COLD NIGHT FOR ALLIGATORS, HOUNDS & ANGELS: Roky Erickson Live

Roky 1

Live at the Granada Theater in Lawrence, KS, on January 31, the Winter Psych Storm! event also included opening act the Golden Animals.

 BY STEVE WILSON

The scene is the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kansas. It’s the evening of January 31st, 2014. The event is the Winter Psych Storm! A tour headlined by Austin’s Black Angels. It’s opening night.

 My friends Jo and Rick were scoping out the merch table. They overheard the tall, thin, Trent Reznor-haired (think early Nine Inch Nails) young man presiding over the table mention that he’d be turning his spot over to someone else soon. Then he announced that his dad was playing next.

 Minutes later Jegar Erickson was singing, dancing and exhorting with his father’s band. A band Jegar shares with his old man called the Hounds of Baskerville.  “Dad” is Roky Erickson, a brilliant talent almost lost to madness. What kind of madness? Oh, hell – as Marlon Brando’s Johnny said in The Wild Ones – what have you got?

 Welcome to the late Sixties. Erickson is the visionary singer-songwriter and guitarist for a band of underground adventurers called the 13th Floor Elevators. The Elevators were part jug band, part avant-garde avatars and all Rock ‘n’ Roll. Their homebrewed Texas psychedelia frankly advocated lysergic mysticism. They might have landed gently on a mushroom cloud of bliss were it not for the hostile forces of drug interdiction and countercultural exploitation.

 Too sweet and wild for Sixties America, Erickson wound up at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in his native Texas, where he was subjected to electroshock therapy, fed massive doses of thorazine and generally treated like the subject of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” You see, he pled guilty to marijuana possession (the cops found a single joint on his person) to stay out of prison. Of course Rusk was where he put together a band featuring two murderers and a rapist. Maybe prison would’ve been mellower. Drug laws – stupid then, stupid now. Thus began decades in and out of a psychic wilderness, a story best chronicled in the heartbreaking and heartwarming documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me.

 But the Roky Erickson story is not another sad tale from the lysergic circus. Well, it is, I suppose. The Texas authorities indeed tried to break a butterfly on a wheel. But it’s also a story of brotherly love, redemption and healing.

 Beginning in 2001, under the care of his brother Sumner, himself a musician (tuba, Pittsburgh Symphony), Roky began a stunning personal and musical rebirth, culminating in a remarkable testimony called True Love Cast Out All Evil, one of the best releases of 2010. Erickson has been playing occasionally since 2005, but this year’s tour with the Black Angels is a major undertaking, bringing him to more cities, and more, and younger audiences.

 Roky poster

 The opening night of a tour is always a fragile thing, at once opportune and anxious. The Black Angels are road dogs; so opening jitters were probably minimal. Besides, this was their second visit to Lawrence in less than a year, and they’ve gradually built a good following. Friday’s crowd was their largest to date, partly a result of building an audience, but in some measure thanks to the interest generated by Erickson being on the bill. And it was his forty-five minute set that stole the show for this long-time fan.

 Where the Black Angels had done double duty on previous dates, playing with Erickson and on their own, this time Roky is traveling with Jegar’s band, the Hounds of the Baskerville. I can’t understate the value of the band to Roky’s live resurrection. Roky is present, providing solid rhythm guitar (when inclined) and in rough, ragged, but powerful voice. But when he quits playing guitar, the band’s guitarist picks up the slack. When he spaces a vocal entry or a bit of lyric, his backup vocalists, including Jegar’s pregnant wife (a fine keyboardist) fill in, knowing instinctively when he will return. And when he does it’s always in rhythm, as if he simply had a narcoleptic moment. At first it’s pregnant and unnerving, but Roky seems unfazed, and the band knows just what to do. The warmth of his supporting musicians is obvious. As they took the stage, the Hounds’ bassist gestured to Roky and the audience’s already ample applause swelled. It was a gentle, loving gesture that set the tone for the performance.

 With a talented, supportive band behind him Erickson played his songs. And what songs they are. A few, like “John Lawman,” from True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010), or the set opening “Cold Night for Alligators” (from his Aliens period) were representative of post-Elevators music, but for the most part this tour seems designed to acquaint new audiences with the amazing songs Roky did with the Elevators. You find yourself singing along with “Fire Engine,” “Tried to Hide,” “I’ve Got Levitation,” and “Reverberation,” and flashing on what terrific songs they are – melodic, driving, unique in perspective. It’s no wonder they’ve been adopted in the repertoire of countless garage and punk bands.

 I’d seen Erickson once before. At the late, fabled Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. To a modest crowd Roky and his trio focused on his Aliens era material, late Seventies/early Eighties songs, dominated by “Two Headed Dogs” and other surreal creatures. His current band has a broader pallet, a stronger feel for the material. And somehow it’s Jegar’s cheerleading performance, full of warmth and support for his old man, that gives the band it’s rousing, cathedral of rock fervor.

 Black Angels

The Black Angels? They were really good. I like their music, especially their last two records, which focus on tighter, more melodic songs – Phosphene Dream had a certain pop-psych genius, and was my favorite recording of 2010. I’ve seen them now four times, each performance better than the last, from their ensemble playing to the accompanying light show and other production values.

 But at a certain level, when they invited their hero Roky Erickson on this jaunt, and featured his name beside theirs on all posters and promotions, they had to know that this was about introducing him, and especially those great 13th Floor Elevators songs, to a new, younger audience. I talked to folks in attendance that wondered who ‘that old guy’ was. I spoke to others for whom seeing Roky was ‘bucket list’ material, and barely knew who the Black Angels were. As the tour poster says – “Parents Welcome. Dress right to feel right.” The Winter Psych Storm! tour is a pan-generational meeting of the mind blown tribes. An inspired idea that the Black Angels deserve a ton of credit for.

 Opening the show was the Golden Animals, an enjoyable trio with a Doors vibe, some fetching songs, and a shortage of drama and virtuosity compared to their inspiration.

 Roky setlist

 

Live Photos by Sherman Breneman; Roky setlist photo by Emily from Des Moines.

 

 

 

 

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