Words and Photos by Alicia Armijo
In the wise words of Parquet Courts, “Levitate, don’t hesitate.”
From the Riverside district to East 6th Street to the Red River Cultural District, post-millennial psychedelia was alive and well in Austin for the 10th annual Levitation Fest. From April 26th to the 29th, hundreds of Austinites and excursionists indulged in four fantastical days of mind-bending music and vibrant visual art. The combination of these auditory and visual mediums lent to a harmonious and transcendental aesthetic experience for audiences at each of the eight unique participating venues. This felicitous immersion in the sublime is what Levitation Fest is all about.
On the inaugural first day of the hotly anticipated Fest, I spent the day enjoying the exalted combination of musical acts at Stubb’s Amphitheater and a sold-out Barracuda, which included Ron Gallo, A Giant Dog, Parquet Courts, Ty Segall, Ruby the Hatchet, Windhand, and Dead Meadow. Each of these shining acts contributed uniquely to the verve of the festival. And, they all sure as hell brought their A-game.
The fest-stopper and the most memorable act of them all, for me, was catching the absolute badassery that is Ruby the Hatchet. This up-and-coming doom rock quintet set Barracuda aflame with their heavy psychedelia, which paired perfectly with the kaleidoscopic visuals projecting onto them on stage and the surrounding walls of the venue. Not only were the band’s instrumentals undeniably on point but frontwoman, Jillian Taylor, was a vision on stage. Rocking a bright red, lace jumpsuit, Taylor quite literally bent over backward to the delight of her captive audience. By the end of the band’s set, ladies in the crowd could be heard screaming “YAS QUEEN!” for this incredible act.
The second day of the Fest was, for many fans, the real start of the festival as the weekend had officially begun. The venues were flooded to capacity with a very different air than the day prior. That Friday, I reveled in a variety of heavy musical acts, including The Well, Russian Circles, Electric Wizard, L.A. Witch, and Sextiles at Austin staple-venues, Stubb’s, Empire Control Room and Garage, and Beerland.
At Stubb’s, the crowd had noticeably transformed from the previous day’s more stoner-hipster rock style to a much heavier metal aesthetic. This change was apt for Austin-local psych-rockers, The Well, to set a moody, yet powerful tone with their bluesy opening set. They were an undeniable hit to set the stage for acts to come.
Fans packed the historic venue to marvel and scream, “Hail the wizard!” for the tremendous doom-metal giants, Electric Wizard. For many, this was the act to see that Friday night. And, indeed, these heavy rockers played a particularly raw and memorable performance that remained accessible to fans of all ages. Hell, there were even young children rocking out in the crowd!
While they were not the headlining act at Stubb’s that night, Russian Circles certainly made a lasting impression on their audience worth explicitly noting. Yes, many fans who have seen them prior would agree, the band played as boldly and magnificently as ever. Still, this show had unique elements that could not be seen in many of their usual performances. In particular, Stubb’s choice lighting for the affair added a unique element to the band’s stage presence and intensity. Moreover, the Chicago-based trio masterfully gripped their audience for an auditory and emotional journey with each dynamic and complete piece of their set. Like a Greek tragedy, the band played many songs that initially pulled in their listeners to bask in a feeling of calm with their blissful, cyclical melodies. They, then, harmoniously guided their listeners up to the edge with anticipation-building percussion and back down again to a state of ease. Through the course of a given song, the audience could uniquely achieve rhapsodically cathartic experiences with the band’s orchestral guidance. Without a doubt, this is what great art is made of. And, it goes without saying, this spellbinding post-metal outfit contributed significantly to achieving the transcendental aspirations of this festival.
On Saturday, the third and penultimate day of the Fest, it was a truly tough call for many festival-goers to choose between the incredible lineups at Stubb’s (which included performances by Mien, Survive, and Slow Dive) and Emo’s (which showcased Wiccans, Chelsea Wolfe, and Ministry).
While I will never know what magic I may have missed at Stubb’s that night, I had a Dionysian experience indulging in Ministry’s sublime performance. From the outset, the band laid out their politics for all to see in an apt and artful demonstration that one could only expect from such a rebellious troupe of metal-heads. With a 15-foot tall, mock-inflation of President Trump and a series of painfully nostalgic, yet delightfully comical clips and spoof screen projections from the 2016 presidential elections, the band artfully set the stage explicitly to effect and enrapture their audience’s political and social conscience.
While these visual features were certainly on point, the band’s performance in itself was transformative. With plays of fan-favorites, “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” “Thieves,” and “N.W.O.,” the band absorbed the crowd in an intoxicating revelry for life itself and initiated a call to rise above the very apparent political sickness that we must regularly encounter in our daily lives through their music. Ministry’s infusion of these incredible visual and auditory elements made their performance a visceral force to experience first-hand, which made their performance paramount one to include in this festival.
At the end of the night, I was delighted to not only indulge in these awesome bands at Emo’s in the Riverside District, but I also found my way downtown to check out the greatness of Dan Deacon and No Joy at Empire Control Room and Garage.
Notably, Dan Deacon can not only fully engage a packed crowd, coordinate a very silly dance contest with his fans, but he is also quite the comedic treasure. No frontman, in my experience, had ever had me and the crowd laugh so hysterically before he even began to play. He told bizarre, yet charming stories of his fears and dreams concerning the monster from the film, Predator. Not just one dream story would do. Rather, Deacon made this topic a recurring theme throughout his set as he found various ways to incorporate his imaginative terrors regarding the beast in the interludes between his vibrant, dance-worthy tunes. Not only was this show special for its marvelous visual art, but Deacon also had an absolutely uncanny wit and ability to make each member of the crowd feel like one of his friends. There is no better feeling as a fan than to have such a connection with an artist at such a giant show. Truly, the man is something else.
On this final day of the festival, fans came dressed to the nines in their coolest shades, bell-bottoms, double-denim, and prominent sideburns. Truly, this final day of Levitation felt something akin to attending Burning Man–but, it was perhaps a much less radical and a more chain-store fashion variety of it. Still, the radical inclusion, community vibe was alive and well here in Austin.
I found myself absorbed by many of the impressive shows held at Stubb’s that evening, including Annabelle Chairlegs, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and The Black Angels. I also took a quick trip over to see the Zeppelin-inspired spectacle, The Risin Sun, at Hotel Vegas. My Levitation experience ultimately ended with a set by garage-rockers, The Oh Sees, at an exceptionally packed Barracuda.
Of all the bands and all the venues, the founders of this wonderful psychedelic festival, The Black Angels, brought festival-goers to their knees with a vigorous yet dreamy set. With a brief introductory clip from The Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” the band gave a subtle nod to the legends from whom they got their name and inspiration. To a sold-out crowd of screaming fans, The Black Angels began their set with a solid play of fan-favorite, “Young Men Dead.” Coupled with the brilliantly compelling light installations of visual artist, Bob Mustachio, The Black Angels were capable of transmuting ordinary perceptual experiences into delightfully transcendent and aesthetically rich ones throughout their set.
Levitation Fest uplifted the Austin-music scene to achieve a collective trance and ecstasy through its crucial interplay of rhythmic, cascading visuals and, of course, the imaginative psychedelic bands that gave audiences music worth singing and dancing to. Openness to the experience is all that one needs to discover all of the wonders that this enriching musical tapestry has to offer.