Levitation 2015: a sonic immersion
By Joel Aguilar
“The psychedelic experience, it can be argued, does not necessarily mean a drug experience. ‘Psychedelic’, of course, comes from the ancient Greek words ‘psuche’ and ‘delos’, which come together as ‘mind manifestation’, while ‘delos’ can also be interpreted as ‘clarity’ or ‘visibility’. Either way, the etymology suggests no particular implication that substances are required for the psychedelic experience, and indeed things like meditation, yoga, tantric sex, forms of therapy and music can constitute this for some people.” Taken from the interview between Barnaby Smith and Dr. Ben Sessa in The Quietus (http://thequietus.com/articles/18075-breaking-convention-ben-sessa-interview)
Formerly known as Austin Psych Fest, Levitation Austin (look for its Paris, Chicago and Vancouver editions, and hopefully more in the near future) is one of the most important and authentic festivals regarding psychedelic culture, with all the diversity the term psychedelic can refer to.
Arriving at Austin for the first time one can see there’s a lot of green around, a lot of humidity and therefore very high temperatures. Levitation may not be the biggest festival in the world, but it’s well known among locals. At least that’s what I assume, given the officer at customs asking, “are you going to the ranch. Not surprising, given that Carson Creek Ranch has been host to the festival since 2013.
So on to the fest. First day starts on the shuttle that goes from downtown to the ranch. There’s traffic and it’s raining, and the first concern appears, “shit will I make it to White Manna?” They play at 4:15 p.m. and are the second band scheduled to play. At the ranch there’s a long line to enter and although rain has stopped, mud is everywhere. No music is heard, apparently there was a brief pause because of some lightning and the rain itself, which could be dangerous for both the bands playing and the crowd. At last we make it through security and cross the main entrance line, but White Manna has already played. We have some time to move around the site, as the next band to watch in my schedule is The Holydrug Couple.
Shopping begins, posters of past and current editions of the festival with incredible designs, and shirts, are our targets. The next stop is for beer. Unfortunately there is only one option, Dos Equis and some shit cider drink. Maybe it has to do with sponsors and contractual limitations, but it would be nice to have two or three options for drinks, seeing as we’ll be stuck here for three days. Maybe they have a better selection in the VIP area. The food stands, however, are various and good, including a place that sells agua frescas, and a funny guy standing in an open and muddy area selling much-needed popsicles. It stopped raining since we got in, but one has to be very careful walking around, especially if you didn’t bring rain boots or high footwear. There’s another area for vendors, which includes clothing, jewelry, arts & crafts, and plants - most from local artists.
As we continue exploring the site we encounter the first big disappointment. The Elevation Amphitheatre has been moved from the banks of the Colorado River to higher ground as the river has grown with the rain that poured in previous days. The Holydrug Couple delivers a set of pure psychedelic melodies. Offerings include nice renditions of cuts from their most recent album Moonlust (2015), which at this point in their career could be their “pop” record in the best way possible. Then it’s on to the Levitation Tent, where Survive have already begun their set. Four guys with keyboards and synthesizers delivering dark and hypnotic sounds that fit perfectly with the stage adorned with a lot of analog televisions projecting nothing in particular, and well combined with the projections that not only attack the stage but the tent ceilings and beyond. High praise goes to all the people doing visuals during the performances.
Holy Wave is our next target and there seems to be some anticipation for their set as people start gathering around the Amphitheatre. Part of RVRB Records roster Holy Wave seem to be local favorites and live up to expectations with another fine set that combines songs from their two LP’s, Evil Hits (2013) and Relax (2014). These guys know this place and the audience well and their straight rock and roll with a lot of 60’s vibes is perfect for the afternoon as the sun starts setting down. After that, we try to reach the Reverberation Stage to catch Diiv, but fail to do so as the crowd grows bigger. It’s dark now, and you have to be careful where you step. We decide to watch at a distance and after some time go to rest under a tree.
The tent is the perfect setting for Lightning Bolt who draw a packed front audience in a hot and sweaty spot, ready for the first true LOUD set of the weekend. We enjoy around 30 minutes of their quick and visceral noise which includes tracks from their recent and amazing album Fantasy Empire (2015). After leaving the tent we go to the middle ground between the other two stages and catch the start of Spiritualized, which, as always, is awesome. Then it’s back to the Amphitheatre where The Soft Moon are next. Probably one of my favorite sets of the weekend, they cut through recent material from their Deeper (2015) album and some good old favorites. The rhythm section follows perfectly Luis Vasquez’s schizophrenic howls drenched in reverb and echo, and sucks us all into dark territory. Through their set, Vasquez occasionally pounds a trash can and nothing could fit more to their sound. This is a perfect and apocalyptic way to end the Elevation Amphitheatre’s first day. Two bands left and it’s time for the first headliner, Tame Impala who at this point know perfectly well how to do it at music festivals. Starting with new album track Let It Happen, one can only enjoy how frontman Kevin Parker has risked and pushed forward his sound, into more mainstream territory, perhaps, but in a very elegant and satisfying way. Their live sound has also improved and it’s great to hear different versions of their songs in this setting. After their set there’s one band left at the tent but we decide to skip METZ (having seen them just two months before) and remember their glorious and furious noise attack as we make it to the exit.
Day two starts with an afternoon set from Costa Rica’s Las Robertas at the main stage, and it’s a fun way to welcome us again at the ranch with pure garage rock and nice female vocal melodies. Today the sun has come up and looks hungry to share its sweat with all of us. Next are Night Beats on the same stage and they do it well with a fine mix of soulful rock, which reminds me a lot of The Black Lips and The Growlers, two other bands that have played here before. We decide to leave their set before it ends to catch some rest at the same spot under the tree, and there you can see some of the weird Austin walking in all directions. It’s not your typical Coachella kind of festival where you’ll see nice blonde girls with their pretty flower crowns and bright dresses (though they are here too), or EDM lookalikes with neon tubes, ridiculous skirts and colorful bodypaint. Here there’s everything: the guy dressed as a vagina, the dark angels, the punk texans (nice boots all around man), the cowboys and girls, the ones with indigenous clothes, the more hipster average crowd, the pure psychedelic seniors who look tired but happy and proud of still being able to show this generations that music endures and that yeah, Austin is the live music capital of the world.
The sun has set now and before we know it there’s live music coming from the main stage. Thee Oh Sees are scheduled to play at 9 p.m., but they appear early. We get up and run to the stage to witness a fast and furious set from one of the titans of current garage rock. John Dwyer and co., including dual drummers, make the audience start jumping and moshing at the front of the stage. It’s pure madness and joyful cheers for this band that has evolved and changed and still keeps putting out excellent music year after year. An hour seems like it lasted five minutes, and we’re off to catch a breath and a beer and come back to get a good spot for the next band.
Some minutes after 10:30 p.m., Primal Scream takes the stage with much anticipation from the crowd. They were set to play last year but couldn’t make it, and we as first timers at Levitation are thankful that they appeared on this year’s lineup. After some sound issues, not a unique problem at this festival, Bobby Gillespie and his band give another rocking set with classic cuts from Screamadelica (1991) and XTRMNTR (2000). This gives way to another classic British band, The Jesus & Mary Chain. But before the Reid brothers take the main stage, there’s something serious going on in the tent. HEALTH have begun their attack of pummeling drumming and sharp noises, playing some new songs from their forthcoming album Death Magic, as well as songs from their two previous albums. We don’t stick around until the end of the set, heading back to the main stage to witness The Jesus & Mary Chain play their classic album Psychocandy (1985) in full. Although at this point we are not at the top of our game, we enjoy the loud reverb that comes through the speakers, sitting at the back and still not realizing that this is the first and probably the last time we will hear these songs played live. Another good day of music at Austin.
It is the last day of the fest, it’s Sunday and it’s hot and there we arrive, earlier than the past two days, we stand at the tent to see British band Mugstar. We are fortunate to be in the small but appreciative audience that catches this loud mix of kraut -post-rock with a great drummer and overall great sound for a band that I hope gets more recognition soon enough. After that we get time to walk around again, sit by the river, and enjoy the few cool spots away from the sun.
There is a feeling that more people are gathering in the ranch than previous days. Today is the closing of the festival and without a doubt the most anticipated performance of the weekend is The 13th Floor Elevators performing for their 50th anniversary reunion. At 7 p.m., Mac DeMarco walks on the main stage and this is the second disappointment of the festival. I couldn’t hear his guitar very well, or maybe it was that he was playing so shitty that I couldn’t enjoy the set, but after some fifteen minutes we decide to leave and catch part of Eternal Tapestry’s performance, a band that can really be defined as pure psychedelic. After feeling like we only heard one fifteen minute song, and probably it was and it was really good, we approach the tent and get a cool spot for Nothing, a band that could be described as punk or post-hardcore, but not psychedelic, and that’s what’s beautiful about this fest: the term psych is open to interpretation and to me refers more to a mental state induced by the music and not a far-out cosmic experience provoked by some substance or ritual or whatever. If it got you moving, screaming, jumping, closing your eyes and letting go, then it could have been psychedelic, and in those terms, Nothing’s performance was very psychedelic. A great set of songs from last year excellent album Guilty of Everything (2014). After another sweaty and loud performance it’s on to catch a brief part of The Black Angels, and as always they show us why they started this festival and why they are the leaders of the new psychedelic movement, if not in America, then certainly in Texas. We switch from the main stage to the Amphitheatre to catch Föllakzoid from Chile. Straight descendants from the German kraut scene, they are aptly put on this stage at night. We can only stay still and enjoy their dark and ritualistic sonic delivery, moved by constant and revolving drums, deep bass and atmospheric electronics that are fed by precise guitar lines. We end watching their set sitting in the grass only moving our heads, approving of the performance, “gracias.” By this time the crowd has extended a lot around the main stage, and now you can see the 13th Floor Elevators fans, old and new, all happy and prepared for the occasion. So they take the stage and there they are, arguably the first pure psychedelic band, all surviving members going at it, of course it’s not the sixties, there’s not the audacity and energy of the band from back then, but they play well and please the audience with songs from their most acclaimed albums, The Psychedelics Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators (1966) and Easter Everywhere (1967).
After the set it’s time to go back to the tent where A Place to Bury Strangers gives the most loud and incendiary performance of the fest. Guitars fly onstage, strobe lights are on constant flux, and it feels like a madhouse. Then the stage is empty and the band has decided to finish their set in the middle of the audience, in a close circle and in abrupt form. We all wish it was a longer set but as everybody is soaked in sweat and impressed, maybe it was just right. We opt to go to the tree again and skip The Flaming Lips closing the main stage to get a quick nap before the final band playing at Levitation, Fuzz.
It’s 1 a.m. Monday, and the tent is almost packed. The second loudest performance of the fest, Fuzz rips through with a perfect delivery of classic and stoner hard rock. Fronted by Ty Segall, this band knows their game and doesn’t waste a minute on it, giving it all as the roaring crowd does the same, jumping and screaming as if it was the last concert on earth. Undoubtedly the best way to close one of the best music festivals in the world.
So where’s the psychedelic experience? We didn’t drop acid and have an orgy, kill a cow and perform an ancient ritual, or make collective meditation on the banks of the Colorado River, Instead we witnessed excellent live performances in a cool setting, around cool and respectful people, in a well organized way (despite unforeseen circumstances like weather), and saw how festival organizers The Reverberation Appreciation Society care a lot for the bands, the audience, the food, and the arts vendors. Being able to digest all that despite the sweat and the exhaustion, one can sense that there was a mind alteration after all, a psychedelic experience if you like. Here’s to more Levitation in the years to come.