Be forewarned, gentle citizens of Austin: The road to Sherwood Forest Faire lacks ardor or peril, yet the journey might be lengthy. But take heart, brave traveler, for the rewards of venturing forth to the inaugural Sound on Sound Fest, which commences Friday and runs all weekend, could be grand indeed.
The festival takes place at a Renaissance festival village in McDade, located roughly an hour outside of Austin. It landed in the forest after Graham Williams left Fun Fun Fun Fest, the downtown festival he founded over a decade ago, during a shakeup with partner Stratus Properties that led to his departure from promotion company Transmission Entertainment and the birth of Williams’ new company, Margin Walker Presents. SOS Fest is produced in partnership with several other key FFF Fest players, including Johnny Sarkis and Max Gregor.
The setting plays to the strengths of Williams’ team: unbridled whimsy and an enthusiastic embrace of the absurd.
“I had no idea this was here. Otherwise, I feel like we would have done something here years ago,” fest booker Williams said when we met at the Faire last week.
Walking onto the festival grounds near the main entrance, the first thing you’ll encounter is the big stage, where headliners Beach House, Run the Jewels, Phantogram, Purity Ring and Explosions In the Sky will perform. The stage is called the Dragon’s Lair, and around its facade curls a massive, ornately designed dragon, custom-built for the event. Facing out into an open field that is usually part of the Sherwood Forest parking lot, this the only part of the space that has a conventional festival feel.
The rest of the event is built into an expansive medieval village in a shady grove. It was lovingly constructed by a group of Central Texas Renaissance enthusiasts with a passion for Olde English culture, wooden stockades, rotten tomato tosses, turkey leg banquets and all.
“One of the reasons we love this space so much is there’s so much infrastructure already here,” SOS Fest marketing director Ian Orth said. “We really worked very closely with Sherwood to make sure we could use as many of the actual buildings as possible.”
Festival vendors will take over many of the old-timey stalls and shops (shoppes?) scattered across the grounds. As punk bands such as the Descendents play on the Forest stage and indie rockers including Girls Against Boys perform on the Keep stage near a replica castle, the Fat Friar will serve the same turkey legs he provides to Ren Festers.
Meanwhile, Maid Marian, Robin Hood and minstrels toting lutes and lyres will roam the forest. A skate ramp will occupy part of the festival’s jousting arena, but SOS has also brought in a team of Mini-Moto bikers who will joust with hot dogs provided by Frank.
The grounds also include about 10 small stages, and the festival will provide entertainment on some of them. A “Come and Tyke It” kids stage will be set up in one space, and rotten tomatoes will be tossed at another, but the unprogrammed areas will provide ample seating and hideaways for festgoers looking to take a break from the action.
Sherwood Forest Faire also features a massive campground, with on-site camping available and encouraged. Most of the sites are primitive camping, but SOS Fest organizers are adding more showers and bathrooms to the campground. There will also be a general store and a 24-hour diner, as well as sober, quiet and family zones. Late-night programming in the campground includes a Dungeon Disco, a comedy club, and film screenings including “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and “Monty Python & the Holy Grail.”
If you do decide to camp, be aware that the campground is not in an open field. “You are in the forest,” said Orth. “It really feels immersive.”
It also feels very buggy, and the terrain is somewhat rough, with loads of burrs and stickers. Insect repellent and sensible shoes are essential, and long pants might be advisable even if you’re not camping.
Transportation is the big logistical challenge for this festival. Gate time is 1 p.m. daily, and SOS is running shuttles from the Mohawk on Red River Street starting at noon each day. The festival has chartered five shuttles — organizers said more will be added as needed — with departures scheduled every half-hour. Shuttle tickets can be purchased in advance online ($5 daily, $10 for 3-day) or at the Mohawk for $10 daily. (UPDATE: The shuttle passes are now sold out.)
Onsite parking is also available for $15 daily or $30 for the weekend (if purchased in advance). Parking is included with a camping pass. Whether you drive or take the shuttle, be aware there is only one dirt and gravel road, a little more than a half-mile long, leading to Sherwood Forest off Highway 290 (with a separate entrance for campers). We recommend planning to leave Austin at least two hours before the first act you want to see.
If the transportation feels daunting, the payoff is the opportunity to escape your everyday life into a bizarro otherworld where a Renaissance aesthetic and bad British accents will collide with well curated, cutting-edge music.
“You take something like Fun Fun or ACL or South-by, you’re selling a weekend in Austin,” Williams said. “That’s really what the experience is supposed to be. Come to Austin and there’s a really cool festival. For us, it’s like, take the weekend away from Austin.”
“You would spend the weekend going to Wimberley, or you would spend your weekend going to Fredricksburg to go camping,” said Orth. “Why not spend your weekend with us at the festival?”
If you go: SOS Fest
Sound on Sound Fest presents bands on three stages, plus a fourth stage that hosts comedy, panel discussions and live podcasts including a lecture and film screening from the Russian activist punk group Pussy Riot.
When: Friday-Sunday. Gates at 1 p.m. Last shuttle leaves the festival grounds at 1:45 a.m. daily.
Where: Sherwood Forest Faire. 1883 Old Hwy 20, McDade.
Cost: $85 daily, $169 3-day. Camping pass $75. Kids under 10 are free. Shuttle tickets $5-$10. Parking $15-$30.