Austin Psych Fest 2014: Enter Planet Dust

Words by Michael Pinchera / Photos by Dian Barber

Not even the promise of filth could ruin the 2014 Austin Psych Fest as the breadth of the event, psychedelic music, and its fans continues to grow year over year.
The forecast of clear weather for the entire three-day festival brought smiles to the thousands of people that trekked out to Carson Creek Ranch—there would be no torrential rainfall as happened one messy evening last year, the first time the event incorporated camping. These early days in May would have warm afternoons, cool nights and some refreshing breeze, perfect for an outdoor gathering of tribes. However, most areas of Texas (including Austin) are experiencing an ongoing, yearslong drought. Combine that with the foot traffic, staff and security four-wheel vehicles, and intense reverberation from the sound systems at the three stages and we were all on a planet transforming into Arrakis. Dirt was everywhere. Small dust devils (imagine tiny tornadoes that don’t cause any damage) sprang to life all weekend. The dirt particulates were so prevalent that many of those camping only bathed once (if at all) because upon emerging clean from the restroom, they would quickly be re-coated, inside and out, with dirt.
There was also a recurring thread in my head during the subsequent festival days: This event is one of the destinations where “burners” are going instead of the summer Nevada-desert-based temporary autonomous zone Burning Man, following that event’s meteoric overpopulation. Given the Austin Psych Fest’s visible growth, at least one attendee wondered out loud if the 2015 edition would institute a lottery system, like Burning Man, to randomly determine who can buy tickets first. I simply wondered, “Did the burners bring all of this dirt with them?”

A long queue awaited me to initially enter the campground because the security guards were searching all baggage. One of the guards erroneously bellowed, “No weapons or fire!” to which smart comments erupted from those roasting in the sun-soaked procession: “So I’ve got to bring the fire back to me car?” and “I hope you’re not smuggling fire in your pocket.” Presumably a financial matter (for insurance and profit), this measure was primarily to weed out weapons and alcoholic beverages—the latter of which could, of course, be purchased once inside Carson Creek Ranch.

During the hour-long wait/natural tanning session, my examination of the festival’s audience began in earnest. I’d already met attendees from throughout the U.S., but I was thrilled to see that the international contingent was still in effect. Queued up, I spoke with two twentysomethings from Jakarta, Indonesia, who extended their American vacation upon learning about the Austin Psych Fest. In the campground, my most immediate neighbor included a young man from Manchester, England, who was sharing a tent with a pair of gals from Toronto, Canada. I also quickly encountered, among the sea of humanity, people I’d met at last year’s festival who had once again traveled from as far away as Australia and France to soak up the best psychedelic music and vibes available in the world. Notably, even though he didn’t travel far, Thor (the tent mallet god last year) unknowingly set up camp perhaps three metres from me. The vibes grew ever more pleasant and the comfortable community feel first experienced in 2013 came back to me—this was already becoming a reunion.

As fans explored the festival grounds that first afternoon, many paused near the Elevation Amphitheatre (a medium-sized staging area on the banks of the Colorado River) to take a photo of or quizzically look upon this sign nailed to a tree:It’s otherwise tempting to cool off in the stunning waters of the longest river (almost 1,400 km) to begin and end in Texas. Similarly, this was to be a long, exhilarating, and exhausting weekend, even though the clear day topped out at a mere 28 degrees Celsius when Gap Dream took to the river stage. During this performance, I met one of the aforementioned burners—a university biology professor from Washington State—who’d had enough of the ever-crowded Burning Man and already found bliss at the spacious Austin Psych Fest, searching for and observing the native amphibian and reptilian wildlife.
Despite being in old Mexico territory—far from their Boston base—Quilt played as though completely at home on the river stage. Their dreamy folk set, sultry and bluesy at times, also made the audience feel at home by the river.
Quilt Chilling by the Colorado River
Anna Fox Rochinski’s sweet voice led to a strong presence onstage during the late-afternoon performance; once offstage, the diminutive singer blushed with compliments from the dozens of admirers that approached her. The weekend was off to a great start.

The first to deliver international flair to the river stage was the African Tuareg group Terakaft. It’s sobering to discover such musicians for which some people the world over already swoon—and have been doing so for decades. Like listening to Os Mutantes or a Peruvian chicha band for the very first time more than a generation after they originally recorded music, this show was a reminder that there are, have been, and will continue to be countless psychedelic gems about which you’ve never heard, singing in hundreds of languages. Savvy musicologists, the Internet and globalization, however, are helping to unearth these performers and place them in front of new eyes and ears on an international scale.

The four members of Terakaft took the stage each dressed in a reflection of their culture: the two Tuareg guitarists, from Algeria and Mali, in turbans and extensively embroidered traditional indigo-colored ankle-length robes; the Pakistani tablaist (playing what looked to be a wooden box that was some sort of magical electric tabla) in a white, subtly embroidered, airy short-sleeved shirt and jeans; the Canadian bassist in a light blue, long-sleeved button-up shirt open with a plain white undershirt and jeans.

“Recursive blues” may be the best way in which to describe that element of Terakaft’s music. The blues developed from work songs and spirituals in post-slavery Southern U.S. African-American communities. That sound made its way all around the world and influenced the music of the repressed and exiled Tuareg people who, ironically, favor the blue of indigo dye. In the final turn, here was an act with two Tuareg musicians, playing their music—exhibiting Middle Eastern, Spanish, and blues influences—in the American south.

An incredible story only bolstered by Terakaft’s talent which mesmerized the audience for what felt like a too-short set as each song could have continued pleasantly for 15 minutes. Halfway through the show, a bearded and dreadlocked young man wearing a sleeveless shirt and a sari-style skirt (typical Burning Man attire, if such a thing exists) began whirling and dancing wildly in front of the stage. His physical expression of excitement spread as he invited a young woman to join him. Within the course of one song, at least a dozen people spanning generations and nationalities had been recruited or joined the dancing pit on their own accord, kicking up more and more dirt with each hop, spin and step. Alas, Terakaft stood out as a special variety of psych music and in doing so began stretching the perception (albeit, culturally) of those at the festival.
Terakaft Plays as the Audience Dances up a Dirt Cloud
I overheard the multicultural expanse of psychedelic music being discussed by some fans on the first day: “Is there any psychedelic rap?” one asked. Indeed, for a genre that includes varieties of most musical stylings—ambient, blues, doom, folk, funk, industrial, metal, noise, pop, punk, reggae, rock—one area not represented well is rap. I pointed the inquisitive psychonauts to the late DJ Screw (pioneer of “screwed and chopped” music) who often made rap psychedelic. What dub is to reggae, screwed and chopped is to rap. DJ Screw is the originator, as was the case with King Tubby is the dub world. Sadly, this rap sub-genre, just as with dub, now consists of “artists” that lack the originator’s vision and creativity.

Relatively early to the modern pop-psych style and masters at it now, The Black Lips surely inspired some younger acts playing this event. Accordingly, The Black Lips offered up the festival’s major first dose of “flower punk” (as the band likes to call it) during an orange, pink and purple sunset at the Reverberation Stage (the largest of the three festival playgrounds).
Their fans found a groove in the performance (two women were dancing on a tall, round wooden table) and looked incredibly pleased (such as the guy relaxing on a blanket while digging through his backpack upon which was handwritten “LOOKING FOR DRUGS”).
My tastes shy away from the pop flavor of psychedelic music that has grown over the past decade—it’s not psychedelic enough, and many bands in this sub-genre fail to effectively differentiate themselves from one another. Where this specific Black Lips show falls on the band’s live spectrum (great, good or “meh”), I cannot say, but I just didn’t feel the music.

It’s likely impossible to not have emotion conjured up when hearing two of the most emblematic songs of the 1960s created by The Zombies. “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There” are incredibly important to the history of psychedelic music, and they both consistently place your mind in the bygone world leading up to the summer of love. Yet, as is the case with most bands from that era, the music is only softly psychedelic compared to how the genre has developed over the past 50 years. At the same time, it’s an honor to experience bands such as The Zombies live, even with just two original members—the ones most important for their sound, Rod Argent (piano/organ/vocals) and Colin Blunstone (vocals).

The Zombies’ vocals and piano formed an optimistic operatic sound, unique at a festival that can also deliver aural doom and trippy noise. However, they followed The Black Lips so I was already wondering when the blast-off psychedelic would return to the festival—that didn’t place me in a great mindset to fully appreciate The Zombies. After several songs, my inner dialogue: “C’mon, play ‘She’s Not There.’” A few songs later, “C’mon, play your hits!” I never think like that and felt shameful for having done so, but they’d failed to grab me with a single song. They played “the hits” for their final two numbers, catapulting everyone back to the 1960s. In that moment, with that crowd, you could believe that just perhaps it was the time of the season for loving.

On the tenth anniversary of DIG!, the lauded documentary that hurled The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre—and their tumultuous relationship—into mainstream consciousness, the two bands came to play the same (relatively) small festival, brought together by mutual friends. Upon release of the event’s schedule, I quickly noted that they were, however, set to play on different days. “They need to play together,” I thought at the time, not just to wow the audience but to further the collaborative aspect of the festival. Too few artists during the Austin Psych Fest join their fellow performers onstage as special guests, whereas it’s the greatest time and place to do so—a heavy concentration of musicians, their friends, and other bands they’ve influenced.

The Dandies appeared Friday evening, musically in the strongest condition in which I’ve ever seen them. They were honed and commanded the main stage in front of thousands of awestruck fans. In DIG!, The Dandies were portrayed as choosing the path of money in contrast to BJM’s Anton Newcombe putting art first. Yet there was nothing but love for The Dandies here. It didn’t take long before lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor welcomed to the stage “friends who are in town practicing”: Enter Newcombe and BJM tambourinist Joel Gion...and the crowd went wild.

Newcombe and Gion joined in for only one song, the BJM classic “Oh Lord,” but the collaboration cast a positive light on the festival as a place where hoped-for (if not unrealistic) surprises actually happen.

The second day at the festival was notably warmer (33 degrees Celsius) by the time the first band emerged, so I found some shade along the river and relaxed, watching kayakers enjoy the calm water and the residual music. Due to increasing temperatures and stronger winds, I wore a bandana around my nose and mouth, in anticipation of an even dustier day.

The Brazilian duo Boogarins continue in the tradition of forefathers Os Mutantes, but I found them to be more compelling and original than the 21st-century output from Sérgio Dias and friends. Their placement early in the day on the river stage was a sublime reminder of the beauty of the Portuguese language and how well it blends with psychedelic sounds.

What should you expect in a musical group from Niger playing this festival? Bombino’s sound on the main stage matched his band’s attire in comparison to the previous day’s Tuareg act, Terakaft—the music more modern and clothing slightly less traditional (shorter sleeves and robes and no turbans). At least a full generation younger than the leads from Terakaft—though also having lived in exile—Omara “Bombino” Moctar expertly fused the Tuareg sound with psychedelic rock. This show concluded a five-week tour, and ended with Moctar and his three bandmates joining arms and bowing repeatedly. They’d earned it. Taken together, the performances from Terakaft and Bombino revealed the evolution and expanse of Tuareg music.

Back on the river stage, The Golden Dawn, one of the original Texas psychedelic groups—contemporaries of the 13th Floor Elevators—was again resurrected in stellar glory to a modest crowd (including at least one woman topped only with a neon-glowing bra). This is music you’ve had little chance to see played live—and one of the great things about this festival—another “lost” gem presented to the psych geeks. The band released only one album (Power Plant, 1968) and broke up that same year. Front man George Kinney reformed the band in 2002 and performed live for a few years (including the 2012 Austin Psych Fest). The sound is classic Texas psych: rock infused heavily with blues and trippy lyrics covering themes of mind expansion and perception. Their live show was louder and more active than that which I’d later hear on their album. Sure, they were playing 46-year-old songs, but the sound wasn’t stale, it had been successfully reinvigorated. I had never before heard The Golden Dawn (recorded or live), but their music and performance grabbed me.

Dead Meadow, next up at the river stage, was “harder” than I’d anticipated—and I was glad for it. Their set vacillated between deep slowness and out-right mind-altering psych—often in the same song. These longtime Austin Psych Fest veterans were a perfect bridge between the bluesy, evolved vintage of The Golden Dawn and the gods of modern psychedelic music, Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso UFOIt thus came time for Kawabata Makoto, Higashi Hiroshi, Tsuyama Atsushi, Tabata Mitsuru, and Shimura Koji to show the kids (young and old, festivalgoers and musicians) how psychedelic rock is done. On the heels of their 2013 Austin Psych Fest show in the Levitation Tent, the Japanese collective were given more and better space and time for their blistering performance this year: 10:15 p.m. at the riverside Elevation Amphitheatre. As is typical, these master musicians sometimes appeared to play effortlessly, while still conjuring up mind-melting spirits. But with the onset of facial gesticulations and limb-, nob-, and instrument-twisting movements in concert with an incredible live environment, the world changed.
This is How the Show Felt
The incredible part is that Acid Mothers Temple does this regularly while touring clubs every year in Europe and America. They’re absolute professionals in blasting chaos to a crowd of 12 or 2,000. This specific performance, however, was special. Of the dozens of times I’ve seen the various Acid Mothers Temple incarnations live, this was the best. A heavy, maddeningly curated, on-point jam that culminated in Kawabata dousing his guitar in butane and setting it ablaze—a bright orange glow that left many dazzling eyes to wonder if the stage itself was burning—while still playing the damned thing. One burn wasn’t enough, though, he ignited the guitar four times during their closing minutes. It’s one feat to play a flaming guitar; it’s leagues more impressive to do so with long, wild hair, such as that bouncing and pouring off of Kawabata’s head.
Yes, the Austin Psych Fest is put on by the Reverberation Appreciation Society (co-founded by The Black Angels’ Christian Bland, Alex Maas et al.), but this really is Acid Mothers Temple’s festival. They deserve prime time on the main stage, however the tiered ground by the river was the best way to exponentially concentrate the energy of the band and the crowd for an unforgettable, gobsmacking freak-out.

After midnight, as temperatures dropped to near 16 degrees Celsius chilling many in attendance who still wore clothing suitable for a hot day in the sun, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, complete with Joel Gion on tambourine and Matt Hollywood on guitar, closed out Day Two on the main stage. Despite a late start and a set terribly short for a headlining act, the crew was tight—not unlike The Dandy Warhols in that respect—professionals that have been mastering the craft for a couple of decades. The performance was a very good one—which is notable due to the band’s consistent inconsistency at live shows. Buying a ticket to see BJM live is always a gamble, but this time it paid off.

A small tented stage in the campground—only accessible to those camping—was a pleasant bonus this year. None of the scheduled performances on this stage made me take note until Rishi Dhir (of the Canadian band Elephant Stone) sat down with his sitar on the final morning, before the festival gates opened. With a handful of people sitting under shade trees near this stage (the day was already approaching 32 degrees Celsius), as well dozens under the tent directly in front of it, Dhir began outputting calm, careful tunes.
Audible preparatory activity coming from the festival grounds—separated from the camping area by a chain-link fence—interrupted Dhir, who turned to a staffer to say, “I can’t play with that,” motioning to the main stages which were blasting recorded music. His music was delicate—just a man and his sitar—and the random audio track that infiltrated his soundscape was absolute noise in comparison. A minute or two later, before Dhir could leave the campground stage, the noise ceased and he continued a wonderful set, blessing the final day.

The Puerto Rican Fantasmes lifted the final day at the Elevation Amphitheatre beautifully with Latin influence (for obvious reasons) and even an oddly stunning spoken-word track. As I stood in front of the stage, a song ended and for the next, the lead singer moved aside and the keyboard player approached the microphone with a tattered paperback book in hand. He read a passage from Four Great Plays by Henrik Ibsen as the band played in support.
It was more of a semi-dramatic reading than a spoken-word performance, but you get the idea. The volume of the voice going in and out, at times the words felt abstract. I wondered, “Is he reading this because the passages have a distinct meaning or is the attraction to have a band playing inviting tunes while the words offer a completely different or even meaningless intent?” (I picked up the Fantasmes' 2014 Thralls to Strange Witchcraft, and it is incredibly good...I'd cite a favorite track, but it's just a four-song, 20-minute-long EP and the entire thing is beautiful. I. Need. More.)

Am I in New Orleans? Perhaps an Egyptian cult initiation? Is this the latest creation from whatever Frankensteinian laboratory gave birth to Goat?
Golden Dawn Arkestra detonated a multicultural fusion with, one is left to suspect, a mission to out-funk Parliament Funkadelic while bringing a psych-laden, energetic performance—complete with a variety of outrageous costumes and masks, a brass section, and dancers in hot pants (yes, there was twerking and it was good).
The funk on display at the Levitation Tent (the club-like smallest of the three stages) was nearly overwhelming, saved by the deftness with which the entire ensemble performed. More of this groovy fun would have been nice at the festival, but at least the psych-funk that was selected was top notch.

Despite being an unknown to many festivalgoers, Kikagaku Moyo filled the Elevation Amphitheatre during this, their first tour of the U.S. It’s easy to recognize the Acid Mothers Temple influence in the band’s music, but that’s a simplistic connection and shouldn’t suggest anything derivative in Kikagaku Moyo. The opposite, in fact, is the reality. This young band, formed in 2012, is incredibly original—complete with the most psychedelic and heaviest sitar I’ve ever heard (played for the entire set while standing up)—and its members are already comfortable enough to improvise live and really go off the rails. Beautiful, stunning stuff.
Kikagaku Moyo's Daoud Popal Blissing Out
Their new album, Forest of Lost Children, was the only LP I bought during the entire festival (yes, I was exercising severe restraint), and in it you find the building blocks of the band. There’s more serenity on the recording, but more energy live. Easily one of my favorite acts of the weekend and a must-see if you get the chance.

It’s odd to go from such intriguing and talented up-and-coming performers to a band such as Joel Gion & the Primary Colours. The music was perfectly fine for the gathering, but overall, uninspired. In conjunction with Gion’s vocals (flat) and lyrics (vacuous), the group came off as a not-ready-for-primetime collective of secondary and tertiary Brian Jonestown Massacre players. They lacked something unique, which was essential in order to stand out at this festival of geniuses.

When the music was over the previous night, I joined a circle of campers playing with lasers and other toys outside of Thor’s tent. A small pod of people passed by, leaving behind one of their herd who landed face-down on the pasture in the middle of our circle in order to have the green laser pattern shone across his body. Moving his arms like a bird, he exclaimed that he now looked like a peacock (a curious assessment of one of the laser’s patterns) and then humped the ground. All very odd, but not unheard of at such events. The stranger then sat up—all the while riffing ridiculously and keeping the group in stitches—and was subjected to a black light, crime-scene-style examination by Thor. “We don’t know you,” Thor said, laughing while moving the light around. On the right leg of the stranger’s pants, the black light picked up a mysterious splatter. Nothing else was shining under the waves of the light except for this spot. Of what was this evidence? A call-back to the stranger’s earlier comments, one participant declared the bizarre mess was surely peacock jizz, to which the stranger answered by running his finger through the spot and licking it. “Chipotle cheese,” he said after pondering the flavor. “But why is it glowing under the black light?” Thor asked, now truly perplexed and hoping to find an answer. The stranger then picked up a guitar and played an acoustic version of Marcy Playground's "Sex and Candy." However, a light show at another part of the campground got the group’s attention and it went off to explore, never understanding the exact “what” and “why” of the stranger heretofore known as “Peacock Jizz.”
As soon as Sleepy Sun took to the river stage on the final night, this earlier encounter came to mind—I was certain the lead singer was the stranger upon which the previous night’s weirdness had culminated. Was Bret Constantino, lead vocals and electric harmonica, “Peacock Jizz?” (When asked via the band's Facebook page, this connection was denied by way of a clever YouTube link to Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me.") Despite that stain (or lack thereof), Constantine's voice was stellar, fluctuating between Bono and an updated Jim Morrison, and his possessed body flopped about with such abandon—calm then soaring straight up and crash landing to hand-slap an effects pedal—that I continually thought he was about to fly into the crowd. Throughout its heavy, trippy set, Sleepy Sun exemplified originality in the modern psychedelic music scene.

The next morning, as tents were being packed up and campers prepared to leave, one last song could be heard from across the grounds. With the sound floating in and out due to the wind, I couldn’t be sure if it was coming from someone performing live or playing an mp3. But the source did not matter. It was the most appropriate song for that moment in that pasture, amid a temporary community that was literally being dismantled, Roky Erickson’s “Goodbye Sweet Dreams.”