Perhaps fittingly, details are a little hazy when it comes to how many people witnessed the dawn of the festival now known as Levitation. There’s no question where the Vancouver-bound celebration of all bands lysergic began. In 2008 the city of Austin, Texas, was the site of a party thrown by the dreamily narcotized Black Angels, who are arguably the trippiest thing from the Lone Star State since Roky Erickson.
How many people showed up for that night—which was dubbed Austin Psych Fest—is where recollections get sketchy. Ask Black Angels singer Alex Maas, and he’ll suggest that it was a semi-intimate gathering of friends and fans.
“The first one wasn’t big,” Maas says, reached via cellphone in Athens, where he’s meeting with promoters about staging a Greek edition of Levitation. “People will tell you different things, but I don’t think we could have had any more than 450 people at the club where we did it. I do remember the cops came.”
Others remember things differently. Austin Psych Fest has long been guided by the intentionally mystical-sounding Reverberation Appreciation Society, a collective that also operates as a record label. Rob Fitzpatrick is one of the four founders of the RAS, along with Maas, Black Angels guitarist Christian Bland, and filmographer Oswald James. He was also there for the first Austin Psych Fest.
“I was actually the door guy that first year, and we sold 800 tickets or something like that,” Fitzpatrick recalls, on the line from Puerto Rico, where he now lives. “We were able to fit about the same amount of people in the club. It was just one night, with a couple of out-of-towners and a cool group of Austin bands—groups that the Black Angels had played with. It was just a celebration. Nobody thought that we were creating this festival brand. But once we did it, everybody thought, ‘Wow, this could be bigger.’ ”
That would prove prophetic.
Today, that first Black Angels party in Texas has morphed into Levitation, a multiday psychedelic blowout that not only has designs on Greece, but has been successfully staged in France, and is now set to touch down in Vancouver.
This weekend, Levitation Vancouver sets up a home base at Malkin Bowl in stunning Stanley Park for two days of music headlined by the mind-melting likes of the Black Angels, hometown heroes Black Mountain, and Atlanta renegades the Black Lips. Malkin Bowl is just the main event. Levitation also features three full nights of club shows at the Rickshaw, Cobalt, China Cloud, and Electric Owl, with a genre-straddling roster including lo-fi queens L.A. Witch, retro-hazed genre-splicer King Tuff, budding guitar great Ryley Walker, and dreamy soundscape sculptor Blackbird Blackbird.
If the scale of all this sounds ambitious, that’s not by accident. The Austin Psych Fest, which has been permanently rebranded as Levitation, has become an international destination event. This year’s Lone Star edition drew a whopping 10,000 psychedelic-music fans. The event’s continual growth over the years, along with a global explosion of new bands obsessed with the kaleidoscopic side of the ’60s, eventually got organizers thinking that there would be a market for the festival beyond Austin’s city limits. Vancouver was quickly named a no-brainer, and not just because we’re a city with a world-famous cash crop.
“Vancouver was an obvious choice for me,” says Maas, who fell hard for the city right from the Angels’ first show here, at Gastown’s Lamplighter. “Vancouver and Austin are very similar—they are both pretty liberal towns that are very open-minded. And, obviously, they’ve both got great music communities.”
Fitzpatrick elaborates: “Vancouver has this natural allure in terms of the natural beauty and the environment there. I know that people call it No Fun City, but it seems like there’s really a great community of artists there. That made it fertile ground to take the Levitation brand to.”
Levitation Vancouver will mark the festival’s second North American show outside of Austin, after a Chicago event in March. As both Maas and Fitzpatrick note, there’s a deep tradition of paisley-splashed underground music in Lotusland, dating right back to the ’60s, when the West Coast was a North American hippie hotbed. As international bands from the Velvet Underground to the 13th Floor Elevators to the Pretty Things were steering rock ’n’ roll in narcotic-laced new directions, the West End’s Retinal Circus proved a vital breeding ground for local psychedelic pioneers like Painted Ship, Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck, Hydro Electric Streetcar, and High Flying Bird.
The respect for that history remains strong today, and not just among those with Neptoon Records frequent-flier cards. When the lineup for last year’s Khatsahlano! Music + Art Festival was announced, the reconstituted Poppy Family held down the headlining slot, with the ’60s icons aided and abetted by members of modern heavyweights like the New Pornographers and Destroyer.
Representing Vancouver today on the Levitation bill will be locally spawned acts such as the Courtneys, Three Wolf Moon, Anciients, White Poppy, Black Wizard, Dead Ghosts, and Dada Plan. The fact that these acts don’t necessarily sound like each other gives them plenty in common with the rest of the lineup, which ranges from the paranoid chillwave of Tobacco to J Mascis’s bong-rock supergroup Witch.
That diversity is exactly the point. The crazy growth of Austin Psych Fest led organizers to rethink their business model. That, Fitzpatrick says, included the name change.
“Whenever we started looking at other markets, like France, it was like, ‘Well, what are we going to call this thing?’ ” he recalls. “Because ‘Austin Psych Fest Presents…’ was just wordy and unnecessary. So we were like, ‘Let’s just give it its own name.’ I didn’t want to call it Psych, because, even the first year, people were like, ‘That band isn’t really psych—they are more shoegaze.’ It was kind of an opportunity to not have the same conversation every time we put a lineup announcement out. And also to kind of open it up so that we could book whatever bands that we were interested in.”
If organizers have a message for the curious, it’s that the biggest psychedelic festival in the world isn’t explicitly geared to those who can name every record ever released on the Reverberation Appreciation Society label. Levitation might take its name from an old song by legendary Texas acid kings the 13th Floor Elevators, but it’s shooting for something bigger than cult appeal.
To illustrate this, Fitzpatrick, a hard-core surfer who grew up on old-school punk rock, describes himself as a musical omnivore who’s enjoyed Willie Nelson and the Texas rave scene just as much as vintage hardcore and the Wu-Tang Clan.
“My friends were all influenced by music-snob siblings,” he says. “I wouldn’t listen to mall-punk stuff—I was digging in and listening to bands like the Subhumans and stuff from the ’70s and ’80s. My musical tastes have always been about the origins of stuff.”
The Black Angels, members of which he went to high school with, would help expand his mind in ways that led him to where he is today with Levitation.
“I’d heard of groups like the Velvet Underground and the 13th Floor Elevators, but really discovered them through the Black Angels,” Fitzpatrick says. “And then there are all these newer bands. I’ll never forget this night that Christian was playing DJ at this gathering we were having. Every song he was playing sounded so different and interesting to me, and I’d be like, ‘Who is that?’ He’d be like, ‘That’s the Brian Jonestown Massacre.’ ”
He continues: “I couldn’t believe that people were making music like that. And that’s what the Angels were doing as well. It really struck a chord with me, and also a lot of other people. In 2009 and 2010, so many people who were writing about the festival were talking about how there were psych fests happening all over the world, but that they didn’t feel as focused as ours.”
Still, as Levitation continues to branch out, it remains committed to its origins.
“From the beginning of the Black Angels, we always realized there was no real gathering of people who were into this kind of music,” Maas says. “And I’m talking fully into it. We’d made a bunch of connections from being on the road, and we wanted to use those connections to throw a party. And we were very clear that we didn’t want a heavy-metal festival and we didn’t want a country festival. We wanted a psychedelic-music festival. That was the original vision. And what’s happened is that the festival has grown hand in hand with the psychedelic-music community.”
What “psychedelic music” means is, of course, entirely open to debate—just like the question of how many folks were at the first Austin Psych Fest. What’s not debatable is that, as it gets set to descend on Vancouver, Levitation has blossomed into something big. If it weren’t, Maas wouldn’t be calling from Greece.
Having come this far, the Black Angels frontman isn’t about to start trying to answer questions that can’t be answered. What will Levitation Vancouver’s ambitious lineup offer West Coasters? That’s for you to decide.
“What kind of story are you looking for, honestly?” Maas finally asks. “This is a musical festival made by four friends who love music. I have nothing more.”
Levitation Vancouver takes place at various venues around town from Friday to Sunday (June 5 to 7).