Levitation Presented a Vision of How Austin’s Music Festival Culture Can Move Forward
When Levitation kicked off around Austin this month, both Halloween and Día de los Muertos were technically over. Still, a sense of eeriness lingered heavily around the four-day music festival, which took place in multiple venues around the city: When the Velvet Underground’s John Cale took the stage at Stubb’s during his headlining set, red skulls glowed overhead. Lingua Ignota seemed to summon, with her hellish operatic voice, her own demons during a performance at the nearby Empire Control Room the night before. Maybe the ghostliness had to do with bygone Austin musical heroes Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston saying hello from beyond. But for all of its spookiness, Levitation was far from a nightmare. It was more like a vision of how Austin’s regional music festival culture can stay interesting in the face of consolidation and safe bets.
Since Levitation’s inception a little over a decade ago, Rob Fitzpatrick, who heads up booking, and Black Angels members Alex Maas and Christian Bland have sought to make it a center for psychedelic rock to continue thriving in its spiritual home of Austin. They’ve done this by bringing up not just rising bands, but also featuring cult heroes like the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Zombies. “We’ve always been the weird underground fest for the seekers,” says Fitzpatrick.
By design, Levitation will forever be centered on psychedelic rock and sixties and seventies-era cool (the festival gets its name from a 13th Floor Elevators song, and the late Erickson performed in the past). And admittedly, seeing Cale was a treat: it was one of the increasingly rare moments where you could see someone who played on Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” bring it to life onstage with bona fide Warhol art-sleaze, eerie croons, and jerky avant-rock. But the best moments at Levitation often come from the performers whose names are written in smaller font sizes on the event poster. And at this year’s festival, a lot of those memorable performances weren’t from the psychedelic bands that have been a linchpin of Levitation since it started as Austin Psych Fest back in 2008.
What’s more, by moving the fest from spring to November, it takes the slot once held by Fun Fun Fun and its short-lived successor Sound on Sound—events that both had eclectic lineups. In Fun Fun Fun’s 2014 edition alone, you could have seen Judas Priest, Ginuwine, SZA, Gary Numan, and Neutral Milk Hotel in one weekend, and their 2012 festival brought rare performances from both Run DMC and Public Image LTD. By shifting its focus from psychedelic to a bigger host of sounds, Levitation, in a sense, seems to be reviving the spirits of Austin festivals past, whether or not it was consciously the intention of its founders. “I’ve never thought about it like that,” Maas says, adding: “When we stopped calling ourselves Psych Fest, it opened the gates up to whatever music you think is cool.”
In 2019, Levitation was particularly big on metal, expanding from the slow, stoner doom it’s played host to in the past, such as Germany’s Kadavar and Japan’s Boris. That included a big show with Oakland’s High on Fire, whose legendary guitarist Matt Pike (recognized by the Academy!) plays like Slayer got ahold of Black Sabbath’s gear, and Dallas’s own thrash metal stalwarts Power Trip. Los Angeles’s Deafheaven had to leave for a flight to Osaka almost as soon as they got off stage Friday night, and they still brought a gutsy performance that proved why they’re on the top of the metal world right now. Brutus, a Belgian trio with an aggressive take on melodic post-metal, was on the same bill. Miami’s Torche, who played Saturday, would be typecast as a typical Levitation metal pick were it not for the sweet melodies they fuse their doom with—imagine Brian Wilson crossing paths with Soundgarden’s heavier moments.
Although Power Trip is from just a few hours north, seeing them at Mohawk is a rite of passage for any Austin headbanger. The audience puts on as much of a performance as the band itself, stage diving with abandon and whipping up circle pits whether vocalist Riley Gale commanded them to or not. Still, the band didn’t take to the fest’s character; they brought their own chaotic moxie with it. “In my mind, heavy psychedelic bands are where metal came from,” says High on Fire bassist Jeff Matz. “I think it’s a good pairing aesthetically.”
The Black Angels, at Levitation 2019.
Photograph by Connor Fields
Flaming Lips perform at Levitation 2018.
Photograph by Pooneh Ghana
Metal wasn’t the only thing that took center stage—punk also had a moment at Levitation this year. As part of Third Man’s showcase, Detroit rock veterans Easy Action, featuring members of legendary hardcore band Negative Approach, gave Hotel Vegas a blistering take on Stooges-esque raw boogie, as hooky as it was unpolished. One of the best performances happened on the venue’s patio: it featured Flipper, with the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow, who’s also the ex-vocalist of the seminal Austin punk band Scratch Acid, on vocals. Flipper’s turgid, grinding punk isn’t exactly party music, and that’s where Yow comes in, throwing around his abrasive charm—and having them perform in Austin again has been a long time coming. “We had them at Fun Fun Fun twice and they had to cancel, we had them at Barracuda with Pissed Jeans and they had to cancel, so the fourth time’s a charm,” says Johnny Sarkis, who assists in booking and artist relations for Levitation. “The energy was amazing, and David Yow fronting that band is fucking perfect.”
With a spike in heavy sounds and in its second year as a multi-venue setup across Austin’s downtown and the east side (following a 2016 cancellation due to severe weather at its former home, Carson Creek Ranch), Levitation looked a lot more like Chaos in Tejas, the long-deceased punk and metal festival that ran in the city from 2005 until 2013. (When I ran into Chaos founder Timmy Hefner outside Mohawk Sunday night, he was, appropriately, wearing a Grateful Dead sweatshirt.) Chaos was also head of the curve in getting moshers into electronic music, booking Oneohtrix Point Never before Daniel Lopatin was sending songs to Usher and scoring Adam Sandler films, and giving a platform for locals like S U R V I V E pre-Stranger Things breakout. Levitation’s booking has carried that part of Chaos’s spirit forward this year. Toronto’s TR/ST, whose cheery synth-pop belies a very goth darkness, on Thursday proved to be strong competition the same night Power Trip and High on Fire were playing, drawing as many metalheads and punks as dancers. For someone as steeped in electronic movements as local label Holodeck Records head Adam Jones (also of S U R V I V E and whose Troller played the fest this year), he digs it.
Levitation also reflects a cultural shift that Chaos helped build, with punks taking extremity and hard beats into other lanes. “There was a turn ten years ago when maybe the underground punk scene had their limit as far as innovation,” says Jones. “All of a sudden I saw a lot of people only concerned with punk and metal show open up to Container, or ‘maybe I do like Pharmakon,’ and that’s great.”
The psychedelic festival isn’t losing its identity lately by booking heavier bands—diversifying the genres of music it brings forward, in addition to the people that play it, is the way forward. Jumping around from Torche to John Cale to Flipper across several venues, and capping off the night with Beak>’s dub-trip-hop in a single Saturday, is a kind of cross-genre mashup that rarely happens anymore. It was thrilling and varied, like the SXSWs of old. “You go to these festivals in Europe and it’s all over the map stylistically, and it’s great to see American festivals embracing that diversity,” Matz says. “You can like Flipper and Explosions in the Sky and The Black Angels and Jay-Z. It’s allowed. It probably should happen,” Sarkis says. “How many reverb-y, Velvet Underground-sounding [bands] do you want to see for three days? It’s amazing for a while, but breaking it up, letting people see Flipper who want to see Flipper, is pretty important.”
Levitation has come a long way since its first edition at the Red Barn, a venue off Burnet Road that’s now home to pricey apartments next to expensive Neapolitan pizza and high-end ice cream. (No shade to Bufalina Due and Lick, but still.) The festival has grown, but it needs to evolve even more. Jones said he wants more hard bass music in the fest—let’s get that in there. All the metal shows were sold out—keep that up! There were no hip-hop or rap artists to speak of on the bill—there’s another way it can grow. Hell, if Travis Scott wants to lend some of his Astroworld muscle to Levitation sometime, the festival could be even more fun.