Playback – Sike Fest: Levitation Canceled

Levitation 2016, a bitter pill for all

Black Angels, blue skies: Levitation founders Christian Bland (l) and Alex Maas played a make-up show at the Scoot Inn last Saturday. (Photo by John Anderson)

The weatherman is a liar and a fearmonger, accentuating the negative to generate website clicks from the timid masses checking back to see if the forecast has improved. Or so I overheard organizers of Eeyore's Birthday announce at a volunteer meeting last Wednesday. Despite the doom, gloom, wind, and thunderstorms prognosticated by midweek meteorologists, the depressed donkey's birthday bash triumphed on Saturday with bloodshot eyes squinting back sunshine and nary a raindrop falling on many a naked breast.

Meanwhile, Austin's psychedelic music festival, Levitation – which had third eyes buggin' with a lineup starring Ween, Brian Wilson, Flying Lotus, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Courtney Barnett – was abruptly canceled late last Thursday afternoon due to concerns about dangerous weather. Travis County Emergency Services took responsibility for the shutdown in a press release specifying potential severe storms, strong winds, large hail, tornado warnings, and high water levels in the Colorado River.

"We were in disbelief," Levitation founder Rob Fitzpatrick told "Playback" on Tuesday. "We had a bad forecast in 2015 and we made it through. It was a soup of storms and we didn't know what would hit us. This year, the forecast showed a wall of weather that seemed to be coming towards us, but I'm far from a weather expert. We just couldn't believe the county was canceling the festival, because it didn't seem like the right thing to do."

For many music fans whose weekend plans were thrown into chaos by Levitation's annulment, the decision to call the whole festival off seemed capricious, as gorgeous spring weather unfolded throughout the waking hours of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Only on Saturday morning at 4am did a short but severe storm manifest, with hard rain and 60 mph winds ripping through the Eastside ranch, levitating empty tents, toppling porta-potties, and flooding small sections of the festival grounds.

"There's no way we could have had an event today," Carson Creek Ranch owner Joan Havard told "Playback" on Saturday morning after snapping a photo of a tent impaled through a tree limb. "And it's a good thing we didn't have campers there. We would've had to do a mass evacuation."

Havard also noted that the section of the Colorado River that borders the festival grounds was flowing dangerously high and hard.

"If someone fell in the river, it wouldn't have been a rescue. It would have been a retrieval."

It stands to reason, considering that the rainfall was heavier during last year's Levitation – and many other music festivals we've all endured – that organizers could've conceivably suspended camping, put wood chips down in wet areas on Saturday, and rallied to execute a full weekend at CCR. Instead, the cancellation brought into question whether financial concerns impacted the decision. A representative for Levitation indicated last Monday that ticket sales were below expectations.

Despite reports that the cancellation was a consensus between organizers, venue owners, and county officials, Fitzpatrick confirms it was out of his team's hands.

"The folks from the county who made that call are dealing with life-and-death stuff," he said. "I'm glad we weren't making the decision, because we would've tried to go through with it."

Fitzpatrick confirmed that Levitation was equipped with cancellation insurance, but didn't yet know what exactly it would cover. "Playback" reached out to brokers offering Showstoppers Event Cancellation Insurance, where an executive told us that cancellation insurance for a festival ranges from covering production and talent costs to paying out anticipated growth revenue. Meaning – like Mel Brooks' The Producers – you can make money off a music festival that's canceled due to weather.

"We insured the baseline, so when it's all said and done we'll probably be zeroed out," Fitzpatrick predicted. "I'm looking at not getting paid for a year's work."

Fitzpatrick says he and booker Graham Williams of co-promoters Transmission Events scrambled to find a large venue to move the festival to, but none were available. The silver lining on the not-so-gray clouds was a Herculean booking effort to quickly reroute orphaned Levitation acts into Downtown clubs. On Friday, 14 ticketed makeup shows were announced, each $5, raising money for flood relief in Texas.

Demand was so high that the event information page crashed and all tickets sold out immediately.

The relief shows brought out the best in bands, with headliners delivering inspired performances to packed venues: Lucky ticketholders got to witness fest founders the Black Angels deliver a peak performance; Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats' long-awaited Texas debut; a reunion from Brit shoegazers Slowdive; the three-paper-joint of Boris, Sunn O))), and Sleep; and Thee Oh Sees-like spazz of Australia's King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, who made fans rain down from the rafters during Sunday's closing ceremonies at Barracuda.

Meanwhile, C3 Presents staged Animal Collective at Emo's; KUTX welcomed Imarhan, Dungen, and Parquet Courts to Studio 1A; three house parties offered Levitation programming; and an excellent all-female Ween tribute act called Poon – fronted by Invincible Czars' Leila Henley – worshipped the Boognish at Dozen Street on Saturday night.

Alas, there was no real Ween, no Brian Wilson, no Flying Lotus – none of Levitation's top headliners. Williams confirms that all were in discussion to play makeup gigs, but lack of availability for big venues on short notice made it a challenge.

"I don't hold it against them at all," adds Fitzpatrick. "They wanted to make it work, but it had to be the right room. They aren't interested in doing underplays."

Too bad; we'd have loved to see Brian Wilson at Beerland.

Ultimately, there just wasn't enough Levitation to go around. Scalpers charged $150 for Sleep tickets, and many fans who originally had festival passes couldn't secure entry to a single club gig. The mood was therefore divided: Inside the venues, out-of-towners vowed to come back every year. On the outside, others couldn't believe what a bummer their weekend had become.

Fitzpatrick says Levitation will return next year, but he's not sure what it will look like.

"It feels like we're starting over," he says. "We're going to be rethinking everything at this point. Some people are understandably upset, but others have been supportive. It's all strengthened my resolve because there's something here larger than our organization."

Half Notes

R.I.P. Kenny Wagner: The longtime staple of Austin's rock scene who lived as loud as he played drums, died last Thursday at the age of 44. Wagner hailed from back East, where he beat skins in notable heavies Four Walls Falling, Sixty Watt Shaman, and Halfway to Gone. Relocating to Austin after the new millennium, the gregarious Wagner drummed for Honky, Tommy Mack & the Lifters, and Split Hoof. Wagner had been hospitalized with critical liver problems since last month.

ACL Fest unveiled its 2016 lineup today, mowing down Zilker Park Sept. 30-Oct. 2 and Oct. 7-9. The lineup began to take shape Wednesday as C3 Presents engaged in some P.T. Barnum-style street promotion, leaking Mumford & Sons, LCD Soundsystem, and Haim via roadside sign-spinners. Radiohead, widely believed to be the fest's über headliner, wasn't announced at press time. Tickets for both weekends go on sale at 10am today, Thursday, with three-day general admission passes running $255 and single-day tickets going for $100.

Amy Boone, bassist/singer for bygone Austin renegades Damnations TX and currently a member of country soul stirrers the Delines, sustained serious injuries to her legs and feet last Wednesday when a parking car accelerated instead of braking, pinning her against a building. An outpouring of support, both financial and emotional, has arrived via a GoFundMe page, which has collected over $20,000 for her medical expenses.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Levitation 2016, Rob Fitzpatrick, Graham Williams, Transmission Events, Reverberation Appreciation Society, The Black Angels, Brian Wilson, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Sleep, Animal Collective

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