Photos by Steven Ruud
At around 5 PM on Thursday, the rumors began to trickle in. A few tweets citing unnamed sources claimed that the Levitation music festival, which was scheduled to open its gates in less than 24 hours, had been cancelled by Austin’s Travis County. Minutes later, the festival itself confirmed the news, citing both the weekend’s forecast and “weather complications to the grounds” as safety concerns. Then came the angry comments.
Ticketholders from as far away as the UK aired their grievances across social media platforms, some having already arrived in Austin, others at airports waiting to board flights, all seeming to direct the lion’s share of their fury at the festival’s organizers. Amid the outcry, some responses were more even-keeled, like those (jokingly?) offering up their houses as venues for Brian Wilson’s cancelled headlining set or the voices of reason taking a more appreciative stance towards decisions made for their own safety, but they were ultimately drowned out by the rage-commenters.
“This is something everyone has been looking forward to for a year, and we completely got the rug pulled out from under us,” festival producer Rob Fitzpatrick told Noisey. “Sometimes the internet can just be a place to stick your head out the window and yell. And people have every right to be upset. It was, and still is, just such a bummer. We were running on fumes and adrenaline all weekend, and yesterday, when I finally had time to reflect on things and try to process it, I couldn't. It's just disbelief.”
Though the announcement seemed to surprise nearly everyone, a weather-mandated festival cancellation should be a familiar story for Austin residents, and even Levitation attendees. Last October, heavy rainfall led to the cancellation of the majority of the Art Outside festival, and just last month, both the Austin Food and Wine festival and the Austin Reggae Festival had rain-related complications and cancellations. The previous year’s Levitation had its first day turned on its head by record rainfall, with some early shows cancelled, a stage moved due to flooding, and mud taking over the grounds. “A lot of events wouldn't bother [to reschedule],” Fitzpatrick said, “Because there's no way to recreate the festival, or because it's too difficult and you can't make any money, etc. For Levitation, we had to try. We owed it to everyone who came to Austin last weekend, and even though we knew it was far from a perfect solution, it would be better than nothing.”
As the festival’s organizers explained in their official statement, “The difference between 2015 and 2016 is the severity of the storms being predicted, including high wind, large hail and tornado warnings, combined with high water levels from last week’s flooding.” The worst of the storm ended up missing Austin, but on Friday night 60 mph winds, hail, lightning, and over an inch of rain hit the grounds, leading to some toppled tents and flooding that the organizers said made “recovery of the event impossible.” Levitation shared photos of the destruction, which Fitzpatrick said helped put things into perspective for would-be attendees: “Beyond the anger, which is completely understandable, so many people offered understanding, especially after we were all able to see the photos of the ranch.” The silver lining of all this came towards the end of the statement, in a section titled “Potential Downtown Shows” that optimistically told would-be attendees to check back for information on some Levitation bands moving their sets to other venues in Austin.
On Friday afternoon, several such relief shows were announced, including sets by top-tier acts like Animal Collective, Slowdive, Caribou, and Sleep, all to be held in venues with capacities of 1,700 or less. As Levitation attracts around 10,000 attendees, it was clear from the start that many ticketholders would be left out. Sure enough, most tickets sold out within 20 minutes, and coupled with Levitation’s website lagging under all of the traffic, this spawned a whole new wave of online vitriol. Some ticketholders were furious that they weren’t given priority access to relief shows (something that Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe combatted in what seemed to be a personal vendetta on Twitter), and many more directed their anger towards the ticketing website, which as live music fans know, is a truly productive way to spend your time.
Let’s zoom out a bit and take a more measured look at those 24 hours, though. Less than a day after receiving word from the county that Levitation was a no-go, the organizers somehow managed to book twelve shows in Austin overnight, the majority of which featured multiple like-minded artists, cost five dollars and benefitted the Red Cross’ flood relief program. Not even taking the performers’ flexibility and willingness to perform for smaller audiences into account, this was a massive feat of collaboration between the festival staff and local venues, as several previously-scheduled shows had to be moved, and people had to put in unexpected hours all weekend. Contrary to what Facebook comments would lead you to believe, this Plan B really was the best-case scenario when given the cards that Mother Nature and Travis County had dealt.
Throughout the weekend, Austin venues such as Empire Control Room, Mohawk, The Scoot Inn, Barracuda, and Hotel Vegas did an excellent job of accommodating sold-out crowds, ensuring that each set ran smoothly, even when bigger artists’ festival gear made for cramped stages. Most of the shows they hosted had ridiculously stacked lineups, and consequently, the staff also had to deal with a bunch of scalping and favor-seeking (a doorman at Mohawk told me that he woke up to 150 texts begging for tickets on Saturday), but lines moved quickly, capacities were enforced, and safety was maintained across the board.
“Given the situation, everyone wanted to help,” said Fitzpatrick. “The folks running these venues have known us since we started the fest and were down to do whatever they could to help. Our festival brings people in from all over the world and people just want to be welcoming. A lot of venues just couldn't help though, even though they wanted to.”
For me, the biggest source of consolation was being able to catch three of the preeminent bands in the doom/drone/sludge metal universe under one small roof. Japan’s Boris, Washington State’s Sunn O))), and the Bay Area’s Sleep were scheduled to appear consecutively on one of Levitation’s stages, and miraculously, they were able to replicate that lineup at Mohawk on Saturday night. Hailing different corners of the Pacific, they’d never all played together, and probably never will again, and the evening show lived up to its once-in-a-lifetime promise.
According to Fitzpatrick, that was the goal with the relief shows: “We know so many people are walking away disappointed, but the folks who were able to see their favorite band or gather around their friends for a few hours—to get just a small slice of what we all expected from the weekend—that's got to be better than nothing. I know we did our best in the face of a bad situation, and sometimes that's all you can do.”
Although a series of spontaneous venue-hosted shows will never match the atmosphere and ~vibes~ of an outdoor festival—especially one as purportedly utopian as Levitation—this past weekend’s relief shows excelled in their role as next-best-thing. Performers seemed super bummed at the cancellation, with Boris’ drummer glumly remarking that he and his bandmates had been “looking forward to this for a long time,” and many of them seemed as hell-bent on salvaging the weekend as attendees were. The shows’ visual aspects were still trippy as could be, especially Brazilian psych-rock band Boogarins’ fractal projections and Sunn O)))’s frontman’s mirrored battle suit, and nice little festival touches such as free tacos at one matinee show certainly added character. Contrary to disgruntled Facebook commenters’ claims that Levitation had screwed them over, it was clear that the staff, musicians, and local music venues did everything in their power to deliver at least a fraction of the the full Levitation experience.
“All weekend there were people supporting us,” Fitzpatrick said, “And once you got to the venues, it felt like something vital was salvaged. Our focus was to just try and make a bad situation a little better. We also had so many people reaching out online and over email offering places to stay for anyone who traveling from out of town to camp at the festival. We were really moved by the effort of the community to offer help any way they could.”
The Rotten Mangos
Mild High Club
Sugar Candy Mountain
Promised Land Sound
The Brian Jonestown Massacre
King Wizard & the Lizard Gizzard
Patrick Lyons is a writer based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter.
Steven Ruud is a photographer based in Austin. Check out his portfolio here.
Check out Levitation’s website for more info on this past weekend’s events.