Curating a music festival can be challenging. Festival organizers have their wish list of acts, a list of available bands and in the case of Utopiafest, a modest budget compared to Austin City Limits Festival or even the mid-sized Fun Fun Fun Fest to work with. The event is a limited attendance music festival held at a 1000 acre private ranch about 90 minutes southwest of San Antonio. Festival founder Travis Sutherland and his partner Aaron Brown doubled down on Leftover Salmon this past weekend, booking the popular Colorado hybrid bluegrass band to headline the first two evenings of the event and the result was a big win.
Technically the first night was a separately ticketed pre-party from the festival. That did not stop hoards of fans from arriving in droves for the kick-off show. Staffers told Examiner there was a sizeable line of cars and RVs nearly two hours before the gates officially opened. Austin hip-hop collective Sip Sip got the party started with an energetic set from all 18 players on the main Arrowhead stage. A fan let us know Sip Sip was his favorite of the evening. Synth-pop band Sphinx followed before Leftover Salmon kicked off their 90-minute performance.
Touring in support of their latest album High Country featuring their newest member, keyboardist Bill Payne (Little Feat) Leftover Salmon is hitting on all cylinders following a lengthy hiatus from 2002-2007. The band we label “bluegrass on acid” played several tunes from their new material which hit stores on Black Friday (November 28) of last year. The band included one of our old favorites, River Rising in the setlist.
As good as their electric set was, the impromptu acoustic jam session that took place backstage around 1 a.m. Friday was spellbinding. Vince Herman was first to take a seat outside the artist tent with his acoustic guitar. Drew Emmett took his place with a mandolin in hand as did a gentleman named Jessie with a stand-up bass. Banjo player Andy Thorn rounded out the foursome.
The group played old-timey covers, a few Leftover Salmon songs and raft of old folk standards written by Woody Guthrie, Dylan and even some outlaw country tunes by the likes of Waylon and Willie.
The group encouraged an inebriated young lady to join them in singing folk song towards the end of the set which included a short 15 minute break. After the break, regular bassist, Greg Garrison took over on the stand-up and the band played for almost another hour for a the 40 or so fans present. They stopped playing around 3 a.m. when a Utopiafest staffer told them the backstage area was being shut down for the night. The intimate performance was a magical moment in time that will not be forgotten by those lucky few who witnessed it.
Check this free live download celebrating 20 years of live performances by Leftover Salmon with some songs featuring former banjo player Mark Vann who passed away from complications due to cancerous melanoma in 2002 prompting the aforementioned hiatus that was originally a break-up.
The band returned Saturday evening for another headlining set, this one on the Cypress Stage at the opposite end of the festival grounds from the previous night’s show. The highlight was precocious Austin fiddle player Ruby Jane being invited to join the band for a couple songs including a Townes Van Zandt cover.
Ruby Jane has been playing from a young age. Though she relocated in Austin in 2007 from Mississippi after winning a fiddle award, she is still about a month away from reaching the legal age to consume alcohol. Her blazing fiddle playing fit perfectly with the frantic pace Leftover Salmon maintain on stage.
Look for more coverage of Utopiafest VII here later this week. We will have photos and recaps of Charles Bradley, Explosions in the Sky, Shakey Graves’ surprise set Sunday and more.