Halloween weekend. Thickness in the air. Darkness in the world. I’m committed to a music festival far from home and it’s supposed to rain. Austin, Texas: despite having been there only 5 months prior for Austin Psych Fest, one of the most special community-based music experiences of my life, I felt anxiety leading up to Levitation 2023. So when I left LAX and landed at AUS Airport on Thursday afternoon before the music began, I begged the weight of the world to lighten, with hopes for a familiar outcome of levity, connection, and reclaimed freedom.
I believe all of us lost festival goers are in search of an escape from our daily lives. We’re looking for something to feel, something to connect to, and to be amongst similarly yearning souls that are open to the ebb and flow of this world. An ebb and flow that gets the best of us sometimes, for better or for worse… But this weekend, we tried to make it for the better, in the live music capital of the world, together.
Words: Michelle Schuman
Photos: Grace Dunn
related: Austin Shines On: Levitation 2022
Community, that’s what Levitation has to offer. Psychedelia, in all its pitches and tones, meanings and connotations, textures and viscosities, promotes diversity and inclusion.
I gravitate towards the dark underground of this infinite genre, Doom.
The heavy riffs and slow progressions rock my spirit like a sweet lullaby.
The soothing lullaby I so desperately needed leading up to the fest.
We’re here. Fuck it.
related: Desert Daze 2022- 10 Years in the Evolution of a Music Scene
Day 1: Thursday Oct 27.
A fuzzy onset of energy at Hotel Vegas.
I made my way across downtown to Hotel Vegas, a backyard hoedown of a venue with astroturf, picnic tables, crossing string lights, a heavy-handed bar, and a ready-to-be-amped-up audience full of battle jackets and band tees. Exactly what I’d expect from a metal lineup in Texas. The humidity held us. The rain stopped just as the Heavy Psych Sounds’ bill began.
I was looking forward to 1000mods, an international act from Greece who I listen to regularly. Their fun, stoner rock was the perfect entrance to the fest. To my surprise, they were heavier and grimier live than I expected, and I’m grateful for it! With drums like a fucking battle cry, thick guitar, and a love of vintage, analogue equipment, their fuzz emanated from the stage and drowned out the din of everything else. Their sound and composure were focused yet intimate, like the spiraling of a heavy hypnosis. “You’re melting my face!” (yelled someone from the pit). 1000mods has seen a lot of success in the last decade, touring nonstop, growing into bigger venues, but I’m glad too see that they are still rooted in a subtle confidence, which truly made their set memorable. A gentle knock progressing gradually into a pounding earthquake.
I needed this.
Ecstatic Vision were up next and they couldn’t be more perfectly named. Looking straight out of the 70s with mustaches and bell-bottomed jeans, you could tell they absolutely loved themselves. An eclectic mix of space rock, free jazz and a strong stage presence, they were absolutely unhinged. No exaggeration, the lead singer and saxophonist walked offstage mid-show and rolled around in the wet, muddy astroturf while smacking each other’s asses. I couldn’t tell if they were having fun or hate playing.
Dead Meadow– melodic post-metal bluesy noise rock soothed us, ushering the warm and chaotic afternoon into a temperate and calm evening. Jason Simon’s guitar solos resonated in my chest; his slow intention with every strum was emotional and wailing. This band knows how to taunt its listeners; instead of following through with a breakdown, they mellow it out for as long as they can, teasing us, until BOOM. “I think my soul left my body for like 5 minutes” (declared a diehard fan in the front row). “Hands down the greatest band ever.” The backyard of this dive bar is now completely packed. Mesmerizing visuals by Bill Gazer fill the tiny stage and project against the swaying trees on either side. They played a comfortable fuzz, slow melodies with heavy progressions, and distortions with intention. Their 2023 tour marks their 5th year playing together.
Grace and I, satisfied with Dead Meadow’s beautiful set, were ready to wind down at other local bars for the rest of the night and enjoy the scene. But a surprise treat was waiting for us at the 13th Floor.
Flat Worms, a supergroup of LA local musicians led by Will Ivy, were playing in Austin for the first time. Let me tell you, the band didn’t disappoint and the crowd didn’t either! I hadn’t heard them before, Grace and I weren’t even prepared to cover them, but after experiencing their live set, I had to give them a mention! Their garage punk sound mixed with a cheerfully delightful thrash attitude will have you jumping, bouncing around, smiling, and knocking into everything and everyone just like we were! Ty Segall was in the pit with us, singing along and cheering for his friends. Flat Worms offered the release of energy we needed for a sweet and sound sleep before the next day’s mania.
Day 2: Friday October 28, 2023.
Mind warps and ears shatter at Stubb’s BBQ.
My ears were ringing from the night before, and I still had the heaviest set to come.
If Hotel Vegas was a hoedown, then Stubb’s was a full-ass county fair. Just out the back of the famous BBQ eatery is an outdoor hall with a huge stage surrounded by wooden porches and shacks of vittles and libations.
The Well opened for the most prestigious heavy metal bill of the festival. They said they felt lucky to be on the same stage as Uncle Acid and High on Fire, but the humble Austin locals held their own against the international lineup. (I love how Levitation hypes their own community.) Their progressive doom was influenced by a multitude of genres. Lisa Alley and Ian Graham harmonized with a palpable chemistry. They played a new song inspired by a twisted Christmas carol. Their last album was released in 2019 so I was so excited to hear that they’ve been working on new music! Their doom, prog-punk sound geared us up for the heavy, sludgy tone of the rest of the night.
Stubb’s was getting tighter and tighter. Security was on high alert. The crowd was ready.
Wafts of whiskey and old cigars filled the air. We all packed around the large stage in anticipation of the doom god himself. This was my 4th time seeing High on Fire live and Matt Pike gave the best show I’ve ever heard him play. Standing in the very front row, I was entranced with his resilience; THE POWER it takes to play guitar with such swift conviction. Coady Willis left his mark as a strong backbone for Pike’s blasting finesse. Born from iconic bands the Melvins and Big Business, Coady Willis is, I would argue, one of the best doom drummers of all time, and as High on Fire’s new drummer for the last few years, he magnifies their sound. The spirit of High on Fire is HEAVY by any means necessary; shooting snot rockets and dripping sweat profusely as a tribute to that mentality.
This marked their 25th year on tour. Their veteran status resonated.
I could smell brisket in the air but I’m not moving.
This was who I was waiting for: Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats. My first time seeing them live, despite trying to make their shows countless times prior. A fan yelled “It’s been 7 years since you played Austin!”, begging them to start. They open the set with “Mt. Abraxas” off of Mind Control, a slow and steady build for what’s to come. Venturing through the depths of hell and back again with a confident strut, their sound oscillates between an upbeat stride and a galloping sprint to a slow climb and a heavy fall. The band coordinated with every movement from Kevin Starrs and his guitar. They looked like they were conjuring spirits together in a mesmerizing wave. Bewitching visual projections of swirling colors, old cult films and subliminal graphics only added to the effect.
Nothing like heavy metal to melt away a collective anxiety. I’m telling you, we headbanged the weight of the world off of everyone’s shoulders that night.
I’m buzzing and drenched in sweat. But there’s a calmness. My mind was so blown out that it couldn’t race anymore. I had found a peace that only the loudest scream could bring. We slowed down the night with some dream pop from Holy Wave and shoegaze from Ulrika Spacek at Antone’s. Then ended in a slow melodic sludge from Pallbearer at the 13th Floor. The festival seemed to be at its climax, but there was another kind of healing on the horizon.
Day 3: Saturday October 29, 2023.
Way out at The Far Out, then back together again.
The venues were larger and wider with each day, and I was feeling more and more free.
After being blasted with doom for 2 days straight, I was ready to experience Saturday in a new way. We headed to The Far Out, where Austin Psych Fest was held earlier in the year. Beyond the city, wind whirling in the Texas desert, we found an escape in the open air and sunny skies.
Goths, hippies, bikers, cowboys, cronies, punks, indie kids, and whatever that is.
People were sporting anything and everything, from Victorian garb to Halloween costumes.
I saw killer clowns, fairies, mushrooms, dinosaurs, aliens and medusas. It was a visual splendor. Spirits were high in anticipation for some far out music in a far out place.
The Dandy Warhols were the most upbeat band I saw at Levitation. In complete contrast from yesterday’s lineup, the skeleton-clad crew of lighthearted misfits played with an uplifting optimism, amplified with sweet harmonies, sexy keyboard and tambourines. The crowd was dancing, hopping to the buoyant beats and swaying to the enchanting melodies of their neo-psychedelic power pop. Courtney, Peter, Zia and Brent mixed a heavenly jive with a slacker attitude; a cheery and cheeky sound that you can’t help but sing along to.
“Woohoohoo!!” has been echoing in my head since.
Just one stage over, Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, a DIY band from Mexico, played next. They were new for me. Their droning shoegaze and psychedelic textures defy genre. Lorena Qunitanilla’s vocals were captivating and unique. The fuzzy industrial undertones of analogue synths gave them a dark and menacing quality. I was up, down and sideways listening to their eclectic noise, stimulated and processing.
The Black Angels, fathers of Levitation, jam band their way through the next set of the night, as tight and harmonious as ever. Lead singer Alex Maas said “they come here every year but this feels like the best one yet.” The sun was setting as they played, which was so fitting for their new age aura. They are the epitome of contemporary psychedelia, with a heavy twist. Drums from Stephanie Bailey that reverberate through your being, tambourines and maracas never felt so massive. I was transported to a dreamland of infinite textures and longing chants. Their sound is universal, invoking a spirituality that’s deep rooted in all folk music. The audience swayed and moved together as one. The sun fully set, but the sky never went dark as the full moon shined onto us.
Alex stopped the music to address the audience, “We need some good vibes in the world right now.” And then he proceeds to invite The Dandy Warhols and the next band up, headliners The Brian Jonestown Massacre, to join them onstage. They all find their space to groove with each other’s sounds and create the most beautiful show of peace and love. The bands mixed and melded into one; everyone was connecting, hugging, and having a great time. It was like a psych fever dream, as if the heavens aligned for this one. The moment felt truly special.
Three bands, one love.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, the folky down home band with a diehard following, continued with their own brand of peace and love. Hootin and hollerin, the whole audience packed the venue, pushed towards the stage, and egged them on to start. I love how nonchalant the band is live and how much they lean into their reputation for erratic antics. They started to play, stopped mid lyric, and then started again. We were in a massive field filled with thousands of people, in yet the show was somehow warm and comfortable. The crowd baited Anton Newcombe and he baited them right back. The jesting was so interactive! “Hey drummer, less lubrication more grit!” “Louder is not better, better is better.” “Get your shit together!” “That was a pretty guitar!” The juxtaposition between the crowds’ playful mad-dogging and the band’s sweet melodies was a trip. The music pauses, Antone toasts to the moon raising his beer to the sky, and addresses the audience, “Do me a favor and tell the person next to you peace be unto you!” The stage lights turned to us and we all reach out to our neighbors.
We hitch an Uber back to downtown to catch more bands. The city didn’t seem as crowded as before, or maybe it just didn’t bother me as much.
The full day of hippie-loving, free-spirited psychedelia got me feeling sunbaked and tired. The Garage at Empire harbored just the remedy I needed. Pelican, I’ve listened to them for over 10 years, but never live. In person, their soft, melodic post-metal atmosphere sent shivers down my spine. That sweet lullaby I was craving, but it builds and builds until you’re called awake by a sea of doomy instrumentation. I appreciated the duality of the day: starting with a bright high and ending on a slow, melodic and entrancingly dark low.
Day 3: Sunday October 30, 2023.
Soaked at Mohawk and dripping at Empire Control Room.
I insisted all weekend, bragged even, that the stars were aligned. We had missed the rain for every single set…. Well, I jinxed it.
Downtown Austin on the last night of Levitation was drenched and sleepy, but that didn’t stop the music. We hopped from venue to venue as it poured.
Mohawk is an outdoor stage with a second story and a wrap around balcony for a perfect view of the pit. A skeleton’s middle finger next to a dollar sign hung on a wall above the crowd. Its presence screamed anarchy. Fuck Money blasted their way through the opening set, emoting frustration and rage. TaSzlin Trébuchet waved a bat around to enhance the dismantling spirit. He jumped into the crowd and roared with his fans, shoulder to shoulder, man to man, heart to heart. Unity in the dissonance.
In total contrast, Demob Happy’s lead singer/ bassist Matthew Marcantonio had a funky back and forth jive reminiscent of the Talking Heads. The English band broadcasted a laidback crooner-pop style and stoner influences. Their oscillating melodies were a mischievous misdirect saturated with heavy bass lines. They lifted the room while wind bellowed through their hair. The rain poured down harder and harder.
Death From Above 1979 wrapped up the night at Mohawk. Soaked and smiling die hard fans sang along to every single song they played. Ardent screams, heavy synths, leading drums and deliberate bass rebounded from every surface. Dance punk to the highest degree, they oozed exuberance, playfulness and electricity.
We skipped in the rain for a couple of blocks and went inside to Empire’s Control Room stage for the much anticipated set presented by Desert Daze, the Los Angeles-based cousin festival to Levitation, The founders of Desert Daze, Phil Pirrone and his band JJUUJJUU were experts at their craft. Wearing a lab coat, Phil looked like he was doctoring up some sort of remedy for the packed house from his tiny stage. A cacophony of groovy beats, funky dissonance, and textured vocals resonated in a comforting hum. Hippies out in full swing, couples dancing in love. The hypnotic soundscapes energized and enthralled us all. Everyone bopped and swayed in different and new directions trying to make sense of the explosion of sound. And as soon as we were lost in their ether, they snuck in an unbelievably heavy cover of Queens of the Stone Age’s, “Song for the Dead”. The pit went wild and swept me up with it.
Nolan Potters Nightmare Band, led by Nolan Potter himself, was a whimsical and romantic love song to 1960s rock’n’roll. The deep resounding voice, ethereal riffs and intricate keyboards felt reminiscent of a different time. Each progressive tune crescendos and then jams into a heavier psychedelic splendor. A gnome sat at the front of the stage, serving as a conduit between their world and ours. They were truly fantastical.
From stoner rock and doom, to shoegaze and synth pop, Levitation holds space for all sorts of lost souls. I witnessed and experienced many manifestations of community and togetherness at this festival. Whether through laborious headbanging, drowning chants, harmonious sways, or breezy wobbles, we were connected in one vibration.
I count my lucky stars for the inherit learnings that music gives us, the safety and welcoming community that Austin fosters, and the opportunity to not only see some of my favorite bands live, but to promote them as harbingers of peace.
Go to indie festivals! Support local bands! And when in doubt, just go and let the music cleanse you.
Until next time Austin!