Live: Levitation 2019

Looking back to one fateful day in March eleven years ago, I wonder whether anyone could have imagined what that first Austin Psych Fest would lead to.

The day in question, March 8, 2008, was a day-long explosion of psych music, kicked off by Cavedweller and capped by Austin's current rulers of all things psychedelic and major force behind the nascent Austin Psych Fest, The Black Angels. The first APF also featured Spindrift, Ringo Deathstarr, and The Strange Boys, among others. Not too shabby! Now, over a decade later, Levitation (held November 7-10, 2019) is bigger and better than ever, evolving into something truly special, and in the process has grown into one of the best festivals around.

Alex Maas, The Black Angels 

   I'd waited impatiently for years to go experience the beautiful chaos for myself, and this was the year the stars aligned. Down to Austin I went, for what on paper looked like the most incredible weekend of live music I could possibly dream up - the bonus being that it wasn't a dream.

Unofficial Levitation motto? 

One of the major shifts has been in terms of curation - the festival's lineup does still trend psychedelic, but the parameters of what that constitutes/the kinds of acts that are booked has changed. Now, the bands on the Levitation stages represent all manner of sonic wizards, misfits, and shapeshifters. Hence, a lineup this year that saw everyone from the avant pop maestro Jonathan Bree to the technicolor freakouts of The Flaming Lips to legendary Velvet Underground gent John Cale to the unholy mind erasers A Place to Bury Strangers. Across the festival's four official nights, there were plenty of bands that would have played the initial iterations of APF, such as Holy Wave, Black Mountain, Night Beats, and, of course, The Black Angels.

My biggest gripe about Levitation? Not being able to clone myself in order to go see everyone I wanted to see. With so much amazing music happening at the same time, what's a girl to do?

The ubiquitous Willie Nelson

Sadly, I wasn't able to make the festival's first night - though, if I had, I would have made a beeline to see Vagabon, Devendra Banhart, and Angel Olsen at Stubb's, followed by the aforementioned Jonathan Bree at Empire. What I was able to see was three nights full of some of the best live music I've seen all year, and thinking about it now I still can't believe what I was able to see.

My Levitation started on a chilly Friday night at Stubb's, where seeing Mercury Rev made me feel 18 again, and "Holes" sent the same chills down my spine that it's done for so many years. There has always been something so majestic about that band, and despite the passing years that magic has stayed with them.

"I've never played a show the same night I've gotten a flu shot, so I don't know what's going to happen," Wayne Coyne said mischievously as his Flaming Lips started their set. Under a spooky, surreal moon, the band's confetti-coated set was as expected - wild and wonderfully over the top. 

Death Valley Girls

I spent most of Friday night at Barracuda, where I fell under the spell of Frankie & The Witch Fingers, watched Death Valley Girls run wonderfully amok, indulged in my love of BRONCHO, and take in some Crocodiles sleaze-sass to close out the night. If you're keeping score, that's six killer bands in one night, representing only a fraction of the festival's offerings. But wait, there's more.

Christian Bland + Alex Maas, The Black Angels

Saturday night began once again at Stubb's, with the spaghetti Western vibes of Federale kicking things off quite nicely. Seeing The Black Angels for the manyeth time, in their backyard, was a highlight among highlights. As amazing as they always are when I see them live, in Austin they sound somehow even better - as though they want to give their hometown their best possible performance. Their introduction for John Cale was sweet; "We're more excited than you are." Cale, for his part, was transfixing on stage. It was a pinch-me moment, as I never thought I'd get to see this particular legend in person.

Danny Lee Blackwell, Night Beats

And then it was back to Barracuda, to be up front for one of my favorite live bands of the year, Night Beats. Not even a broken guitar string could stop Danny Lee Blackwell from being one of the most engaging bandleaders around, and the band's performance was holy hellfire good. My last band of Saturday night was Beak>, across the street at Empire. The house was well and truly packed, which shows that Austin has good taste in bands. The band was feeling spiky, engaging in an exchange about fancy lighting ("if you want that go see Muse") which led to the somewhat controversial comment about Muse being "the thinking man's Radiohead." Snarky humor aside, the band sounded as dark and fantastic as I'd hoped, exactly the loud lullaby I'd been hoping for. Two nights, eleven bands.

Oliver Ackermann, A Place to Bury Strangers

As with all good things, the weekend had to come to an end eventually, and oh what an ending. I barricaded myself at Barracuda for the Death by Audio show and braced for some of the best noise of the year. Cryogeyser was up first, and the LA outfit won me over with their murky, fuzzed-out vibrations. I was knocked sideways by The KVB, the twosome's sinuously dark sonic cavorting making for some of the best moments of the weekend. And then it was time for A Place to Bury Strangers. Their set was as rib-rattling, brain-crushing, and deliciously destructive as ever, a true masterclass in unpredictable, utterly captivating performance. It really doesn't get any better.

Sunday night brought my band total to fourteen in all, and left me feeling like I'd found the last of the Wonka golden tickets. Sure, there were other bands I'd wanted to see, but what I witnessed at Levitation was above and beyond what I could possibly have hoped for.       

Dion Lunadon, A Place to Bury Strangers

Levitation takes the best of the music world's weird and brings it to the city that celebrates keeping it weird, and there's nothing like it. This isn't just a festival for the sake of being a festival. I've been to those and had fun at those, but there's something different about Levitation. These bands aren't just thrown together. There's a real concerted effort to create an experience that brings together people who are passionate about a certain kind of music - in terms of both the acts who play it and the fans who attend it. The word "curate" is getting a bit overdone, but this festival is truly curated, and curated exceptionally well. And it's not just the festival itself that has changed over time. Various "psych fests" are popping up all over the place, both in the States and abroad. What other festival has had that kind of ripple effect? Never mind the fests with bigger name recognition, I think it's arguable that Levitation has turned into one of the most important festivals going, let alone one of the most outstanding.     

Despite everything I've just relayed, perhaps the Levitation experience is best (and most succinctly) summed up by the giant balloon The Flaming Lips brought out on stage during their set: FUCK YEAH LEVITATION.

I can't wait to do it all over again. Bring it on, 2020.     

[photos copyright Megan Petty]

[posted 12.26.19] 


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