Jesus & Mary Chain's 'Honey' Can't Sweeten a Harsh Levitation Fest

As the sun grew tired of further dehydrating the crowd at the Levitation Festival last Saturday afternoon on Carson Creek Ranch, free water bottles were handed out to the crowd before San Francisco's Thee Oh Sees took the stage. Festivalgoers seized the bottles, ripping them out of the hands to whom they were originally handed. An elderly man wearing a T-shirt that read “If you want to see Jesus, you need to take a trip” — featuring a cartoonish Jesus with thumb extended forward, one eye winking to make sure that you, too, got the lame joke — was danced to a rhythm only he heard in his mind.

Thee Oh Sees had taken the stage earlier than anticipated. Toilet paper launched in the air, unraveling until it directly hit a girl in the head. The same water bottles generously given to the crowd were just as liberally hurled at the band onstage. “I Come from the Mountain” spawned a pit, and full cans of Dos Equis hit moshers and the stage indiscriminately. The band didn’t mind the debris; neither did the crowd. Thee Oh Sees performed with malice, shredding through songs from their upcoming album Mutilator Defeated at Last. John Dwyer, the band’s front man, howled into the microphone, “Thank you very fucking much, Austin! Woo!”

The band's set lasted for more than an hour, and was one of the few redeeming things about the festival. Although Levitation housed bands from genres that stretch the meaning of psychedelia, the music was at least a suitable distraction for the endless conversations before, during and after each performance. And one thing was for certain about Levitation: this was capitalism at its finest.

The perimeter of the festival grounds east of Austin looked like an encampment of Bedouin tents. These white tents, sullied by rain and debris, provided plenty of opportunities for spending hard-earned money on everything from jewelry to massages. Marlboro Black’s kiosk invited people into its pitch-black tent like an adult bookstore randomly placed on Highway 71. Food trailers offered festivalgoers everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to vegan burgers.

“Is there any other kind of beer than this Dos Equis piss?” was the diatribe of the day.

People wandered the muddied grounds in anticipation of the evening’s headliner, The Jesus and Mary Chain. On one side of the festival were the VIP haves, “safely” barricaded from the have-nots like a gated suburban community. The haves were seated under makeshift canopies on leather couches. This privilege, aptly labeled “deluxe,” had access to better liquor and expensive Whole Foods cuisine. Small children, teenagers with Kool-Aid-colored hair, working professionals and hippies Snapchatted their friends, delighting themselves with moments normally taken for granted.

But Saturday night belonged to The Jesus and Mary Chain, and it was poetic that Primal Scream performed just beforehand. As the drummer for the Mary Chain, Bobby Gillespie, front man for the latter group, fashioned the famous, Phil Spector-inspired beat that opens “Just Like Honey.” During the Mary Chain's nascent stages Gillespie’s setup was nothing more than a large floor tom and a snare, both struck by mallets. As legend has it, the band wanted him to play like the Velvet Underground's Mo Tucker, standing instead of sitting.

Today, Primal Scream is equally famous. Great irony occurred when they performed “Kill All Hippies” at the festival. Unlike that of their counterparts, Primal Scream's sound has actually evolved. This crowd danced manically to “Shoot Speed/Kill Light,” failing to slow down even during the drug-soaked songs and odes to miserable relationships like “Swastika Eyes.” As Primal Scream's 14-song set came to a crashing end, the sunstroked and desiccated mob nonetheless possessed enough ire to see the 30th anniversary performance of Psychocandy.

Before paying homage to their own masterpiece, The Jesus and Mary Chain opened up with “April Skies,” a stand-out track from the band’s second album, Darklands. The Brothers Reid executed their act as they did 30 years ago, Jim Reid casually wrapping his right hand around the microphone, pulling the mike stand toward him, occasionally lunging forward and then looking down during William Reid’s guitar exhortations.

The crowd erupted when Jim Reid crooned the famous opening lines of "Head On" — “As soon as I get my head ‘round you” — a song that inspired the Pixies to add the track to their album Trompe Le Monde. The fuzz and feedback that launched a thousand bands in the same way the Ramones had some years prior reigned supreme. The epitome of psychedelia, The Mary Chain wore their influences on their sleeves, from Bo Diddley to Roky Erickson to Phil Spector.

After performing an encore in reverse, the band played their seminal 1985 album Psychocandy in their middle ages. Richer in production and sonically pristine, if anything was lost in the 30 years since the album changed the world, it was the filthy, muddy, scuzzy feedback. At times, the band tried to replicate the same tones and jagged razor-edged sound, but time and better equipment have helped erode their “play your amp, not guitar” ethos. Like a player piano, the Mary Chain went through the set, and those drunk on not just Dos Equis but nostalgia didn’t mind. Heck, everyone was too tired to mind. The crowd bobbed their heads as one song blended into the next until “It’s So Hard” signaled the end of the evening, underwhelmingly.

Dave Grohl has complained that album anniversary shows are for-profit only events. Yet, rumor has it that the Brothers Reid have placed their differences aside and embraced the idea of writing new material. Until then, their fans will have to settle for the high-school-reunion motif we got last weekend.

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Stephan Wyatt