I started planning a trip to Europe back in the Spring. The plan originated as a scheme to meet my partner across the pond and travel throughout Italy. While wracking through cheapo flights to a cooperatively decided meeting point, Levitation Fest France was announced, and all of the sudden the 20 bucks more that it cost to fly into Paris rather than London seemed like a reasonable fee for a weekend of psych, wine, and oui-oui’s.
Levitation (fka Austin Psych Fest), began in 2008. The festival grew to be a well-curated and internationally loved event. In 2014 the festival re-branded started branching out to other cities, including Vancouver BC, Chicago and Angers, France, and Levitation was re-born.
Angers is a quaint and charming village about two hours southwest of Paris in the Loire Valley, a region famous for its wine and rolling hills dotted with castles. My friends and I left Paris by car the afternoon of the first day of the festival, enjoying each other’s company, listening to some of the lineup artists, and shucking some oysters we picked up at the morning market in Paris. When we arrived in Angers the exit guided us along the wall of one of said castles. Across the river was the festival venue, Le Quai, its modern iron frame standing in intriguing juxtaposition to the ancient fortress.
Le Quai is a multi-function venue that hosts theater performances, film screenings and various other community events throughout the year. At first glance, the building seemed a little sterile for a parade of psychedelic rock and its enthusiasts. The main stage room, a sound engineer’s nightmare (although they dialed in the sound perfectly!), had three-story square ceilings, a full wall of windows and massive doors opened to the food-truck court outside.
We walked into the band Holy Wave (Austin, TX) playing their groovy surfy psych rock. The space was warm and basked in beautiful lights and faces, and we were instantly immersed. We headed out to the patio with our beers, surrounded by the Wonderland-esque decor, and could hear the tunes from our seats.
Scattered across the picnic tables were stickers, promos, lineup schedules, and a little booklet that read “Austin Days”. The booklet was a roadmap for a week-long convergence of French and Texan art and music. As we flipped through the activities and info we found out that Angers and Austin are sister cities, finally revealing some connection to the seemingly eclectic choice of location.
After Holy Wave we headed over to the second performance room. We made our way through long dark hallways drenched with various light installations. Waves of red beams undulated from floor to ceiling and warped the hallway from end to end. The passage opened up into another courtyard, named The Patio, with a massive bar and tents full of cozy lounge seating lit with lamps. The 4 story walls of the courtyard were fully illuminated with projected windows and psychedelia creating the sense that you were in a large warehouse studio surrounded by comrades. The glowing graphics were curated by The Mustachio Light Show (who’s worked extensively with the Black Angels) and effectively transformed the rigid space into a fully immersive experience. Upon entry to the second stage, it was immediately a different vibe. It was smaller than the main room with a capacity of about 1,500 and completely devoid of light that made the stage appear cinema-like. The first band we caught there was Prettiest Eyes, the LA trio featuring a pretty gritty, fiery, hard psych-tinged rock. The band was super energetic and the crowd followed suit, riling up a mosh pit and shouting along.
Back at the main stage, The Soft Moon was queuing up. The Oakland based Post-Punk group was sultry and hypnotizing. The dual drumming and synchronized light show drew everyone like bugs to a lamp, while swaying in a trance.
The night ended with an epic set by Brian Jonestown Massacre followed by Bordeaux based artist, J.C. Satan. I’ve seen BJM many times and have always enjoyed hearing their vast catalog and whatever charged banter Antone Newcombe springs on the crowd and his own band. I’ve gotta say, he was the tamest I’ve ever seen him before, although most fans will brush off his often questionable profanities in exchange for the music. He spoke about his mother’s death last year and asked the crowd to send her good energy. For one of the final songs he implored us to imagine the sound waves as forest energy, making the mushrooms “grow through the floor to the sun on the other side.” Though some were left scratching their noggins, we all joyfully accepted this relaxed and inspired Newcombe. But the real star of the show was Mr. Joel Gion, percussionist-extraordinaire and longest running member of the band. The crowd screamed and applauded when he walked out with his tambourine and continued to praise him throughout the set.
J.C. Satan was the first real music discovery experience I had. They have this unique blend of post-punk and psych rock and sing their songs in English with an exciting stage presence. Their label Born Bad Records is a highly reputable rock/psych/electronic label out of Paris that continues to highlight incredible new artists as well as various compilations that feature French music from decades past.
Night two kicked off with the Parisian band Juniore. A really fun vibey, French new wave surf rock trio that was paid homage to 60/70’s French Pop artists like Francois Hardy, France Gall, and Serge Gainsbourg with a modernized sound.
We touched back down in LA with Sextile, a synth-heavy post-punk trio with two musical genius women serving drums/synth/guitar while their male frontman roamed the stage and hyped up the crowd. These three proved to be my favorite new artists of the weekend.
By now it was clear that this Levitation was showcasing artists with synth-heavy versions of danceable psych-influenced music, with a lot of drum machines, keyboards and electronic gadgetry vs guitar-centric bands.
We cruised through the epic merch room, lined on all four walls with beautiful screen-printed posters from tons of artists and past festivals. A local crew had a vintage pop-up and charged 10 bucks for custom printing on your new piece. I fell for an old cotton short sleeve button up, with circus stripes and a graphic on the back of blazing comet with the French translation of “galivanting in the stars,” a pretty spot-on sentiment of the Levitation experience.
Queuing up at the main stage, we patiently waited for multinational group MIEN. Comprised of Alex Maas of the Black Angels as well as sitar wizard Rishi Dhir of Elephant Stone, The Horrors Tom Furse, and The Earlies’ John Mark Lapham, the band is “not a supergroup, but a group still the same.” They released their debut record earlier this year had only played one show at Levitation Austin in April before heading out on this Europe Tour. I’m a big fan of all these members’ bands as well as their record so I was really hyped to catch them in France. The live show was natural and seamless with energy building to the very end. All the while The Mustachio Light Show kept eyes peeled and minds open.
Next up was the French artist Flavien Berger. This guy was amazing. Flying solo he played seven-to-10 minute tracks that moved in and out with intriguing transitions, all electronic with French vocals creating a dance-heavy crowd. He’s been compared as the Mac Demarco of France, but the guy carried his own unique energy and the tracks of layered ethereal sounds stood apart, and this carries over to the album. Berger was one of my favorite artists of the weekend.
Netherland based group Radar Men From the Moon took over the small stage. Four guys rocking various electronics and drum machines simultaneously creating dark, eerie, ambient at times, instrumental techno that was minimal-esque with slow-building tracks. Once again I was pulled into a trance that built to the very end when they were all slamming on their machines. I met one of the band members afterward and briefly chatted. They haven’t toured much yet. Hopefully, they make it to the US soon, because they will blow minds.
The night slowly capped with a super solid performance by UK artist Spiritualized. Jason Pierce (formally of Spaceman 3) has been crafting fine-tuned electronic rock since the 90’s and I’ve always missed them when they’ve played Seattle. The set featured around nine people on stage with three back up soul vocalists and a tight band. I really enjoyed the set, although the new record hasn’t quite grown on me yet. But this isn’t an album review, Spiritualized is certainly an iconic band that deserves only positive commentary. It was an incredibly memorable experience to see them in France.
The last performance of the festival was from the French band Rende-Vous. On a post-punk heavy bill, this quintet didn’t disappoint. These guys were the one band I had the pleasure to meet and chat with for a while. We met in their green room and successfully babbled through an interview. Super nice guys from Paris (big KEXP fans) who are now gaining momentum with a lot of potential. They haven’t toured the states yet but I’m sure we will see them over here soon. Their set was a potent performance of guitar-heavy post-punk rock with screaming vocals that got the crowd headbanging and moshing. Continuez votre bon travail, Rende-Vous!
The Levitation brand name is enough to go check out their festivals but this version in France was a really cool festival to experience. It was very well curated with eye feasting visuals, continuous good tunes, and talkative locals in a town that knew how to bring the spirit. A lesson from the French; keep your damn phones in your pockets folks, enjoy the ride.
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