Utopia Fest 2023
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 (https://qromag.com/utopia-festival-2017-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 ideration 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.
I honestly have to say that Utopiafest 2017 gave me the idea to actually ride a bike to RPR, partly for the workout and partly for an adventure I would soon never forget.
After carefully considering a “safe” route to cycle on as well as making sure I felt comfortable carrying all of my camping gear with me, I knew that riding to the festival and bikepacking would be exactly the perfect thing to do. Yes, Sutherland had yurts and tents already set up at UTOPIAfest, but I was excited about bringing my own gear. Also, I had the perfect bike that would double as a trail-worthy bike once I off-loaded my camp gear at the campsite. I just had to convince another fellow cyclist friend and music lover to come ride the 40+ miles with me to Burnet, Texas.
I didn’t have to search far. Shane, an old friend of mine, immediately agreed and was up for the adventure. Sadly, he had to work until early afternoon on Friday, thus meaning we would miss the early VIP check-in on Wednesday as well as the days of programming that Sutherland had curated for Thursday and Friday. I was not overly concerned though, seeing rain forecasted for the entire weekend. We opted to grab the train from downtown Austin, knowing it would give us a lift to Leander, Texas in about an hour. From there, the ride from Burnet thus was a mere 40 miles away. Shane and I are robust cyclists and knew we would be able to complete the ride there in about 3 hours, giving us plenty of time to set-up our camp gear and enjoy the evening bands, including Austin’s Hardproof and Night Glitter.
However, living in Texas means dealing with unpredictable weather, especially this time of year.
With the expectation of rain showers already in the back of our mind, we knew that there might be a small window of dry weather for our afternoon adventure. Luckily, we were able to escape most of the rain the first two hours of the trip once we were on our bikes, with a delightful tailwind at our backs and a colorful lightning show to delight our eyes as we inched towards the small town of Burnet. But, as bad adventure luck would go, though with a mere five miles to go until we were to town, the hail began to come down. For those of you not familiar with hail, it really hurts to get hit by it. Factor in the fact that the pieces of ice began to fall faster, harder and larger and we found ourselves clinging to the underside of a stranger’s tree for shelter as the storm completely opened up and the flash flooding began.
After about 30 minutes or so of being pelted with hail, we made the decision to try to head into town and seek better shelter as well as get a little warmer. The weather, although had lightened up, was definitely going to have something else in store for us. Hail began pelting us again and we knew we were going to be faced with some tough decisions soon. We stopped riding and seeked shelter again, knowing it was getting dark and we just needed to get to town. Both of us agreed we didn’t know if it was worth setting up camp in the cold rain. More importantly, we just wanted to get warm and dry.
After riding into town, through several low water crossings (“Turn around, don’t drown” flashed as a reminder constantly in my mind), we got to Burnet, seeking refuge and provisions from the local grocery store, HEB. Even after escaping the elements outdoors, the lightning continued to flick throughout the sky, reminding us that the storm system wasn’t quite done for the evening yet. Realizing we still had about 10 miles to ride in the now pitch-black evening with excess water on the roads, we knew we had no other choice than to try to find a place to stay in town. We tried all four options and finally found the last room available in a chain hotel a mere 2 miles down the road. Best of all, there was a Sonic next door so our dinner was decided for us.
After drying out and warming up, as well as hanging with some of the friendly locals, we knew we needed to get rest in order to complete our journey first thing in the morning. Of course, easier said than done! However, the last 10 miles to UTOPIAfest the next morning, fueled by copious amounts of hotel coffee, were uneventful and more importantly, dry.
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 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 TUAK then took over on the opposite stage, fielding arguably the largest audience all day. TUAK’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. TUAK 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 Uptopa, 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.
Austin Flamingo Festival 2020
Back around 1987, or the same time SXSW actually became “a thing,” there was something a lot cooler and weirder happening off 360 and 2222 here in Austin. I remember being a small child (age check!) and my parents taking 360 as the long way from our small town north of Austin to the then Mueller Airport where we would pick up our grandmother or other family members who came to visit us in Texas. Literally it was love as first sight as I saw my first flocking and then the subsequent flockings that occurred often in that area—I would beg my parents to take me just to see the flamingos. It’s not a year-round thing anymore, and the city of Westlake tried to get rid of them for good at one point and it ALSO made National news, but every once in a while the birds make an appearance around town and I instantly remember the moment I fell in love with Austin; no one/no event/no change in this world will ever take away that first love ❤️
Austin Free Week 2020
Nothing is better than starting the year off listening to your friends play live music at your favorite music venues in town. Here are a few captures from two nights out at at Mohawk on 1/2/2020 and Barracuda on 1/4/2020! All captured with an 85/1.8 lens!
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for access to high-res images or for me to remove your image. Tag @jealexphoto & jealexphoto.com on all the socials if you share and please do not remove the watermark; all images are resized for web use already. XO
Troublemaker’s Big Trouble IV, 2019
When you have a group of friends that love to throw epic bike parties, you have to document the magic that happens at least once. It’s really hard to explain what is going on, but I’m pretty sure after looking through all this chaos, you will get the idea. Please email me at email@example.com for high-res images or for me to remove your image. Tag @jealexphoto & jealexphoto.com on all the socials if you share and please do not remove the watermark; all images are resized for web use already. XO
Oh, and for you camera nerds, all effects in the photos below are done with my off camera flash, so I shot everything you see…there was no photoshop here friends ❤
A little known fact about me is that I used to race bikes. A lot. Road bikes, triathlons, street fixed gear races known as “alleykats…” Alleykats are the illegal-ish street races that occur all over the World. There is definitely a danger factor but moreso, they are just plain fun! Here are a few photos from the last alleykat here in Austin!