Levitation Vancouver: not quite ripe but well on its way

King Tuff - All photos by Jason Tweten
King Tuff – All photos by Jason Tweten

The fruits of Austin Psych Fest blossomed within Vancouver this weekend under its new world-traveling guise, Levitation Festival. For three nights and two days, Vancouver’s most jeaned, tasseled, long-haired, and tattooed music lovers tripped through four different venues to see a stacked lineup of both new-age and classic psych, metal, punk, and at times a combination of all three. Catered in part by local concert-pushing powerhouse Timbre Concerts, the winds of Texas have successfully sown a seed laced with APF’s inherent psychedelic tendencies in the city of Vancouver. But no flower grows without its own special pains.

Let’s start with the good. Here’s how I saw it:

Friday night started by fulfilling a year-long regret of mine that started after I missed the Warlocks when I flew to Austin for Psych Fest. This year, the Rickshaw show was, quite literally, pre-cursed by the Warlocks’ Facebook announcement that their gear had been stolen in San Francisco just two days before they were set to play at the kick-off party. Luckily for everyone, musicians stick together. Through some small miracle, the band was able to borrow enough gear in time to appear on schedule. Before they kicked off their set, lead singer Bobby Hecksher proudly boasted: “You can rob us, but you can’t take our spirit.”

As I stood amongst a crowd of geeky cult fans listening to a stream of relentless rock and roll, which was only overshadowed by seeing more hairspray on stage than what I imagined existed in a Twisted Sister dressing room, I could finally put to rest my biggest chagrin from APF 2014. The rest of the night felt like a blur of lasers and strobe lights as the musically gifted A Place to Bury Strangers sent an excited crowd loose into Main and Hastings to do and consume all sorts of God-knows-what.

The following two days, I arrived early enough at the Malkin Bowl to see all but a few of the bands. Despite a few technical and visual difficulties (seriously, how hard is it to drape a curtain?), the festival flowed pretty well from one band to the next. On we watched as ’60s California psych revival bands like Mystic Braves and Elephant Stone surfed us through waves of reverberation into heavier acts like local droners Three Wolf Moon and the electrified licks of the Witch. A particular highlight for me was seeing an aging Dead Moon shake off the rust to prove that they still have what it takes to not only impress a crowd of long-time Moon fans but also to get special acclaim from legendary Vancouver act Black Mountain. The Black Lips threw their standard rambunctious beer-slinging party to close a very entertaining first night at the Malkin Bowl, while the ones we have to thank for this whole spectacle, the Black Angels, sent us off already satisfied into the Sunday evening.

Dead Moon
Dead Moon

I spent Saturday night – at what almost felt like a best-in-class drumming exhibition – watching what I can only describe as a shamanic-space-psych band named JJUUJJUU lead off a bluesy tempered All Them Witches at the Electric Owl. This was headlined by Dead Meadow, who time after time impress me with their well-established fuzzy dreamscape rock and roll. The second night, I arrived slightly late (due to a ramen-induced lackadaisical bike ride) at the Rickshaw, where the Cosmonauts and Dead Ghosts hyped up the crowd for what I consider to be the most exciting show of the whole festival: King Tuff. I’ll admit, I was only vaguely familiar with the King Tuff catalogue before seeing the band on recommendation from a friend, but it was a hell of a fun time watching this three-piece punk rock group have seemingly even more fun than the on-looking crowd; the stick-spinning percussion of Garett Goddard, the endearing smile beaming from the face of bass player Magic Jake, and the fuck-it attitude of King Tuff himself showed it plainly.

Now that I’ve described some of the good, I’m going to be frank: this is no Austin Psych Fest. Before Levitation Vancouver can truly become the psychedelic music festival destination that we all want for it to be, there’s a few things that need to be re-evaluated:

1.    Stick to simplicity. There was clearly a need for about two less wristband options at this festival, and that’s not including the guest and media passes. Much of the conversation circulating throughout festival-goers on day one had more to do with people being unsure of what venues their wristbands would get them into and less about what bands they were excited to see. Sure, you can blame this problem on the people who clearly hadn’t read their emails correctly, but have we not yet learned that this is a completely unrealistic expectation?

2.    Expand the grounds or change the location. As is, the Malkin Bowl is a well-suited venue for a three-band concert. As the grounds to a 10-hour-long music festival, not so much. Hopefully, this problem will sort itself out as Levitation gains a larger fan base, but I can’t recall the last time I went to a music festival where the local arts and crafts tables, the walking paths, and even the water fountain were inconveniently located outside of the entrance gates.

3.    Drop the price. Charging $135.00+ per two-day weekend pass and anywhere from $15-$40 per show at the three night time venues for an inaugural year of an up-and-coming festival is an extremely short-sighted way to gauge what kind of attendance you’re going to get. I bet I’m not alone when I say that many of my friends would have loved to have gone but had to pass on the full festival experience so that they could continue to feed themselves.

I won’t go much deeper than that for now because even though I could continue to list ways this festival can be better, like all good things, Levitation Vancouver is going to take time to ripen.

At the end of the weekend, I was satisfied with my experience. I applaud the initiative from Timbre Concerts and all the sponsors, and I encourage more of this activity in a city that desperately needs to revitalize the authenticity of its rock and roll scene. Levitation Vancouver may be young, but the roots are definitely starting to take hold.