When organizers of the 2016 Levitation Festival -- previously known as Austin Psych Fest -- announced the lineup this year, it seemed almost too good to be true.
The list boasted the diverse talents of Brian Wilson, Animal Collective, Ty Segall, Ween, Slowdive, Caribou, Flying Lotus, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Super Furry Animals and more. All of them would descend upon the gorgeous Carson Creek Ranch in Austin, Texas.
The festival selected artists with music lovers in mind. The event’s staggered schedule meant ambitious fans could feasibly catch about 20 minutes of every act. We had purchased our tickets weeks in advance and headed to Austin last weekend.
The plane had just pulled out of the gate in Denver when we did one last email check before switching to airplane mode. With less than 12 hours before the festival was scheduled to begin, we received a heart-wrenching email from the organizers saying they'd canceled the event due to “dangerous weather conditions.”
This cancelation meant no Ty Segall, no Ween, no Brian Wilson. Worse yet, we were flying into what seemed like the storm of the century. Was the pilot adept enough to dodge the lightning onslaught that was sure to greet us in Austin?
We landed in a balmy Austin, both confused by the mild weather and frantic as we tried to line up backup plans. Which acts made it to town? Would there be make-up shows? How would we get around? Would the show go on in the live music capital of the world?
By Friday morning, a few alternate shows began to come together -- some arranged by the festival organizers and some by local music lovers themselves. A Facebook group served as a base of operations as people planned “pity parties” and house shows and traded tickets.
On the surface, this seemed to embody Austin’s reputation: a city of music fanatics banding together to make the most out of an extremely unfortunate situation. However, much to the chagrin of many Levitation refugees, the new shows sold out within minutes of being announced online.
One of the heroes of this unfortunate circumstance was local public radio station KUTX. They acted quickly not only to inform the public of the situation, but to book some of the displaced acts for last-minute studio sessions and extend invitations to listeners via social media. On Friday we saw the Swedish psych-prog act Dungen there with 75 lucky attendees. On Saturday KUTX hosted Parquet Courts, again with a grateful audience.
We attended our first show of the weekend at the historic Scoot Inn. Twin Peaks started Friday night, oozing energy and capturing a punk anxiety we all needed to shake out. Brian Jonestown Massacre put us all in a haze with a sea of green light and lush sound punctuated by rhythmic tamborine, ultimately helping us all forget why we’d been so upset. Finally, Slowdive brought us as close to living up to the festival’s title as we could get, with their full swell of sound lifting us all slightly into the calm Austin night sky.
The storm finally hit early Saturday morning, relieving some concerns that the festival may have been cancelled unnecessarily. Ferocious wind and pounding rain left the festival site in tatters, but the sun returned by mid-afternoon.
We journeyed to Emo’s on Saturday to catch would-be headliners Animal Collective. It was clearly a last minute show, The venue felt frantic inside and security was heavy but sloppy. However, the band gave a beautiful performance with lights and colors adding to the off-kilter bounce of their new album, “Painting With.”
Despite only two bands on the bill for Sunday, they proved to be a satisfying, if brief, conclusion to our weekend. Austin native Roger Sellers, under the moniker Bayonne, warmed up the crowd with his bright, tropical-inflected electronic pop, bolstered by the presence of a live drummer. Shortly after his set concluded, Dan Snaith and company -- dressed completely in white -- took the reins as Caribou. Featuring two live drummers, the group traversed newer material before rounding out their all-too-brief performance with a stirring encore of “Sun.”
By the end of our three days in Austin we had made it to Franklin BBQ, Waterloo Records, Barton Springs, dozens of food trucks, three excellent shows and other mini-adventures. It wouldn't have been possible to do so much if the show had gone on as planned. While no one got what they came to Austin for, some got better than expected. And we all took something home with us.
After this difficult weekend, Levitation has risen to a sort of mythical status in our minds. Stories of previous greatness have become amplified legend and we hope the fest will return with lessons learned and strength renewed. Our bags are already packed for next year.