Playback: Experiencing a Broadened Euphoria
EDM breaks out, Agony Column returns
If ACL Fest is Austin's Lollapalooza, Euphoria Fest exists as our equivalent of Miami's Ultra Music Festival: an EDM utopia where DJs are gods, ostentatious light shows provoke spiritual transcendence, and the quality of the weekend will be judged by experience over performance value.
Austin's largest electronic music gathering expects 10,000 attendees per night to East Austin's Carson Creek Ranch (9507 Sherman), many of them campers. DJs armed with laptops and thumb drives full of big hits remain the bread-and-butter of the 4-year-old fest: EDM superstar Pretty Lights (Sat.), dubstep duo Adventure Club (Fri.), and trap king RL Grime (Sun.). But Euphoria also fleshes out to offer diversity beyond the decks.
Deviants from the DJ this year include confounding Swedish rapper Yung Lean (Sun.), computer-enhanced instrumentalists STS9 (Fri.), lysergic electronica artists Thievery Corporation (Sun.), and swaggering electro pop duo Ghostland Observatory (Sat.). The latter, a once-breakout local act lately snoozing on hiatus, plays its first local gig since 2012.
"Thomas [Turner] and I are the best we've ever been friendship-wise," says the duo's vocalist Aaron Behrens, who maintains a carefree perspective on his band's future. "We just got the offer and said, 'Sounds cool, let's go have some fun!'"
Euphoria's clientele may be too young to be familiar with Ghostland Observatory. The age of the average ticket holder sits currently at 25 – up a few years from last year.
"I think the addition of some of the 'jam bands' changed our demographics," supposes the fest's 30-year-old founder and creative director Mitch Morales. "That's what's cool about it. Now you have this mix that's pretty heavily millennial, but we also have a lot of young working professionals whose reason for going to festivals is getting away for a weekend."
That's an underlying theme for Morales, a graduate of Georgetown High School, who was working in energy finance five years ago when a trip to Michigan's Rothbury Festival opened his mind to the unique energy and community of camping festivals.
"It goes back to earlier times in mankind when there was just time for music and dancing and a communal experience," he attests.
While Morales admits getting into the speculative business of running a music festival might be the dumbest thing he's ever done, he's had marked early success. Attendance has risen annually and the immersive experience he hoped to cultivate continues to blossom: Euphoria now includes healthy eating and innovative recycling workshops as well as yoga. The camping vibe also sweetens with a new layout annexing more ground at Carson Creek, now hosting the fest for its second year. In Carson Creek, Morales believes he's found Euphoria's permanent home.
Lately there's been trouble in paradise. This week, complaints from a neighboring farmer – upset about dust, lights, and music volume coming from the property – caused County Commissioners to delay the issuance of mass gathering permits required for upcoming events at Carson Creek Ranch until the parties could agree to a resolution.
Joan Havard, who manages the 55-acre ranch her 102-year-old grandmother still lives on, found herself in a Catch-22. Following several hearings and a meeting with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Havard said she was informed that, in order for promoters to receive mass gathering permits for upcoming events including Euphoria, Untapped, and Levitation (né Austin Psych Fest), she must agree to early cut-off times: 10pm Sunday through Thursday and midnight Friday through Saturday. Before this issue went to press, she told the Chronicle she planned to accept the agreement so upcoming festivals won't be jeopardized. As Havard understands it, end times for music at Euphoria or Levitation will not change this year, but all events thereafter will be limited.
When asked if other event spaces in Travis County that don't sit within city limits would face similar restrictions if a neighbor complained, a representative from the County Commissioners office offered no comment, citing "ongoing negotiations."
County politics is of little concern to the droves of young EDM fans living for the bass drop. For them, only Euphoria awaits.
Agony Column Still Standing
The band that united the pentagram and Confederate flag returns to action this Saturday after 18 years spent largely out of commission. Agony Column's comeback isn't merely a matter of reunion, but of renewed spirit amongst its members.
A true musical oddity of its time, locals Agony Column crossbred thrash metal with gun-rack-glorifying redneck declarations shrieked like a hillbilly Rob Halford by vocalist Richie Turner. Their bizarre Southern satire, first sprouted in 1985, found a national audience after tours with Gwar and Biohazard then attained recorded glory through its 1989 LP God, Guns, & Guts. The genocidal tendencies of that record's title track depict an apocalyptic battle between countrified Christians and the government.
"At the time, those lyrics were fantasy and now it's almost become reality," confides founding guitarist Stuart Lawrence, shaking his head. "There are so many Americans that are frightened of their government and think they need to defend themselves."
The pitchforks and 4x4 trucks were all a farce.
"I was from Boston and I was fascinated with anything Texas," says Turner. "I thought this dumb redneck stuff was a great schtick to run with. As delusional as I might have been, it only came in the form of fantasy."
In their late Eighties/early Nineties heyday, Agony Column's sizable local cult converged in mosh pits on the floor of Liberty Lunch. Turner described it like "a meat grinder."
"People would try to kill each other while we played! It was like the audience had rabies," he says. "They smashed the toilets and climbed over the walls and gigantic fat guys crushed tiny petite girls in the front row. It was just out of control."
Not long after German label Koch released Agony Column's third album, Way Back in the Woods, in 1995, Turner did hard time in Huntsville on drug charges. Continued issues with a speed addiction and incarceration brought Agony Column to a halt in 1997.
"Most of the people in my life were pretty discouraged with me, including myself," says Turner. He left Texas to start a new life, making stops in Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. During that time he got a straight job as a utility operator and started a family.
"Family life is nice," he says. "But if anyone gives me an inkling that I could go back, I would do it because music was me, man."
After a divorce, Turner returned to Austin and joined up with Lawrence, bassist Billy Dansfiell, and drummer Charlie Brownell – Agony Column's lineup since 1993 – to kick-start the band that only reunited three times this millennium. Saturday night at the Lost Well, Turner will grip the mic and scream Hellbilly metal for the first time in years.
"I couldn't be happier to be back in Austin and playing with Agony Column," he says. "I need to make amends with my band and my town."
Red Eyed Fly has been acquired by Elysium and Valhalla owner John Wickham and a group of unspecified partners. Wickham tells "Playback" he signed a lease for "a good length of time" on the venue shortly before South by Southwest and has upgraded the sound system. The building's two stages should provide ample room for the brave event booking Wickham already does at Elysium, as well as serving "local bands who might otherwise fall through the cracks." Whether the club's name will change remains undecided.
Blind leading the blind: Stevie Wonder collaborated with sightless multi-instrumentalist Dwayne "D-Madness" Jackson backstage at the Frank Erwin Center last Saturday. Wonder cooed "D-D-D-D-D Maaadnessssss!" to Jackson's keyboard, playfully adding "Don't look at me like that!" midway through. D-Madness performs Friday at Flamingo Cantina for a birthday tribute to Al Green and Marvin Gaye.
Pedal Steel ace Ricky Davis was hospitalized last week after a dirt bike accident in which he sustained injuries to his back, neck, ribs, and head. Davis' deft picking has highlighted Weldon Henson's Tuesday residency at the Broken Spoke for years. While Ricky recovers, consider chipping in on his medical expenses at www.gofundme.com/qz6ad9s.