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.”