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Friday, 25 May 2012

Live Review - Austin Psych Fest 5

Emo's East, Austin, Texas, USA
April 27-29

Psychedelic rock is one thing, psychedelic music or “psych” is another thing.  Black Angels lead singer Alex Maas famously noted “four 80-year-old women in yellow bikinis playing the banjo” is psychedelic.  I don’t see the point, but given the success of The Black Angels, all the bands that play with them during their annual Psych Fest, no matter what they sound like, are suddenly psych. Psych is the new garage.  Anyone can claim the title and suddenly, it’s cool, especially at Psych Fest.  The mainstay for most fans of the “new” genre is almost entirely centered on shoegaze, and anything with drone and reverb, but Austin Reverb Appreciation society, the organizers of Psych Fest in conjunction with The Black Angels, have gotten more ambitious over the past two years.  What started as a gathering of The Black Angels and their friends in different bands has branched out into a full offering not just the expected drone and reverb, stoner jam rock, but fuzz, jangly, more traditonal “psychedelic rock” bands, some heavier, raunchier garage psych bands, and quite a few surprises.

The above mentioned diversity was the center of this year’s Psych Fest, a three day festival starting in the afternoon and ending around two am or later with two different stages going simultaneously.  Last year’s event venue was The Seaholm Power Plant, an abandoned Bauhaus style electrical plant in downtown Austin.  The combination of the music and the architecture was something to behold, so the bar was set pretty high for this year.  Seaholm is being converted to high end shops, so it wasn’t available, and Psych Fest has attendance in the thousands, so it’s not easy finding a venue with two large stages.  As the trend is going in Austin, things are moving East, so Psych Fest was held this year at the newly opened Emo’s East, which was previously a legendary venue off of Austin’s Sixth Street District, with a second stage through an outdoor corridor in the same strip mall at the also newly opened Beauty Bar Ballroom.

With The Black Angels as hosts, they started the first day this year, leaving the festival open for other acts to take the spotlight and build to a climax.  Among the highlights the first day were The Allah Las, a So-Cal retro psych band that sound entirely analog with touches of surf and LA folk rock. They were followed by Acid Baby Jesus, the swampy four piece from Athens, Greece that sound like The Stones meet King Khan on ouzo.  They performed multiple times all over town that weekend in various states of inebriation and disorder, which only seem to add to their performances, but their Psych Fest appearance was a little bit reserved, although great nonetheless.

The evening’s surprise came with Disappears, whose lineup includes Brian Case of The Ponys and Steve Shelley, formerly of Sonic Youth.  Their sound is best described as shoegaze with heavy helpings of noise pop innovation and krautrock.

Also playing the first day were The Night Beats, a psychotic, acid tinged rock band from Seattle that conjure up Pebbles Volume III and more 13th Floor Elevators than one can imagine, but with a captivating, peyotic performance.

The Black Angels closed the first day with their always intense performance.  They’ve always been something to behold and the performance always leaves one stunned for about a half hour later trying to take in what they just heard and saw, but the added treat this year was their new bass/alternating guitar player Rishi Dhir from Elephant Stone and previously from The High Dials.  His sound a stronger sense of harmony that made The Black Angels fuller and more rounded, if that’s possible, not to mention his sitar playing on The Black Angels’ staple performance song “Manipulation”.

Day Two had 24 bands playing in 12 hours over two stages.  This was best described as Psych Fest Veterans Day with returning acts from the past few years taking the stage, then followed by some newer, more diverse additions.  Among the early performing vets were Vacant Lots and local acid rockers Smoke and Feathers.  Things weren’t remarkable until jangly noise veterans (and Psych Fest II performers) The Asteroid #4 took the stage later in the afternoon and asked the crowd during soundcheck on one of the guitars if the reverb was wet enough, when an attendee yelled “soak us in it!”.  The Asteroid #4 always seemed like an incredible contradiction.  Their songs are melodic, noisy, heavy, yet possess truly psychedelic rock ambiance and Byrds-like harmony.  The combination is always striking. For all the Piper at The Gates of Dawn namedropping so overstated in the “psych” crowd, this band is the closest thing to it while retaining pop simplicity. Their 2011 release “Hail to The Clear Figurines” was one of the best albums released that year, and their earlier work is also comparable  in paisley underground era pop filtered through drone and reverb with nods to The Church and Rain Parade. Their performance was a highlight of the weekend.

A curious addition to the lineup was Denton’s Mindspiders, a garage punk leaning act with members of The Marked Men, Bad Sport, High Tension Wires, and a few more.  Given the ‘60s projection vibe of the festival, their inclusion was odd, but they’re exciting, high energy set was lauded by the crowd, not to mention that most couldn’t turn away from their performance.

In some otherworldly psych syncopation, they were followed by Psych Fest III vets Spindrift, who can only be described as The Ventures on acid playing spaghetti western with Ennio Morricone.  While slow and atmospheric of frontier towns and crawling scorpions at times, their up tempo songs are horse galloping Indian war cries. Even more impressive is their distinctiveness, with Kirkpatrick Thomas as an electric guitar slinging narrator, Henry Evans with his Double Dano howling and moving with the rhythm, and Sasha Vallely on organ, keyboard, and flute providing softer reprieves.  Although a concept, Spindrift symbolizes the evolution and completion of psychedelic rock with songs that are hard, loud, combining surf music with Gram Parsons style Americana, British shoegaze, dust in your mouth, big skies, saloons, warpaint, and even a little Hawaiian thrown in.  They are definitely a soundtrack.

With so many acts playing non-stop, there will always be hit and misses.  A side effect of the festival is that many different acts are indistinguishable from one another with drone and stoner rock jamming.  An example of this drone out was Entrance Band, who did a horrendous Deep Purple drenched version of Love’s “A House Is Not a Motel”.  Love and more importantly, Forever Changes is sacred, hallowed ground.  The music is beautiful, soft, harsh, haunting, and filled with multiple subtleties.  Their songs have been covered before with positive results from bands like The Marshmallow Overcoat and Love tribute band Forever Changes, but it succeeds in how it felt to the ears.  It was rhythmic and possessed a similar atmosphere of those contradictions. That harmonic conflict is essential to Love, and was missing in Entrance Band’s performance to the effect of more than disappointment.

Among the fans’ pics of the day was The Jesus and Mary Chain style fuzz of Iceland’s Singapore Sling.  The current lineup has some original members and a few from The Meek, another one of the weekend’s fuzz overdosed but always enjoyable performers.  One should take note that just about anything from Scandinavia is far above average.  Turbo Negro, The Sugarcubes, The Hives, The Hellacopters, Norwegian death metal, it’s all pretty memorable.  Singapore Sling is no exception and ended their too brief 45 minute set with “Life is Killing My Rock ‘N’ Roll”, a great anthem, if there ever was one.

 In a climactic close to the evening, the always surprising to say the least Black Lips took the main stage.  Their appearance was looked forward to with some apprehension.  They’re raw, raunchy, loud, their antics and sense of wild freedom on stage that encourages pure mayhem and moshing, plus they’re really a garage rock act with heavy psychedelic overtones that almost defines pure teenage kicks is always the most fun one could have at a show, but many wondered how it would go over with the mellow drone “psych” fans.  Although they promised to behave, they also had a few tricks up their sleeve.  They played their set in a constant barrage onstage of toilet paper, heavy fans with streamers, and a hefty supply of beer happily shared with the crowd.  What started as a small moshpit became an endless sea, minus those who stepped far back in uncertainty about whether or not this was really “psych.”  Nevertheless, the performance was electric and wowed everyone, with many people from other bands and a few friends joining them on stage, dancing, and possibly copying their antics, which one almost can’t help but doing when they see The Black Lips.  Their inclusion this year was definitely groundbreaking, not to mention they picked up a whole new group of devotees.

As most Sundays go, things start later.  Day Three was no exception, and it was a good thing, mostly to sleep off the party launched by The Black Lips the night before.  Kicking off the day was a late addition to the festival, Get Hip Recordings band The Ripe.  They’re a sugary sweet power pop band with a surprising punch.  Most of their material was brand new, stemming from their recent trip to Gijon, Spain to record with Jorgé Explosion at Circo Perotti.  Best known for his production for bands such as The Masonics, Hollywood Sinners, The Urges, Wau Y Los Arrrghs, The Staggers, and countless great garage revival acts, but also the fourth member of The Ripe, whose absence was felt despite The Ripe’s vibrance as a three-piece.

Other acts performing included Brooklyn Raga Association, a full sitar and tabla band with the compulsory belly dancer, the very young but well seasoned over the past year of touring Secret Colors, who present a perfect synthesis of VU and Rickenbacker jangle, the gothic leaned Wall of Death, and Psych Fest favorites Wooden Ships.  The evening performances became a festival to behold, starting with the great western blues  via African desert music from Niger’s Bombino.  With him and his band fully dressed in Nigerien (not Nigerian) desert garb and phenomenal telecaster work, the crowd felt honoured and lucky to see him.

With further surprises, San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees came on stage and rocked out the crowd to double drummed, loud and raw psych tunes.  This was another band outside of the standard fare for most “psych” fans, but in true compliment to Austin Reverb Appreciation Society, this was another slice of the psychedelic pie that had to be heard in keeping with a theme that it’s not just drone and reverb.  The low-fi, DIY energy of Thee Oh Sees and their willingness to play almost anywhere for any size crowd fit them in with Psych Fest V well, not to mention that their performances always show how much they love playing for people.  The crowd responded enthusiastically.

The following act was an all out wild performance flying into tangents by legends (and locals) The Meat Puppets, who played new material as well as crowd-pleasers “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire”, as well as their grunge era hit “Backwater”.  They’re well known for psyhedelic overtones, but given their history as country tinged punk (not cowpunk), it was further proof that this year was about diverse psychedelic music and not the familiar narrow interpretation often associated with modern psych.

If there’s a father of modern psych, it’s Anton Newcombe and his now stable lineup in The Brian Jonestown Massacre.  His following is more than loyal, with many modern acts citing him as an influence, even at the point of overshadowing his own influences.  Despite critical acclaim and being strongly prolific, Anton’s rants and reputation are often better known than his music.  No matter how infamous his words and press, Anton is not only dedicated to his art, but genuinely approachable and dedicated to his fans, both old and new.  BJM’s arrival to the stage at Psych Fest V as the closing act was therefore, only fitting in a Punk Meets The Godfather way.  With no hurries, three Fender Twin Reverb amps, multiple eye-popping Vox and Hagstrom 12-strings, a mellotron, and the band’s proprietary drum kit was assembled, followed by multiple towels and beverages, for the late start of BJM.  Anton, cigarette in mouth, took to his stool, picked up his Vox 12-string, gave Emo’s the historic nostalgic nod, and reached out to the crowd, letting them know this was a real event and a culture filled with substance outside of the mainstream.  The rest of the evening drifted out in a muddy drone of reverb filled haze of light and sound.


Austin Psych Fest V and its organizers made a tremendous effort to outdo themselves this year by showing it as multi genre and encompassing.  Nevertheless, modern psychedelic and unfortunately, many of the followers who say they’re into psychedelic rock have a narrow interpretation: Drone and reverb. For a festival to truly be a “psychfest”, acts such as The Cynics, Los Peyotes, Wyld Olde Souls, Magic Christian, The Higher State, The Urges, and countless others who play a more vintage psychedelic rock or who even were the forebearers such as ? and The Mysterians and The Left Banke should be included.  Nevertheless, Psychfest V and its organizers were very, very ambitious this year in making it more diverse.  It is more than likely that they’ll outdo themselves again next year and surprise both their greatest fans and harshest critics, me included.

Michael Passman

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