Levitation Fest: How Live Music Returned to Downtown Austin

It had been two years since Levitation Fest last rocked downtown Austin. The music festival, which takes place across four days in a variety of music venues, is usually a yearly affair. Unfortunately, 2020 was far from usual. Due to the pandemic caused by COVID-19, Levitation was cancelled. It suddenly became dangerous for large groups to gather, making safe indoor concerts an impossibility. At the time, it was unclear how live music in Austin could ever go back to a sense of normalcy.

In the last days of October 2021, Levitation Fest returned with the goal of signaling the revitalization of live music performances in Downtown Austin. The same excitement that always surrounds the event was present, but measures were put in place to keep attendees as safe as possible from COVID-19.

A Long Road to Levitation

The process of revitalizing live music did not happen overnight, most venues taking part in Levitation had been figuring out how to keep people safe throughout 2021. Mohawk, a music venue with indoor and outdoor stages, began to slowly open back up in May, hosting only low-capacity and private shows. The plan was to slowly build up capacity over the Summer and be ready for major tours and festivals in the Fall.  

In addition, Mohawk experimented with new business hours as well. Instead of only being open for a few nights out of the week and catering to crowds consistently reaching maximum occupancy, the space was redesigned to better support use during the day. Spacing out the hours of operation proved to keep capacity as low as possible.

As vaccination rates increased in the general public, it became safer for people to join a crowded social event. One way to maximize the safety of concertgoers would be to ask for proof of vaccination before entering the building, a rule that could be legally enforced to ensure venues open back up in as safe a manner as possible. Unfortunately for Mohawk and other live venues in Austin, it would not be that simple.

The Debate Over Mandates

Governor Greg Abbott and other high-raking elected officials in the state of Texas have stated they believe private businesses should not be allowed to require proof of vaccination from customers or employees. While vaccines have proven to be the safest and most effective method of combating the spread of COVID-19, Republican leadership believes the choice of taking the vaccine should be entirely voluntary. 

Levitation event staff member Taylor Lofton disagrees. “I would just feel a lot safer working this event if I knew everyone here was vaccinated,” she said. “I have enough faith in the Austin music crowd to believe that most people here are, but we shouldn’t be forced to accommodate for people who refuse to care about the safety of others.”

During the festival weekend, Lofton worked at Empire Control Room, one of the venues that did not ask for proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test from attendees.

This interactive map shows the locations of the venues and briefly explains their policies on COVID safety.

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

As early as March 2021, businesses in Texas were allowed to open to full capacity and eschew all mask requirements. While many music venues in Austin realized March was far too early to open at full capacity, they could not remain closed forever. In addition, enforcing social distancing and the use of masks would be a challenging task for venues without official regulation to abide by.  

The solution for many venues in the Austin area was Safe In Sound, an initiative put forth by local businesses that will continue to abide by CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines for live events. To join the Safe In Sound program, businesses would need to follow safety procedures and ensure that the safety of employees and customers were of top priority. This could be done by assigning health coordinators, setting up sanitation stations, establishing plexiglass shields in front of food and merchandise tables, utilizing paperless tickets, and more.  

By October, over 50 businesses joined the Safe in Sound initiative, including all the venues for Levitation Fest. The emphasis on safety has led to a renewed sense of optimism from bands performing at the festival.

Lead Singer and bassist of Sweeping Promises Lira Mondal is glad that safety precautions are still a top priority. “We’re grateful that venues are still taking COVID seriously, even as we enter a second year of this pandemic,” she said. “The specter of the virus is still lingering.”

In this audio story, I speak on the precautions taken by venues in the Austin area and interview artists about their experience performing in a post-COVID world.

Nothing guitarist Doyle Martin is grateful for the program. “It serves as a big reminder that the venues care about us and the people coming out to see our show,” he said. “Things are starting to feel better and we’re still showing care for each other through caution.”

Large audiences gathered at Empire Control Room for the opening night of Levitation Fest on October 27, 2021.
Alternative rock band Starcrawler acted as the first band to perform at Empire to a captive audience on October 27, 2021
Lead singer Arrow de Wilde maintaining a commanding presence during the band’s performance.
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The exterior of Empire Control Room, a popular music venue that reopened earlier this year after closing its doors in 2020. Taken on October 27, 2021
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Inside Empire, indie pop artist Frankie Rose plays to a small crowd. Taken on October 28, 2021.
Audience members inside Empire Control Room. Taken on October 28, 2021.
Amaris Johnson, lead singer of indie rock band Enumclaw, sits at the band’s merch table after performing at Mohawk during Levitation Festival. Taken on October 29, 2021.
Punk ban Pleasure Venom plays at Hotel Vegas, a venue which is exclusively hosting outdoor concerts for the foreseeable future. Taken on October 30, 2021.
Shoegaze band Nothing performs to an intimate audience at Empire’s outdoor venue on October 28, 2021
The crowd stayed to cheer long after the band left the stage. Taken on October 28, 2021

Photography credit for all: Jared Dudley

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