The Long, Strange Trip of Austin Psych Festival
When I woke up last Saturday morning in Houston deciding whether to attend Austin Psych Fest, I had barely wanted to go. When I got to the grounds near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, my worst fears were realized: the heat was unbearable, it was dusty, and I spent that afternoon wandering around like a Giacometti statue trying to figure out "Wat Se Fak?" (German for "WTF") I was doing there.
If you're looking for rest and relaxation, this festival might not be the vacation for you next spring. Although thankful for the lift, paying $5 for a chartered school bus to Carson Creek Ranch felt like something out of the commune scene in Easy Rider. Considerably more avant-garde than most music fests, APF was populated by bands with ambition. It's not a place for people to come lounge and luxuriate, but an environment for people who are really, really into music.
Photo by Joe Alfone
The ranch is directly in the Bergstrom flight path, so approximately once an hour a plane would fly over the grounds. Not ironically, many fans traveled from afar afield for APF, with some statistics stating that only 20 percent of attendees hailed from Austin. For a small festival in the middle of Texas, the number of foreigners present was a little mind-boggling, but every time I talked to someone who was not American, I received the same refrain about "the amazing lineup." Could be that popular culture in foreign countries is more forward-thinking than here in the U.S.
One would expect the obligatory "Drop Acid, Not Bombs" T-shirt. Check. "Keep it Surreal." Hadn't seen that one before; check. Two Gallants. My Bloody Valentine. Factory Records. 13th Floor Elevators. Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. There was even a guy in a Guns 'N Roses T-shirt insecurely holding his girlfriend's hand as though he was going to soon lose her.
While listening to the Chicago band Secret Colours, which identifies itself as influenced by '60s psychedelic rock and '90s Britpop, a blonde-haired young woman no older than 25 walked onto the stage for the end of their set and began perfectly singing the chorus of their love song "It Can't Be Simple." However, nothing about this whole damned festival was especially simple, least of all why this amazing young woman would get onstage for one solitary song.
Photo courtesy of Secret Colours
But once I stopped trying to figure out what APF was and started to "go with the flow," as it were, I began to enjoying the festival immensely. Sunday, I stopped looking at the schedule and just started walking from stage to stage checking out music I knew absolutely nothing about with only three stages, it did not take that much energy to visit each one.
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Isobel Sollenberger of Bardo Pond
Photo courtesy of John Gibbons
Other highlights included Philly psych-rockers Bardo Pond and their effusive singer/flautist Isobel Sollenberger. In the years that I have watched this prolific, committed and well-travelled group bounce around indie labels (starting in '97), it's been bewilding why they've had never had a wide release on a major label and become more of a fixture in mainstream culture. But Saturday afternoon they played in front of one of APF's the larger audiences, making me realize they had in fact "made it" in a different way and on their own terms.
Toy, from Bristol, England, probably had the biggest "buzz" of the fest. Around 20 long-lensed shutterbugs clicked away at the band during their set of fuzzed-out guitars, loud distortion, and lengthy shoegazer progressions. Social media seems to indicate that Toy has broken through a "ceiling" in terms of the massive number of fans which typically requires some kind of presence on television.
Photo by Joe Alfone
Other highlights included the Octopus Project, the theremin-packing Austin band with Houston roots; Christian Bland of the Black Angels (who founded APF seven years ago) and his other band the Revelators fuzzing it out in front of a packed audience; and the UK's Temples, who can simply be described as "the next Arctic Monkeys" because they fit the template for "Great Young British Band" that country seems to produce without fail every two years.
And finally, American electronic act Tobacco, who closed out the festival Sunday evening with heavy beats against a multimedia-infused backdrop of 80s "found video" ephemera. Quite a trip.
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