Levitation Music Festival 2019
Inspired by the creativity, color and music of the 1960’s, Levitation is an annual three-day psych rock music festival held in Austin, TX. In 2008, a creative collective called The Reverberation Appreciation Society banded together to host a one-day festival, then called the Austin Psych Fest in North Austin. It has since grown to a three-day event, renamed Levitation (2014), and hosted annually at venues all over town from art-deco decommissioned Seaholm Power Plant to Carson Creek Ranch, an outdoor venue where camping was made available. When severe weather damaged the festival grounds and caused the cancellation of the 2016 fest (and postponement of 2017’s event), the team decided to relocate back to a more central indoor location. Levitation found its home in the Red River District of downtown Austin, where it has remained since, blossoming into an acclaimed festival attracting attendees from all over the world. 2019’s festival was held the weekend of November 7-10 utilizing beloved Red River venues Stubbs Austin, Mohawk, Empire, Barracuda, Elysium, Cheer Up Charlie’s and expanding to nearby non-Red River venues Central Presbyterian Church and Hotel Vegas.
Very last-minute, I was invited to attend and photograph the festival on behalf of livingthefestlife.com. Who was I to say no to a colorful, action-packed weekend of great music? So with little notice, I packed my camera bags and set off on Thursday afternoon to collect festival credentials at a little side-venue on East Sixth called Volcom Gardens. This was an experience itself; a small “creative hub” hosting modern interactive art, fun brand activations and free live music. I love the East side of downtown for its’ low-key creative collective feel; Volcom was the embodiment of exactly that. With a shiny new wristband and a handful of show tickets in-hand, I headed back to the central downtown area to attempt to find parking. Blessed to be there a little early, street parking was plentiful and affordable at just $10. Tip: If you attend Levitation or any local Austin event, get there early to nab a spot on the street and you won’t have to worry about expensive parking lots.
Thursday started out big with stacked sets at Stubb’s Austin, a local BBQ joint that has grown into an infamous music venue with indoor and outdoor stages hosting international acts. I’ve seen everything from Slash, Matisyahu and AWOLnation to Willie Nelson, Vampire Weekend and even Muse on this stage and it’s always an intimate, well-run show with meticulous sound. Our first act of the day was Laetitia Tamko; better known by her stage name Vagabon, a Cameroonian-American multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter. Following this was Devendra Barnhart, a charismatic Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter and visual artist known for a psych folk sound that borders on musical and visual poetry. We wrapped the three-act set with romantic alt-indie folk singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. Her music and her act is silky and sultry, sometimes subtle before accelerating to a hauntingly impactful magnitude with incredible vocals.
I grabbed a late-night dinner at my favorite low-key local spot, Koriente; which sits just off the Red River district and serves incredible pan-asian dishes that are fresh, healthy, delicious and quick. I had the spicy chicken with a fried egg and rice medallions, with Boba and their signature (and also free) miso soup. Warmed up and sufficiently recharged, I decided to make one final stop at the opening night of the Waterloo Greenway’s Creek show. An annual local nighttime art installation, the Creek Show partners with Levitation. They had opened their brand-new psychedelic light-based art features spanning several blocks of the Waterloo Greenway creekbed trail in tandem with the opening night of Levitation festival. It was freezing cold by the time I arrived, camera-in-hand, so there were minimal crowds. I perused the art, snapped photos (my favorite pastime is creative low-light fractal photography) and headed home thoroughly cold but warmly fulfilled by the art, color, music, great food and welcoming vibe of Red River’s music scene.
On Friday temperatures began to plunge steeply. Too late to nab tickets to many of the sold-out sets at Empire, Barracuda and Mohawk, I headed over to Stubbs where the line for The Flaming Lips’ evening set was already around the block. Instead of waiting in line, I took a quick gander over to Cheer Up Charlie’s where DJs had begun their set. I drowned my no-ticket sorrows with the best sweet potato fries to be found in the city at Arlo’s, an infamous vegan food truck that resides right on Cheer Up’s property. Alex Maas of the Black Angels was scheduled for a pop-up set at the Creek Show, so I took a cruise in that direction before the crowds and cold started to get the better of me. Desperate for a warmer indoor venue, I decided to head over to the east side, where Hotel Vegas would be hosting several artists later in the evening.
East sixth street is my low-key favorite part of town; one many would argue is a little more “Austin” and a little less “tourist.” (Tip: definitely check this area out if you want something a little less mainstream/cosmopolitan) There are incredible bars, restaurants and food trucks, plus my favorite little dive bar, Violet Crown, which hosts great drink specials, really good beer, plays movies like Step Brothers and always promises great people-watching. But I (sadly) wasn’t headed there – I was on a mission to catch Aquarian Blood and Hash Redactor at Hotel Vegas. The venue was packed, and rightfully so – the alt, indie garage rock goodness was overwhelmingly excellent. Husband-and-wife duo Laurel & JB made the performance of Aquarian Blood probably a favorite of the evening. All was not lost with the sold out shows, because ending up at Hotel Vegas was a blessing in disguise.
Saturday started with a set in the Central Presbyterian Church; arguably the most beautiful live music venue I’d ever experienced. Ioanna Gika and Chelsea Wolfe’s sets were nothing short of otherworldly; a breathtaking, uplifting spectacle bordering on religious. As in: music is my religion. I departed a little early to catch dinner with a dear writer friend who was in town for Levitation. We met at one of Austin’s best (and arguably most underrated) sushi spots, BarChi. Situated on Colorado and Second street, the downtown restaurant offers a dynamic menu of sushi, small plates and a really great Happy Hour. Honestly, what more do you need? The food is always super fresh and reliably on par with other sushi joints that charge significantly more. It’s my local haunt and it’s truly excellent. Tip: if you like sushi, don’t miss BarChi.
With full bellies, we hit Red River district again to catch The Well, Zig Zags and Acid King at Barracuda. Bouncing between indoor and outdoor stages to catch acts on each stage, we sipped Austin Eastciders and perused the indoor art market as a great local DJ spun records in between sets.
With my friend occupied with artist interviews for several hours, I decided to head back over to the east side, where Hotel Vegas would again be hosting several can’t-miss artists later on. Walking across town, I made a pit-stop at The North Door, who was hosting a fundraiser Launch Event for a brand new music nonprofit in town, the Austin Music Export. Wanting to learn more, I spent a couple of hours there. It was time well-spent meeting local music supporters, catching local Austin artists Syndey Wright, Jeff Plankenhorn and Donovan Keith’s wonderfully upbeat sets and winning a gorgeous handmade necklace by a local artist in the silent auction, benefitting the AME directly. I also enjoyed a Citrus Mule made with Austin’s own Deep Eddy vodka and the spiciest, most delicious ginger beer that they wouldn’t disclose the source of (darn you, craft cocktail connoisseurs…) and snacked on tacos and nachos from North Door’s Pueblo Viejo kitchen. To wrap the evening, I managed to get to Hotel Vegas in time to see Richard Vain, Flipper and Richard Rose before dragging my deliciously tired self home for the evening.
Sunday was my fourth and final day, and it was a chilly one. With so many incredible shows under my belt (and enough blisters to verify my ambitious festival schedule), I decided to keep the evening fairly low-key and catch acts at just Stubb’s and Mohawk, right across the road. I began the evening with American alt rock classic, Dinosaur Jr., who had been on my list to see for many, many years. Photographing the set from the pit was a particular pleasure and I stayed to enjoy the remainder of the act with a Deep Eddy in one hand and a hand-warmer in the other. It was another chilly, freezing night. Between sets, I dashed across the road to Mohawk as I’d heard the venue had some incredible light art installations that shouldn’t be missed. I did not disappoint – both the stage, adjacent walls and surrounding area were lit up with psychedelic projected light patterns that evolved as the night and the music changed. Visually stunning, and a perfect backdrop to the psychedelic, experimental synth-pop of Dallas Acid. I ran back over to Stubbs in time to catch Kurt Vile and the Violators. Vile is the former lead guitarist of The War on Drugs and an incredible singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. His happy indie rock set was the perfect, mellow end to my Levitation 2019 experience.
Tips for attending Levitation:
This festival isn’t your typical all-in-one, single-venue music fest. It spans multiple venues in several downtown areas with different capacities, schedules and ticketing. To get the most of it, the secret is to plan ahead. Write out a little schedule, know where your chosen venues are and what acts you want to catch ahead of time. Since there’s a significant distance between many of the venues, you will need to know where you’re headed and when. There might be a wait for an Uber or a delay finding parking at peak hours. Pay attention to how the wristbands and ticket levels actually work in order to avoid any nasty surprises. Not all venues are guaranteed access and not all wristbands get you in to every venue on the schedule. The regular 4-day wristband ($395) gets you in to Stubbs, Mohawk, Empire and Barracuda, but not the other venues which are ticketed separately. There is also a less expensive wristband option ($165) to get access to only the Stubbs shows for all four days. You can also pick and choose, buying shows individually (price varies) but since many shows were 100% Sold Out by day-of-show, make sure you purchase ahead.
It is a great festival with flexible options for attending – as long as you don’t leave the decision-making to the last minute – which is kind of what I did, and that didn’t pan out as well as I’d hoped. The Red River district is truly a unique area of Austin with so many great surrounding food trucks, restaurants, pop-ups and venues to check out. The concurrent Creek Show is an absolute treat to see, and if you pair that with a very uniquely Austin atmosphere, music to please even the most discerning of tastes, endless popup art, culture and music features, and the guarantee of great people-watching, Levitation is a can’t miss Austin tradition.