Powell St. John – On My Way to Houston

January 01, 1970

(Tompkins
Square)

 

www.tompkinssquare.com

 

Longtime Roky Erickson/13th Floor Elevators
watchers will know the Powell St. John name from a handful of songwriting
credits on the first two Elevators’ albums – although you’d be forgiven for any
befuddlement stemming from the mistakes and typos dotting the ’66 debut The Psychedelic Sounds Of…, which lists
his name as “John St. Powell (and also spells Erickson’s name “Ericson”). As
outlined in longtime Els associate Bill Bentley’s liner notes to On My Way to Houston, however, the Texas
musician’s storied legacy actually bookends his alliance with Roky & Co.:
while a student at the University of Texas in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he
formed the Waller Creek Boys, which include a non-boy by the name of Janis
Joplin; later was a member of Austin’s first bonafide psychedelic band, St.
John the Conqueroo, foreshortened to The Conqueroo after St. John left for San
Francisco in 1966; and with folksinger Tracy Nelson co-fronted Bay Area
blues/roots outfit Mother Earth, cutting a pair of album for Mercury Records
now widely regarded as proto-Americana classics (notably 1969’s Make a Joyful Noise).

 

“Then,” as Bentley writes, “reality set in.” St. John more or less disappeared from public view for the
next 3 ½ decade in order to earn a living and raise a family while living in Berkeley. Lo and behold,
he resurfaced in 2006 with Right Track
Now
, a low-key psych- and folk-tinged affair featuring tunes he’d
stockpiled over the years alongside several of those he’d penned for the
Elevators. Now, thanks to the astute, archivally-minded folks at Tompkins
Square, the Texas Music Hall of Famer has been coaxed out of his Bay Area digs
once more, this time recording with members of one of Erickson’s old bands, the
Aliens, and the results are even more delightfully engaging than the material
on Right Track Now.

 

On My Way to Houston kicks off with a cortex-burner, “Hardest Working Man,” and it doesn’t take more
than a few seconds for the listener to surmise the song’s origins: Erickson, no
doubt repaying a 43-year old debt, contributed an unreleased composition to the
project, and in its garagey vibe (pulsing organ, fuzz-distorto guitar) and
edgy, sinister St. John vocal, it’s suitably unhinged enough to rope in
Erickson fans of all stripes. The title track follows, an overtly Dylanesque
talking blues travelogue populated by hookers, pimps, politicians and soldiers
and spiced by sinewy guitar riffs plus St. Powell’s agile harp licks. Other
highlights include a down-home bit of pickin’ ‘n’ grinnin’, the fiddle-powered
“Ballad of Travis Rivers” (written by another Austin alumnus, banjo player John
Clay); the manifesto-like “We Were All Born Free,” featuring harp, banjo and
acoustic guitar and St. John’s keening, earnestly populist vocal; and the
churning, psychedelic “Song of The Silver Surfer” that’s equal parts Elevators
and Quicksilver Messenger Service (two years too late, unfortunately, for a
tie-in to the Fantastic Four flick 4:
Rise of the Silver Surfer
, but with any luck, in plenty of time for the
actual Silver Surfer film, due in
2012).

 

The album’s unlikely to find a wide audience among
indie-rock hipsters, for in both his laid-back, rootsy singing style and his
retro-tilting arrangements, St. John
clearly marks himself as a member of an earlier generation. But music lovers
from either side of the divide are encouraged to listen up, as St. John is not
only a vital, living link to the past, there’s a spark and a spirit afoot in
his songs and in his playing that’s inspirational for the here-and-now.

 

Standout Tracks: “Hardest
Working Man,” “Song of the Silver Surfer,” “We Were All Born Free” FRED MILLS

 

 

Powell St.
John on the web: www.powellstjohn.com

 

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