After some farewells and applause, the music was gone. At least for the next two hours. I reluctantly returned to the Raw Paw camp, this time totally committed to joining the conversation until I was ready to pass out. Instead I was subject to laborious acoustic covers late into the night from ear-reach of my tent: This Love, Wonderwall and yes, even It Wasn’t Me. I managed to fall asleep (only for about half an hour) when I was awakened with the desire to get the hell outta Dodge. Or at least away from the cacophony that was the Raw Paw camp. I put my (big boy) pants on left the tent.
With the exception of the late night sets from Eyelid Kid and Netherfriends (or as the poster art listed him, Netherfirends), Utopia was once again quiet. I heard The Deer from the distance – but I didn’t want to spook them with my recently-found strobe flashlight (I was careful to avoid becoming the alien for the night). After a bit of glasses-hunting backstage, it took a lot of effort to keep from falling asleep in the middle of the festival grounds. With each passing song I could feel the increasingly intoxicating embrace of the grass (that was pulsating against the late night tunes). Somehow I managed to avoid a festival stereotype of passing out during an outdoor concert and got to my feet. The majority of my trek back to Raw Paw was spent with neck craned upwards to the stars (I probably looked like a turkey in a rain storm). Much to my relief, the boisterous spirits had settled for the night and I managed to sleep until the next morning.
It was Sunday. Friday afternoon I’d told myself that I was going to stay out all three nights. I wanted nothing more than to wrap up my weekend with Charles Bradley, RJD2, and tUnEyArds. Now Sunday morning had actually come and without any deliberation I decided I couldn’t do another full day of hiding from the sun. I certainly wasn’t going to stay long enough to hear the daily bagpipes. It was already hot and most of the Sippers were packing up. Almost completely devoid of talking, I packed up the tent, loaded the car, and started the engine. If big acts were scheduled on Sunday night with the intention of weeding out “true” festival-goers, then it sure worked on me. On Labor Day I heard that Shakey Graves made a surprise appearance in the midst of the final night – but nothing could possibly compare with the experience of rinsing the weekend off with a shower and a car wash. I had left Utopia…but Utopia would not leave me.
– Jack Anderson