The sky itself could not stop Levitation. In it’s 9th year of existence, Levitation festival takes place in the world live music capitol of Austin, Texas. The municipality of Travis County felt compelled to cancel outright the festival permit at Carson Creek Ranch due to potential heavy rain and storm warnings. Although the festival was officially cancelled, psychedelic celebrations endured the unexpected via multiple hastily arranged showcases throughout the city of Austin. Instead of being dominated by feelings of failure, the psychedelic community made the best of the situation with a unique and inextinguishable, fun loving spirit. Despite many hardships, the music carried on.
Though there was much disappointment in the cancelation, most festival goers took the news by stride; thousands of psychedelic fans were determined to get their artistic fix for their weekend. Impromptu showcases in clubs like the Mohawk, Empire Garage, Barracuda and Scoot’s Historic Inn not only kept the psychedelic spirit burning but arguably brought the festival back to it’s beginnings. Levitation, formerly called Austin Psych Fest, found its origins in modest sized clubs on the city’s east side. The festival, it seems, has gone full circle without losing touch with it’s tripped out, alternative grassroots.
Thursday evening’s pre-parties, held at venue mainstays the Mohawk, Barracuda and Empire Garage were not affected by the festival cancellation; passionate and diverse bills of artists played wherever they could. Thursday night included passionate sets at the Empire Garage by ‘60s Texas rockers the Golden Dawn, Hallow Trees (featuring Black Angels lighting master Bob Mustachio of the Revelators) and an electronic set by vinyl aficionado Al Lover. Across the street, psychedelic collectives the Committee To Keep Music Evil and the Reverberation Appreciation Society each housed a showcase on the Barracuda club’s two stages. Curated by Rob Campanella of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Committee To Keep Music Evil featured a lineup of compelling artists such as the bright, wavy pop of Sugar Candy Mountain and the dynamic soul styled shoe gaze of the Veldt.
Closing off the night were the California retro-rockers Mystic Braves, whose excellent hook laden song writing which just keeps getting better and better. Bassist Tony Malacara’s “Born to Get To You” simmers over an unforgettable melody before the song descends into a twisted, Zombies-esque turnaround and then erupts in a final, savoury chorus.
Back at the Empire Garage, Ringo Death Starr blistered an inside audience with their incredible sonic attack. It was quite an evening given the burning uncertainty of what would happen for the rest of the weekend. Rumours were heard about certain artists performing at clubs but details were scarce.
Considering all of the uncertainties of the circumstance, most festival goers appeared to do okay. Many concert goers had purchased camping passes; the complete closure of the camping grounds meant that thousands of visitors in Austin were scrambling last minute to find hotel rooms, air bnb accommodations or even a campsite out of town.
Logistics were unfortunately difficult but Austin is at least a great place to get stranded. The local taco stands and record shops got a huge boost in business. Friday felt particularly uncertain given the lack of posted events; although the word eventually got out about online ticket sales, the impromptu shows, generally priced at $5 a ticket, sold out in minutes. Many fans, from near and far, were left in town without access. So it goes.
At some of the venues, the tickets were only allocated to online sales which was a tragic state of affairs for the many folks who lined up all afternoon outside to see the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Slowdive at Scoot’s Motor Inn. Concert fans were told that there would be tickets sold at the door. The situation was tragic, yet the flavour of the atmosphere was far from sour. instead of long faces, fans made the best of a bad situation and could be seen smiling and celebrating their common trials. A spirited crowd clambered up upon some heavy construction machinery in order to secure a view of the stage. While many dozens of fans were left outside the show, the venue was outdoor and the music could be clearly heard. Friendly vibes led one to wonder if it was more fun to be outside the venue; it was certainly not a atypical crowd.
The weekend’s highlights were the hastily prepared showcases all across town. Many promising bands traveled hundreds of miles to play in Austin, Texas. Why would they let a little weather stop the show? Although show details were difficult to uncover, especially for international visitors without adequate smart phone service, the clubs offered exceptional music for a donation or minimum entry. If you could get in.
San Francisco trio the Cellar Doors, instead of despairing over a cancelled set at the festival, played three engaging sets throughout the weekend starting with a Friday night performance at Hole in the Wall club on Guadalupe Ave. Their raw, clean, driving ’80s underground is a different flavour than the regular style of Texan or Californian psych.
The Mystic Braves, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Sugar Candy Mountain, the Murlocs, Fantasmes, Lake of Fire and The Creation Factory all took advantage of the chaos, performing multiple times throughout the city for no more than a five dollar entry cover. These performances were not about money as many of the musicians themselves were happily out of pocket. For an artist, an invitation to Levitation is an honorific achievement which links the band with a committed and enduring community.
The Reverberation Appreciation Society, Desert Stars Festival and a few sharp festival goers turned what should have been a total disaster into one of the most memorable and critically engaging concert experiences. 2016 was an almost lost weekend where the mainstream fans stayed home and despite numerous mounting obstacles, the show continued. Though there was disappointment, the persistent positive energy of psych fans kept the spirit running in stride.
On Saturday evening, a performance at Scott’s Outdoor Motor Inn began with a heart-felt address from some of the festival organizers. “We are the Black Angels from Austin Texas. We love you, thank you so much” sincerely spoke Alex Maas, vocalist of the Austin based five-piece group. Fans who have seen the group a dozen times before emphasized that the band were in top form, playing a setlist that spanned hits and the early composition “Doves,” from their first demo. The Black Angels have nurtured an endearing subculture that, despite an enthusiasm towards the distorted and reverberated, values transparency and respect.
One of the weekend’s most definite highlights was a quick but smartly arranged Ranch party just east of town. The transit through dark, Texas backroads was an intriguing start to a one of a kind party. After the festival cancellation, a group of friends from Los Angeles in town for the festival had the bright idea of using their spacious Air BnB rental property, just to the east of town, to host some of the displaced fans. Renting a sound-system, setting up lights, and a port-a-potty, the event had the private party structure of a private California party while maintaining the local, wild, southern psychedelic attitude. Blondi’s Salvation, The Rising Sun, Hidden Ritual, The Mad Walls, Lake of Fire, Fantasmes and the Creation Factory played with a special fiery sense.
The word “psychedelic” is holy; the weekend’s frustration fermented into elation by the time Saturday was in full swing. Many music fans had come from far and wide to have an enriching artistic experience in Austin.
Watching this free, fan-curated psychedelic show run all night was something special; the quick thinking of a group of friends turned a bachelor’s party into a culturally significant evening. Upon arriving at the ranch show, visitors were given a quick set of rules: “Don’t trip. Pay it forward.” It appears that Levitation has karma on its side. These thoughtful hosts deserve a tip of the psychedelic hat.
By Sunday, the energy of the festival had changed. It was a feeling familiar to veterans of Levitation/Austin Psych Fest, a feeling of cultural bliss as one’s musical senses hit a saturation point. Levitation has so much good music. Bombastic stoner rock titans Sleep performed a matinee performance on Sunday following a Saturday night performance. Their tremendous, grim toned bass reverberated several blocks from the Mohawk which added an erie feeling in the morning sun for those lined up for door tickets outside Club Barracuda. Apparently, Levitation will have you up all night and offer you Sleep during the day.
Sunday’s Barracuda showcase started off with some endearing Brian Wilson covers courtesy of Chris Catalina on the outside stage. Sugar Candy Mountain and Levitation Room thrilled afternoon audiences who radiated some of the best moods of the weekend. Everyone around felt fortunate to be in attendance; the quality of this most excellent, sheerly, stacked lineup could only occur with the intervention of the gods. Set between the club’s two stages, this final billing was a spread over a spectrum of psychedelic delicacies.
Perhaps the weekend’s biggest disappointment was the lack of a Brian Wilson performance, a large draw for many out of town fans, but generally there were smiles and good vibrations all around. The cancelation of Levitation, arguably the finest music festival anywhere, was a bitter pill to swallow but the sincere and concerted efforts of Rob Fitzpatrick, Transmission Events and the Reverberation Appreciation Society turned what should have been a train wreck into an unforgettable, albeit difficult, weekend of musical exploration. Many smaller, less known artists worked genius with the unfortunate festival circumstance, evening maintaining a strong standard of psychedelic excellence which demands that every band display some special trait.
Christian Bland & the Revelators, also guitarist of festival founders the Black Angels,issued a heart-felt address to the packed audience, “thank you all for coming, I am so so sorry about the weather. We will do this again next year.” Outside, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard assaulted the sonic senses of the courtyard stage for the second day in a row with the brilliantly lit colours of the Mad Alchemy Liquid Light Show. These visual pros, led by original San Fransisco professional Lance Gordon have added a special power to festivals all over California; the lighting show has become a part of the music. Mad Alchemy is even set to mesmerize the Stanley Park Bowl at next month’s Levitation Vancouver, their projections are a particular visual treat for any local hippies or ‘60s fanatic.
Austin’s psychedelic community drips with friendliness, respect and good will; the special calibre of crowd made a disaster into an unforgettable and artistically rewarding weekend. At the festival afterparty at Hotel Vegas, a packed dance floor was packed full of smiles as bands such as Lake of Fire and the Creation Factory capped off the weekend with their infectious, throwback ’66 inspired jams. The weather failed but the music didn’t. Levitation is far from grounded.