After settling in at a friend’s house in ATX, we took the Levitation shuttle from 5th street and had a mercifully convenient time of it, as we did all weekend. It must be said that festival organizers scored a huge win with this shuttle system, preventing hundreds of festival-goers from attempting ill-advised nighttime drives out into (or back from) the muddy darkness northeast of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. In our four experiences with them, the shuttles were prompt, cheap and only mildly uncomfortable.
When we arrived at Carson Creek Ranch for the eight annual Levitation festival (formerly Austin Psych Fest), it was shortly after dark on Friday night. While we had largely avoided any inclement weather on our trip north, the grounds clearly bore the marks of some earlier, heavy rain.
Shrouded in a deep woodsy darkness, and besmirched with mud-pits aplenty, the festival grounds, even with all the trippy lighting, seemed unwelcoming and disorienting—a stark contrast to the liberating feeling of arriving to the same place the next day. After falling around in the mud and waiting in an overlong line for mood-altering refreshments, we found our bearings and settled in, just in time to catch Tim Presley’s lysergic pop outfit White Fence at the Elevation Amphitheatre stage.
White Fence – Friday, May 8
Expecting a sleepy, breezy, lo-fi pop set, we were blown away by Presley’s large band, which reached full gallop quickly, and never looked back. The set was a veritable lesson in tightly executed, Brit-psych fury, with nothing lo-fi or bedroom-y about it. Those who caught White Fence as newcomers to Presley’s odd-pop, Beatles-psych sound, surely left the set as mesmerized full converts—even if they may be slightly disappointed upon discovering the disparity between most of White Fence’s recorded output and its live majesty.
Spiritualized – Friday, May 8
British space rock stalwarts Spiritualized turned in a set that was an easy highlight of the weekend. As the band took the stage and the first notes rang out, they seemed to rise from the humid blue ether, pulsing with anticipation. It was like the most beautiful soundtrack to a cow-shit-scented light show you ever heard. From dreamy to raging and back again, Spiritualized’s full prowess was on display. Highlights of the long set included the Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
standout “Electricity,” which injected the audience with a shot of raw kinetic energy, and live staple “Walking With Jesus,” which kept the band jamming for at least ten minutes at the set’s end.
We ended Friday night by opting to forgo Tame Impala’s set. I, for one, am disappointed by the unnecessarily polished and dancey sound the band is peddling on its latest singles. Plus, there was no topping Spiritualized’s inspired performance.
Las Robertas – Saturday, May 9
Of all the fine acts at Levitation, Las Robertas was the band we were most interested in digging live. And we were not disappointed by the trio’s wild and arresting main stage performance. In between complaints about the heat and humidity—yes, even Las Robertas’ native Costa Rica can’t match South Texas for sheer humid misery—the group calmly made its case for being one of the best garage rock groups out there. Loud, fast, and soaring, the band’s reverb-drenched, surf-infused songs kept the rapt audience inching forward for more. Two particular highlights were both new songs: the swampy garage-psych thrasher—as muddy as my shoes—“Pixies vs. Tool,” and the gorgeous uptempo, punk-psych jam “Lighter Valley.”
Chui Wan – Saturday, May 9
Having imbibed heavy doses of Beijing psych-rock band Chui Wan in the weeks leading up to Levitation, we were stoked to catch this inventive and virtuosic outfit so far away from its home. In a killer set that was like a late-1960s Cali-noir road trip on heavy doses of opium, Chui Wan painted our eyeballs with rainbow visions of dragons. Far from straight ahead psych-rock, this band has created a thrillingly unique live sound for itself, piling on electric violin and improvisational basslines that built up palpable moods of ascension and peace. A highlight of the set was the closing number, which incorporated an electronic drum pad solo that proved far more fitting than it should have. Keep an ear on these Beijing kids, they’re doing it big.
Vaadat Charigim – Saturday, May 9
This Israeli band, which we caught for a few minutes in the Levitation tent, really impressed me with its sludgy alt-rock, replete with throbbing breakdowns that dove and swam deep, into the murk, into the Austin sundown with weather that the weather app appropriately called "haze." The grisly heat and humidity in the tent only added to the ritualistic, emotional exorcism of the music.
Spindrfit – Saturday May 9
As we meandered about, waiting for Thee Oh Sees to start on the main stage, we caught psychedelic-western rock outfit Spindrift, who I learned only later has a long and illustrious history. On this particular night, we were blown away by the band’s retro, spaghetti western rock songs that soared on the wings of moaning vocals and deep dish riffs. It was like a hoedown in the Twilight Zone that occasionally broke out into slow dance, moon jams and tropical alien tangoes.
Thee Oh Sees – Saturday May 9
San Fran psych-rock exemplar Thee Oh Sees started its set fifteen minutes early. And, as we were lost in the Spindrift, this initially irked us, because we missed part of one of the main acts we came hoping to see. The early start, however, proved fortuitous, because it let us make it to the Mystic Braves set, which we were determined not to miss, since we’d had to miss them at 502 Bar in SA the night before.
What can I say about Thee Oh Sees’ set? Who ever knows what song they are playing, since the band has put out more material than almost anyone else over the past 15 years? What I can say is that we walked away from the band’s blistering show with the feeling that we’d seen the psych bands’ psych band, a gourmet dish amid tons of high-quality brain food. From angry and grungy tunes, to ruminative spaces and patient explorations, Thee Oh Sees prismatic brilliance is not to be denied.
Mystic Braves – Saturday, May 9
While we started out the Mystic Braves set with high hopes for the relatively new LA psych band, we ended up a tad bored by the end of the set. The bands vamping surf swagger was lush and full, with thick chords and rolling river basslines. But, the bright organs and repetitive pulses felt a tad flat and redundant after a while.
This Will Destroy You – Saturday, May 9
Post-rock outfit This Will Destroy You turned in the most victorious and visceral set of Saturday evening. Experiencing TWDY live felt like riding a roller coaster on laughing gas, with all the lurching, halting highs, the tummy-tickling falls and wrenching, anxious climbs. It was a punishing set that surely served to send some of the more “turned on” among us off into bad trip land.