[W]hen good bands curate festivals, good things generally happen. Such is the case with Austin Psych Fest, the pet project of Black Angels now in its eighth year. Set on a working ranch ten miles outside of Austin, the context is ideal: A reasonable number of stages (3), a meandering river for company, and a bill of acts that could rival most festivals ten times its size.
Panda Bear, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The War on Drugs and The Zombies headlined this year. A number of international bands joined the festivities, mostly of the psych-rock ilk but straying into sibling genres as well. Which was half the fun at Psych Fest, a festival built on rock ‘n’ roll’s drugged-out cousin with a keen awareness of all its influences and worldly adaptations.
There was barbecue, there was beer, there was most likely tinnitus. Here’s what else stood out over three days at Carson Creek Ranch in Texas.
Shannon & The Clams
Oakland trio Shannon & The Clams could be high-school prom entertainment circa 1958 in some town just off the grid. The group is at once R&B, doo-wop, and countrified experimental rock. The trio is accessible while frayed at the edges, dangling a carrot of catchy, 60’s rock riffs and three-part harmonies before bursting into darker, more manic territory. Shannon Shaw’s soulful, ever-so-blown-out voice has the crowd wondering if Amy Winehouse was in fact dead. “Any other ex-Mormons out there?” Shaw asked. The band promptly jumped into “I don’t wanna be in a cult no more,” an acid-rock number that would make Roky Erickson proud.
Fresh & Onlys
“You hear that?” asked frontman Tim Cohen. “Bunch of frogs and shit.” The Fresh & Onlys had the pleasure of playing the Elevation Stage, set like a pier right on the bank of the river. The bands who played here over the weekend seemed to recognize the resident beach towels and hammocks, playing down a temp notch or two. The quartet tried out some newer material, including the hazy, reverb-ridden “Animal Of One.” The result was a post-rock Steppenwolf or sorts, a band with audible nods to early American rock plus the stormy exhale of psychedelia.
Just when Atlanta’s favorite punk-rock outfit couldn’t be any more raucous on stage, they go and add a horn section. Perhaps that’s to be expected from a band founded by members allegedly kicked out of high school for being a dangerous, subculture threat. Cole Alexander and company played with zest, trading frenetic guitar riffs with one another and reintroducing the audience to the culture of crowd surfing. It was unapologetic and debaucherous, like Buddy Holly in a bar fight. Equally impressive is Black Lips’ subtle homages to its Georgian roots, in the form of sprawling brass lines and gospel-soaked choruses.
The best set of the weekend belonged to Woods. The prolific Brooklyn band – with a tremendous label and now festival to its name – burned the barn down with their searing brand of freakish Americana. All too often pigeonholed in the folk revival category, Woods does much, much more. And while they looked as though they were simply going through the motions Saturday at the Elevation Stage, what came barreling through the amps was an idyllic blend of twang, gypsy-rock and the extended carefree jaunts of a celebrated jam band. Extended takes of “Bend Beyond” and “With Light And With Love” (which clocks in at 9:03 on the studio release alone) paired nicely with the trip-y geometric shapes projected onto the far canopy of the river. Steel lap guitar has never sounded so otherworldly.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks
Two of Animal Collective’s forefathers played APF 2014, Avey Tare (aka David Portner) being the more obvious choice given the musician’s propensity for the absurd. His new trio, Slasher Flicks, sees Portner on guitar and a mountain of effects pedals along with a keyboardist and co-vocalist and a terribly gifted drummer. Keeping time with Avey Tare’s musical spontaneity is a tall task but Slasher Flicks fired as one, mesmerizingly so. Each track melted into the next in cinema-like fashion. In many ways, Slasher Flicks offers a glimpse inside Portner’s complex musical mind, a densely-layered mashup of psych-rock, kitsch, tropicalia and funhouse electronics.
For a band that was in its songwriting prime fifty years ago, The Zombies have every right to be phoning in shows on the casino circuit. But the British band, part of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shortlist of inductees, offered genuine showmanship. That, and Rod Argent’s carefully narrated backstory for just about every song he and his band played. Sonically, The Zombies are much the same, with lead singer Colin Blunstone’s airy, choir-boy vocals carrying the band’s jazz-infected arrangements into orbit. It’s easy to forget how ahead of the curve hits like “She’s No There,” “This Will Be Our Year” and “Time Of The Season” were, as they continue to resonate with quality and invention today.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan
Akin to Slasher Flicks, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan has a high-concept, cinematic thread to it. The Canadian group is as much a musical act as a performance troop, playing in costume with the use of props like Chinese fans and animal-skin drums. Grinding guitar work collided with operatic vocals set to falsetto. The quintet lacked a bassist but made up for it with pounding percussion and heavily distorted smatterings of electric guitar. The ghoulish vocal harmonies were reminiscent of the 2001 Space Odyssey soundtrack, a haunting effect that seems to come from all angles at once. If there is such a thing as tribal metal, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is it.
Brazil’s Boogarins have the benefit of working with a language as musical as Portuguese. That, and a tight grasp on the powerful prog-rock that sprouted up in their home country well before they were born. Boogarins even looked the part, sporting big-collared polyester shirts with floral patterns. It was the wardrobe equivalent to their heady yet graceful renderings. A memorable rendition of “Lucifernandis” turned the most heads, a groovy mix of jangle-pop, South American folk and dreamy rock ‘n’ roll.
Hailing from Niger, Omara “Bombino” Moctar is the Elvis of the Sahara. His fusing of West African guitar with American blues and rock is electrifying. Fellow Saharan group Terakaft played Psych Fest too, but leaned more towards the traditional. Bombino represents the Dylan-post-Newport-Folk-
The Bay Area garage-rocker has struck oil with his latest record MCII. “Weight” continues to sound like an outstanding cover of a 90’s classic, the controlled amount of fuzz you’d expect from yesteryear Weezer. Cronin’s live set mirrored much of his music’s subject matter. He was restless, confident and just disenchanted enough to leave a chip on his shoulder. Under the cover of a whole lotta hair, Cronin played a fine-tuned set that proved much surfier than his many previous collaborations with Ty Segall. A blistering version of “Shout It Out” proved the trio’s strength and synchronicity while maintaining maintaining that basement-born charm.
“I stopped smoking weed,” said Sleepy Sun’s vocalist Bret Constantino. “I’m just sticking to mushrooms and acid.” The Santa Cruz band was perfectly tailored for Psych Fest, with its classic 70’s configuration (a lead singer who just belts and occasionally shakes the tambourine) and ability to go from tip-toe to attack within a single song at a moment’s notice. Constantino grabbed his voice box modulator now and again, turning his Perry Farrell-ish voice into something more crackled and vintage. Sleepy Sun broke down and reconstructed their songs so many times live it made heads spin. And almost always, after sweaty interludes, the band fell back into their signature safety net of volcanic, blues-minded hard-rock.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
What was most impressive about Portland band Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s set was not the sound, nor the delivery. It was the guitar god status Ruban Nielson managed to achieve after a few short songs. The trio’s sophomore record II was among last year’s best, a lo-fi masterpiece in addition to a significant shift in the band’s direction. There’s ample room for experimentation in this record and Nielson seized on that space live. He rarely left a measure untouched, injecting it with busy riffs and breakneck solos. It was a not entirely gentle reminder that psych rock needs to strut its stuff sometimes, especially when you have the dexterity UMO has.