Levitation Vancouver gets off the ground

The Austin-spawned celebration of psychedelia is expanding, and Vancouver is the next destination on its trippy agenda

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      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).



      Winston II

      Jun 4, 2015 at 11:42am

      I have seen the Black Angels before and they are an interesting live band for sure. But to be honest, you couldn't pay me to attend this fest. I hope all goes well, but I can only imagine the number of kids at Stanley Park tripping balls and the repercussions from that. I saw the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse at the Plaza of Nations about 10-12 years ago and I thought that was a pretty crazy scene of people tripping hard, passed out, puking and doing all sorts of crazy shit. Levitation seems like it could easily top that. Maybe I'm just turning into a boring old man, but I just don't want to be witness to that anymore. Like I said, I truly wish the musicians, organizers and patrons well. Hopefully it will be remembered for the music and not the sideshow of the crowd.

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      Ace in Yaletown

      Jun 6, 2015 at 12:19pm

      Unfortunately I wouldn't exactly call Vancouver the same kind of great music town as Austin. The alcohol laws here, strict venue policies and lack of casual venues in general all combine for a rather sad scene. That is not to say there aren't awesome musicians and singers here, but anyone who has ever spent a few days in downtown Austin will never experience the same thing in Vancouver.


      Jun 7, 2015 at 1:07am

      Kind of sad to see posters here disparage the local music scene and the aspirations of Levitation Vancouver. I'm a veteran of the last 3 PsychFests in Austin. I've been Lolla, Pitchfork, SXSW, Bonaroo and several other major festivals and Levitation is easily the best run and most enjoyable fest I've ever attended. It seems to me the organizers focus their attention in two areas, brilliant music and musicians, and creating a positive experience for the attendees. Levitation Vancouver has brought in several fantastic live bands like Circuit des Yeux, a Place to Bury Strangers, Dead Moon, local stars Black Mountain, Dead Meadow, and the Black Angels. It's a list impressive for its quality and its variety. What I can say about 3 years in Austin is I've never seen any puking drunks, any fights, any real need for a security presence at all. It would be dishonest for me to say that I haven't seen people under the influence of one thing or another, but in 3 years I've never seen someone out of control. The food trucks in Austin that service the festival provide a huge variety of foods, from vegan to gourmet sausages, all reasonably priced. Problems the 1st season at the current Austin location, Carson Creek, like non working showers and lack of phone chargers were sloved by the 2nd year. This year heavy rains in Austin flooded one stage and potentially the grounds, but the whole site was reconfigured and the festival proceeded fantastically. I would expect the Vancouver Levitation will have some problems too. And I would also expect those problems to be sorted out too. And now that we are 2 days into Vancouver Levitation I think it's been terrific. My only real complaint is the neighborhood around the Rickshaw is pretty seedy. Today at Stanley Park was wonderful, just like Austin in many ways, a beautiful setting, friendly, cool people who are there to enjoy some great music and exceptional food. If I had to complain about anything today, it would be the security was a bit much. (5 armed policemen plus hired security, in 3 years that's 4 more policemen than I've seen in Austin, price of doing business I guess). So good on you Timbre and Austin PsychFest for bringing a great festival to Vancouver and best of luck in the future!!

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