Providing a welcome alternative to not only the blast of insanity that South by Southwest brings but also the increasingly-crowded shitstorm that is the Austin City Limits Festival, Austin, Texas’ Psych Fest was founded by members of the rock group The Black Angels in 2008, bouncing around between locations in its early years before settling into the Carson Creek Ranch in 2013. Situated outside of town, and , interestingly enough, directly in the pathway by which planes approach the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, this adequately-sized venue sits immediately next to the Colorado River, providing ample room for three stages and the motley crew of attendees who show up on any of the festival’s three days. In 2015, the festival was rechristened as “Levitation,” a name that seems oddly appropriate given the nature of the event, and took place over the weekend of May 8-10. Undoubtedly, most of the crowd was intrigued by the appeal of an outstanding line-up of headline acts that included Spiritualized, The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala, Jesus & Mary Chain, and the Black Angels themselves as well as the hugely influential 13th Floor Elevators who helped lay the foundations for the psychedelic rock scene in the mid '60s and cemented Austin’s place in that scene.
Creepoid – Photo by Roger Ho.
Much as I was stoked for some of these acts though, it was the possibility of being introduced to more obscure acts that typically is more exciting for me. Priding itself on an incredibly strong line-up from top to bottom, Psych Fest is second only to (the genuinely overwhelming) SxSW in terms of its international flavor, and a festival-goer can almost take a virtual trip around the world simply by wandering around from stage to stage-particularly true during the daylight hours. One was as likely to find a sitar and tabla duo (Gourisankar & Indrajit Banarjee), Israeli shoegaze outfit (Vaadat Charigim), or Chinese space rock group (Chui Wan) playing as any more familiar American indie rock band. Additionally, since the festival organizers and booking staff have a rather open-minded take on what constitutes as “psychedelic music,” most every possible taste is catered to. Among the more interesting groups I caught during the weekend was the Mary Lattimore and Jeff Ziegler Duo, which found a harp being joined by glitchy electronic sounds to create genuinely bizarre but undeniably fascinating sound art. It also has to be said that Psych Fest’s organizers go out of their way to ensure that the “old school” of the psychedelic music movement is represented year in and year out. This is arguably one of the best things about this event because, let’s face it, the players in groups like the aforementioned 13th Floor Elevators or The Zombies (who headlined in 2014) simply won’t be around much longer. Appearances at Psych Fest by these classic groups not only expose them to a new generation of fans, but also provides a memorable–-and quite possibly once-in-a-lifetime--experience.
Lightning Bolt – Photo by Roger Ho.
Like most festivals, Levitation 2015 had a little of everything: good, bad and ugly. The main “Reverberation” stage was the setting for most of the biggest and more mainstream types, the secondary “Elevation Amphitheater” played host to the more experimental and drone-oriented groups, and the festival’s third stage (the “Levitation Tent”) was the setting for many of the groups I most wanted to see, including Rhode Island’s Lightning Bolt. A favorite of mine for years, this noise rock duo has dropped off the radar in recent years--I hadn’t seen them live myself in about a decade--but proved that they still had the chops to absolutely pulverize an audience with spastic drumming and an overdose of gnarly bass tone. Being situated immediately in front of drummer Brian Chippendale during the performance, I found it interesting to note that his kit has expanded a bit since I last saw Lightning Bolt...though 10 years time hasn’t done wonders for my ability to cope with the exceedingly violent mosh pit which erupted during the band’s set.
Nevertheless, even though it was odd to see the duo actually on a stage as opposed to on the floor, the supercool light and visual display which accompanied their set (and all the others which took place in the tent) was stunning. Combining liquid projection displays, geometric patterns, old film strips, and a stack of TVs broadcasting glitched-out camcorder (!) images, the visual element to shows in the tent only added to the mind-melting effects of the various performances. Perhaps it was the “mind-melting effects” of the visual portion of the show that inspired one completely unclothed audience member to hop on stage during Lightning Bolt’s set and wander around aimlessly for a few moments. The fact that no one seemed to care much that a nude man had randomly jumped on stage speaks to the laid-back attitudes that prevail at Levitation, and it’s that typically chilled-out vibe that puts this festival in a league of its own as far as I’m concerned.
Creepoid – Photo by Roger Ho.
As the weekend continued, California-based electro weirdos Health, Philadelphia sludge rockers Creepoid, Houston noise group Indian Jewelry, and Texas post-rock band This Will Destroy You put on shows that were as good as I thought they’d be (why is it that post-rock bands playing at Psych Fest put on shows that border on being religious experiences?), but some of my other favorite Psych Fest sets were from bands that I wasn’t at all familiar with beforehand. Saturday night saw The Black Ryder take the stage just after dusk and perform an absolutely sublime group of slowed-down dreampop songs highlighted by gorgeous female vocals. This performance took a minute to warm up to--for comparison, a high-energy set from Thee Oh Sees was going on at the same time--but it was breathtaking to listen to, pointing me in the direction of a band that I really need to check out. Similarly, a Sunday evening set from all-female Japanese trio Zzz’s stuck out as an unexpected stunner. Truth be told, I’d sit through almost any Japanese band that was on offer, but some are clearly more to my taste than others. This band’s combination of strange, experimental sounds and jagged rhythms wound up being right up my alley.
Given the eclectic nature of this festival, it’s hardly shocking that not everything would be to one’s liking. For me, the lineup of more or less traditional bands at Levitation was very hit or miss: on the plus side were groups like LA Witch (another all-female group who played downbeat and sinister old-time rock numbers), Las Robertas (a Costa Rican garage band who unleashed tightly-constructed little pop gems), and Ringo Deathstarr (whose sound reminds me a bit of the pre- Mellon Collie Smashing Pumpkins). Hell, I could even get down with the funky tunes put forth by Sean Lennon’s newest project, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, more than I thought possible, but groups like Night Beats, Hundred Visions, Tele Novella, and Paperhead didn’t do much for me. Despite the fact that I generally like the music the groups make, I also wasn’t especially blown away by the sets from synthesizer-driven quartet S U R V I V E or Primal Scream. Not that any of these performances were awful by any means, but compared to the “best” offerings that Levitation had to offer, they seemed bland and simply didn’t strike my fancy at the time.
To be completely honest, it was the horrendous condition of the grounds at Carson Creek Ranch that put something of a damper on Levitation. This wasn’t the fault of the grounds crew working at the event, but rather a combination of issues mostly related to the relatively wet early May that Austin has seen. Just before the gates opened on Friday, a drenching downpour added to the already sloppy conditions at the venue and from then on, any amount of foul-smelling Dillo Dirt or mulch thrown on the ground couldn’t entirely eliminate the pools of mud and muck that sprung up all over the festival grounds. Conditions never substantially improved despite the fact that sunshine rather inexplicably dominated Saturday and Sunday and, by the end of the weekend, I and most others tramping through the mud were simply exhausted.
Thee Oh Seas – Photo by Roger Ho.
Though I’d be hard pressed to believe that Levitation doesn’t attract a generally friendly and “cool” crowd of attendees, there’s no denying that the complexion and “vibe” of the festival changes as the sun goes down and a different, increasingly more aggressive breed of festival-goers come out to play. To be truthful, this is the same situation that exists at any similarly large, high-profile event but it points to a dilemma that the festival organizers will soon be forced to address: will Psych Fest continue to expand, becoming bigger but not necessarily better, or will the organizers attempt to contain the festival under a certain ceiling that will hopefully serve to maintain a higher quality overall experience. Once upon a time, these same issues were dealt with by the organizers of a little country and western music festival called Austin City Limits, and the nature of that festival today points to the upside and downside of increased event stature. Obviously, any festival needs to be financially viable not only to continue existence but also in order to attract big-name headline acts. Increasing numbers of attendees ensure that both are possible, but seems to take away from the personality of the event.
In 2015, Psych Fest seems to be on the verge of gaining mainstream acceptance, but an on-site service this year which offered to test any recreational drugs attendees had procured hints at the dark side of increased event popularity. The practice of drug testing at festivals itself has proven to be controversial since there’s always the question of whether having such a service indicates that the festival itself condones drug use. Personally, I commend Psych Fest for realizing that drugs would be here regardless-–-it’s a festival based around “trippy” psychedelic music and art after all--and attempting to keep festival-goers safe either way but, still, I don’t think most attendees want this event to become more drug-fueled than it already is. As was proven by the bearded gentleman puking on himself by the side of the stage that I found and attempted to assist early Saturday afternoon, the copious drinking at this event is more than enough for most people to deal with.
Ultimately, it will be up to the promoters to decide how big they want this festival to become, but the decision of Psych Fest to partner with Transmission Events, who put on similarly niche-oriented (and equally great) Fun Fun Fun Fest (which takes place in Austin during the fall), seems to point in the general direction that Levitation is heading. I’m not entirely convinced that this will be a bad thing for the immediate future--after all, the 2015 festival had the strongest lineup ever. I do hope, however, that this particular festival doesn’t go completely overboard and become yet another overblown event that provides big-name attractions but rather shoddy individual experiences. For the time being, Levitation stands as one of Austin’s absolute best, most audience-friendly, and thoroughly enjoyable music events. It might not quite have the reach and clout of ACL or SxSW, but this crowd-pleasing “little festival that could” is well worth attending.