“This is the coolest festival in America,” Sean Ono Lennon, Beatles offspring and a formidable guitarist in his own right, said at the top of his band, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger’s, 5:45 p.m. set on the main stage at Levitation on Sunday. He added that he was “so (expletive) psyched to be playing with the 13th Floor Elevators,” the seminal Austin psych rock band scheduled to reunite on the same stage a few hours later. Lennon proceeded to throw down an impressive display of searing guitar work complemented by melodic bass lines from Charlotte Kemp Muhl, his partner in fuzzy rock.
The sense that there’s something special about Levitation, the festival formerly known as Austin Psych Fest, was pervasive on the grounds Sunday afternoon where a laid back crowd took in reverb-heavy tunes. In the heat of the afternoon, some clustered in scant patches of shade, under a few of the property’s large trees and in the Levitation Tent. But bands like Samsara Blues Experiment and Paperhead drew good crowds to the outdoor stages. Despite forecasts that set storm chances for Sunday in the 70-100 range, skies remained clear through the afternoon and into the night. Mud that plagued the fest earlier in the weekend had hardened into uneven scalloped patches scattered around the festival grounds.
“All the weather channels have been wrong,” Black Angels frontman and Levitation co-founder Alex Maas said earlier in the afternoon, sitting in a production trailer with fellow fest co-founder Rob Fitzpatrick and Transmission Entertainment general manager Bobby Garza. Though forecasts all week threatened “pretty dire weather” the only significant hiccup for the fest happened right as gates were scheduled to open on Friday. A thunderstorm forced the festival to delay gate time by roughly 30 minutes and then stagger entry for the folks who sheltered at tents near the entrance way. The accompanying downpour on already saturated earth turned the grounds into a muddy mess for the first few days, but the challenge of trudging through didn’t seem to dampen spirits of music fans.
“A lot of the people who come to this festival are regular festival goers,” Maas said. “They’ve been to Glastonbury, Leeds where they have 100 times more rain than we did.”
The larger weather problems for the festival happened earlier in the week when record rainfalls on Tuesday flooded the riverside amphitheater stage which has been a centerpiece of the event since it moved to Carson Creek Ranch three years ago. With the threat of additional flooding and the land by the river unable to sustain the weight of the stage, fest organizers were suddenly forced to rethink the layout for the entire grounds plan.
“We had worked for a whole year and really intensely for like six months on our ideal layout and really making this place our full vision,” Fitzpatrick said. “We didn’t get to do that this year which was really disappointing, but having Transmission on board enabled us, honestly, to be able to still pull it off.” This is the first year the festival was co-produced by Transmission Entertainment.
Though significantly less scenic, the makeshift site plan worked, but with the stages forced closer together sound bleed was a bigger issue than it has been in past years. On Friday, the other big issues the fest faced were parking and transportation. This year, Levitation booked bigger headliners who drew bigger crowds. With only one exit onto a single lane country road, fest-goers were trapped in gridlock traffic leaving after Tame Impala’s headline set on Friday night.
The situation was worse for those relying on the festival’s shuttle service to get home. Shuttles were supposed to run at regular intervals until 3 a.m. but before they hit the cutoff “one of them was broken down, one was stuck in mud and on top of that the parking situation just made it impossible for the other shuttles to get in,” Fitzpatrick said. Roughly 150 fest-goers were trapped at the fest and miscommunication between fest organizers and the shuttle service, run by a third party contractor, left it unclear the shuttles weren’t coming until five in the morning.
At that point festival staff went into triage mode. “Can we find a charter that we can hire? Can we find a van pool that we can hire? And we were just coming up zeros because it was 5 o’clock in the morning on Saturday,” Garza said. Eventually staffers reached out to every cab company with a real person working dispatch. Ferrying guests out in cabs they managed to clear the grounds 20-30 minutes.
The parking lot situation was smoother on Saturday when crowd exits tapered more and no major shuttle problems were reported, but Fitzpatrick said shuttle problems will be addressed in the festival postmortem. “It’s something we’re going to try to really get ahead of next year,” he said.
Though the biggest crowds of the weekend were projected for Sunday when presale tickets topped 8,000, organizers felt confident staggered exits would mitigate traffic troubles. Though a good portion of the crowd will stick around for popular headliners the Flaming Lips, for many, the 13th Floor Elevators reunion is he night’s highlight. For the Black Angels, in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, scheduled to open for the highly influential band, that was certainly the case. ” We’re all really excited,” Maas said.