Levitation returned to venues across Austin, Texas on Halloween Weekend 2023, Thursday-Sunday, October 26th-29th. This four day multi-sensory experience is for those who prefer digging for deeper cuts in the album bin and the lineup for this year did not disappoint. Levitation 2023 had everything from favorite bands doing DJ sets in the Levitation Lounge, liquid light displays that saturated every surface, and the fuzziest guitars, basses, and keys that made the season change in front of festival goers’ eyes.
A pleasant new dimension of the festival this year was the Levitation Lounge – a central meeting location that included a box office, merch store, food, drinks and unique DJ sets by some of the festival’s top performers and local Austin legends. After the unseasonably warm and muggy rains began clearing out for the day, festival goers picked up their wristbands late in the afternoon and caught Ty Segall followed by Kyle Dixon on the ones and twos. Dixon, who is part of the local band SURVIVE and also co-composes the soundtrack for the supernatural Netflix series Stranger Things, spun some tunes that were dramatically spooky and included some eastern psychedelic tunes that he looped and contorted creating a great amuse-bouche for the weekend.
During magic hour on Red River at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, Portland, Oregon based psychedelic country ramblers Rose City Band took the stage and eased the crowd into the evening with some soft melodic tunes that flowed like a mountain stream. The Ripley Johnson project is touring in support of this year’s album Garden Party, and was rounded out by pedal steel guitar player Barry Walker and keyboardist Paul Hasenberg whose haunting soundscapes had the Deadheads in crowd rejoicing.
Getting into the Halloween spirit, Shannon & The Clams took the stage with neon green witch hats that lit up like triangular glow sticks when wandering stage lights beamed through them. Occasionally drenched in swirling liquid light, the retro surf psych Oakland, California band led by grinning bassist Shannon Shaw and LED sign-wearing guitarist Cody Blanchard, took turns on vocals with an especially spirited version of “Hey Willy” from the 2013 album Dreams in the Rat House.
The benefit of staggered show times and locations on Red River is that four-day pass holders could pop between venues to see different line ups. The proximity of the Mohawk to Stubb’s allowed for just that, as a gap in the schedule had music-goers walking a few blocks away to see the shoegaze band LSD and the Search for God. The Northern California group with swirling guitars and ghostly vocals were washed in liquid light that pulsed along to the blissed-out set. Returning to Levitation after an appearance at the Austin Psych Fest in 2013, the group’s dreamy and atmospheric show fit nicely between the heavier bands playing on Thursday.
While some folks lamented the omission of rockers the Oh Sees from the bill, they were elated to see perennial Austin visitor and psych power guitarist Ty Segall’s set at Stubb’s with Freedom Band. Under the bandshell that served as the backdrop for lively blends of magenta and chartreuse, Segall wearing a black T and blue jeans commanded the stage noodling on his guitar, wandering and searching before crashing into songs such as Finger from the 2010 album Melted. As the set wound down, Segall and the band let out a thumping cover of Hot Chocolate’s 1970s “Every 1’s a Winner” from the 2018 album Freedom’s Goblin, a tune leaning more heavily on the fuzz and less so on the disco.
Most of the energy for Levitation weekend was split between music venues on Red River and the Far Out Lounge compound, which lived up to its name being eight miles down Interstate 35, but it had plenty of room for folks to stretch out and included a VIP section for better viewing. The warm moist air stuck around for most of the day, spitting out rain drops as Los Angeles psych/surf rockers Allah-Las took the stage at Far Out Lounge in the late afternoon.
The larger of the two stages were flanked by billowing white screens and accented with plants and greenery at the foot of the performers. The shaggy haired fellows led by singer/guitarist Miles Michaud eased the crowd into the day, laying down some warm tunes on a gloomy day including the spaghetti western sounding “No Werewolf” from the 2014 album Worship the Sun.
Across the grounds of the Far Out Lounge featured a smaller stage tagged up colorfully with street art, which served as a perfect backdrop for Portland, Oregon audio and visual artist Randal Taylor who goes by the name Amulets. His one man project creates ambient soundscapes that employ manipulated old school cassette tape loops, droning guitar, and various foot pedals. Soft and meditative, songs like “Severed Seas” from the 2020 album Amulets transport listeners to a weightless environment of sound.
One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was from Panda Bear and Sonic Boom, who collaborated in 2022 for the album Reset which they played in its entirety that Friday evening. Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) cofounder of Animal Collective returned to the festival after solo angelic performances in 2014 and 2018 at Austin Psych Fest.
English Singer-Songwriter Peter Kember, a founding member of Spacemen 3, joined Panda Bear as the Sonic Boom part of the equation adding hand claps, synth beats, and kazoo-like instrumentation that added to the surrealism. Reset builds up a progression of emotions that were perfectly paired with light projections of a digital human metamorphosing from a sad state to one of elation on the crescendo “Livin in the After”, a tropical upbeat tune that brought the crowd back from the dark.
Closing out Friday at the Far Out Lounge was Portland, Oregon-based band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who are touring in support of this year’s record V. Fronted by multi-talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ruben Nielson, they stole the show with a Las Vegas worthy backdrop of stage lights that spelled out “UMO” like “ELVIS”.
While earlier sets were contemplative and mesmerizing, Unknown Mortal Orchestra up-tempo performance progressed earnestly through 13 songs that spanned from jangly tune “Thought Ballune” from the 2011 self-titled album (QRO review) to punchy beats of “That Life” from V. The highlights of the show were when the band diverted from the studio recordings and blasted into space such as in the “Opposite of Afternoon” that included a keyboard interlude by Thomas “Mabus” Hoganson that captivated the crowd. They ended the night with a disco flair that included “Honey Bee” and “Can’t Stop Checking My Phone”.
Saturday’s lineup featured a triumvirate of modern psych rock legends, The Dandy Warhols, festival founders The Black Angels, and The Brian Jonestown Massacre at The Far Out Lounge. Having headlined several of the past Austin Psych Fests/Levitations, this power trio brought a large crowd out to South Austin early in the day as the warm humid air lingered persistently. Later in the evening, Red River venues welcomed festivalgoers for more intimate encounters.
Capping off the Saturday party at Far Out Lounge was San Francisco, California neo-psychedelic rockers The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who emerged from a darkened stage only illuminated by vertiginous blobs of color projected by the liquid light maker housed at the soundboard. In typical BJM style, frontman Anton Newcombe barked orders at his bandmates making them restart “#1 Lucky Kitty” from last year’s Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees.
Newcombe, shirtless with amber glasses, floppy hat, and mile long stare coyly moved back and forth from darkness to light throughout the performance. Center stage on his right was the ever present Joel Gion on percussion, sporting shades and signature black beanie while he stared at the sky ecstatically. The two shared a sensitive moment late in the set with Newcombe walking over to Gion to hug and kiss him on the head – a gesture that recognized the strong bond the two share. Performing 13 songs over the course of the evening, the band closed out their set with “Maybe Make it Right” as the harmony of guitars cascaded over the blissed out crowd.
The same night, the legendary Austin venue Antone’s hosted Ghost Funk Orchestra, a New York-based psychedelic ten-piece soul band, that had the revelers jumping along to the sick dance moves and smooth vocals of Romi Hanoch and Megan Mancini. Complete with a punctuating horn section and retro guitar licks, the band added a welcomed funky dimension to the festival lineup. The venue was at near capacity as the band approached midnight.
You wouldn’t be able to tell that the Ghost Funk Orchestra has only been around for a few years since their sound is familiar and comforting. The band is the brainchild of producer and multi-instrumentalist Seth Applebaum who started as a solo recording project that blossomed into a can’t miss live show. The groovy set included a spirited version of “Walk Like a Motherfucker” from the 2019 debut A Song for Paul,and late in the performance they stopped and invited kindred spirit and soul singer Kam Franklin from the Houston-based band The Suffers to the stage.
Those looking for a more subdued and cinematic form of music making found refuge at the goth venue Elysium on Red River at midnight for Mercury Rev’s Clear Light Ensemble. In a nearly darkened room, illuminated only by a black and white subtitled film, Mercury Rev delivered a live film score to Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 classic horror noir Vampyr. This was the second of two Texas shows during the month of October – the Buffalo, New York band presented part one in Dallas the previous evening. After a day of dancing, it took time for heartbeats to slow, eyes to focus, and ears to open as a gently layered score built up to the day and film’s grand finale.
Levitation organizers were kind as they pondered the Sunday schedule. Three days and nights of performances can be a lot to ask for music fans that are getting into their 30s and 40s, so thankfully Sunday shows didn’t kick off until close to the dinner hour. What had been a muggy, moist, and unseasonably warm late October transformed overnight as a cold front blew chilly wind and mist that had festival goers scrambling for hoodies and thick layers. To warm up, a modest crowd of festival goers started dancing to a DJ set at the Levitation Lounge by evening headliners Death From Above 1979.
Across town at the Far Out Lounge, Anthony Lawson Jude Ifeanyichukwu Obiawunaotu, better known as Fat Tony, took the crowd into golden hour with a rapid fire set. The Nigerian-American rapper out of Houston returns to Austin after a noteworthy May performance at the Empire Control Room on Red River. Over the summer the rapper traveled Europe primarily in England and Belgium in support of his collaboration with Taydex on this year’s I Will Make a Baby in this Damn Economy.
DJ Shadow fans were not fazed by the crappy cold weather that blew cups and wrappers around the festival grounds. When the venerable crate digger took the stage, he apologized to the crowd that he had an issue with visuals and that he’d have to rely solely on his DJ skills, which were polished and bountiful that evening. Having taken a several year hiatus before putting out new material, the artist is back on the road this year for his latest album Action Adventure, which features ‘80s sounding glitchy beats with a touch of drum and bass that are reflective of our anxious times.
Pausing intermittently to address the crowd, DJ Shadow acknowledged that ten years has passed since his last performance in Austin – a fact that was not lost on the shivering yet grinning attendees. Over the span of 17 songs, the crowd was captivated by the legend’s long awaited set. For his seasoned fans, hearing the first keys strike on “Organ Donor” from the classic 1996 album Endtroducing and singing along to the catchy tune “Six Days” from 2002’s The Private Press made braving the drive and weather worth it.
The jazz element of Levitation has been another welcomed addition as the festival expands its focus to not just include traditional psychedelic rock. Take for example, Thundercat’s set in 2021 at Stubb’s (QRO photos) that showcased one of the most talented and complex jazz bassists to grace the lineup. Canadian jazz and hip hop musicians BADBADNOTGOOD were expertly placed as headliners on Sunday that featured more of a hip-hop vibe. No strangers to cold weather, the Toronto-based quartet were bundled up and bathed in 16mm film projections that ranged from nostalgic images of Joshua Trees along with teal and blue ocean waves. The dramatic resonance of songs such as saxophone-forward song “Confessions” from the 2014 album III highlighted the incredible skills of each of these finely tuned musicians.
For those wanting to extend their listening on late Sunday evening, the place to be was Empire Control Room for JJUUJJUU’s 10:20 pm set. The otherworldly and tribal electric sounds of the Los Angeles, California band led by messiah-like figure Phil Pirrone capped off a glorious weekend of transcendence and revelry. The cramped confines of the room were expanded and brought to life with colorful washes of magenta and cyan swirling about, uniting the band and the crowd in mysterious light as transmissions and cacophony from another dimension reigned.
-words: Alex Freeman & Lindsey Sutherland
-photos: Alex Freeman