While 13th Floor Elevators singer Roky Erickson will forever be a psychedelic icon, his greater claim to fame may be how he overcame past mistreatment to play again with the gale force of a Texas hurricane, screeching out his classics as if he were the Last Man on Earth. Though he remains a poster man-child for the ill effects of drugs, it’s now clear (as beautifully shown in the recent documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me) that much of his disability was from shock treatment and inadequate medicine for his mental illness, more so than his use of mushrooms. Due to a concentrated family effort, spearheaded by his younger brother, he has made a miraculously full return to the stage, even playing New York and Europe for the first time earlier this year. While Erickson has gained a new foothold over the last two years, anticipation for another national TV appearance has really been rife since his last: American Bandstand, some 41 years and 12 days before this night. The 13th Floor Elevators’ Halloween appearance on Dick Clark’s Bandstand was a notable triumph, seeming to signal their imminent arrival on the national stage, but the group’s spurning of norms would soon help derail the outfit, and Erickson would suffer greatly. What would follow for the laissez-faire lead singer — thought by many at the time to be the greatest psychedelic rock singer alive — was an arrest, a stint in a metal hospital, several rounds of shock therapy, and a descent into a reclusive world of very real (to him, at least) demons. Of course, these were no aliens or demons in sight tonight, just longtime backing band the Explosives — a cow-punk outfit with a local following in Austin — and a welcoming audience that included songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard (of “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” fame) and his son. ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons nonchalantly joins the band on stage in cap and shades, ready for a ringside view of Roky’s ACL glory. With his band in place, Erickson himself soon appears, entering like a long-haired boxer. Gibbons and Explosives lead guitarist Cam King jump-start the taping with a solid “It’s a Cold Night for Alligators”, a pulsating song about alienation that’s as autobiographical as anything Roky has written. The opening salvo consists of half a dozen horror tales from Erickson’s major-label recording 17 years ago, including “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer”, an evil twist on Chuck Berry riffs; “Night of the Vampire”, which features menacing bass from Chris Johnson and cymbal-banging from drummer Freddie Krc that reads like a sledgehammer pounding a metallic stake; and “Bloody Hammer”, a song with the chilling verse, “I am the doctor / I am the psychiatrist / to make sure they don’t think that / they’d hammer their minds out.” The ferocious highlight is “Two-Headed Dog”, in which King’s piercing guitar issues a feisty assault that still sounds ahead of its time. The lyrical blending of Cold War paranoia and satanic imagery is pure Roky, but, at heart, it’s a Sputnik-era rocker, and Roky delivers on the menace with his relentless scream. A change of pace is offered with “Mine Mine Mind”, a fuzzed-out rockabilly tune that Gibbons seems to enjoy, particularly when singing the chorus pointedly in his microphone. When the Explosives lay into some Chicago-style blues, the room is transported to downtown’s Antone’s nightclub, and Erickson offers a few tasty guitar leads of his own on a mighty workout of “The Beast”. Erickson may be fairly termed an oldies act, playing the rare 13th Floor Elevators chestnut like “Splash 1” — a summery ballad that could be optimistically termed a hybrid of the Byrds and Ronettes. When he sings “now I’m home to stay,” it is fairly transcendent: he extends the word “home”, and it becomes a testament to all that Erickson has endured. His ability to not only resume performing, but to sing his sci-fi garage rock with such conviction is unquestionably impressive, so it’s a minor quibble to say that he does not deviate more from his late-night monster obsession. Erickson has written a wealth of heartfelt material — “Clear Night for Love”, “If You Have Ghosts”, “You Don’t Love Me Yet”, and “Nothing in Return”, among others. His signature song in this vein — “Starry Eyes” — remains in the set, and draws some of the fiercest cheering of the evening for the sheer beauty of the message. Yet it seems he will never quite get away from the “Creature with the Atom Brain”. Most of his set focuses on the weird, perhaps epitomized by his ode to that mysterious spot off Bermuda where aircraft used to occasionally vanish. During the tune, Erickson turns to face Krc’s drum kit, simultaneously feeling the beat and concentrating on his own guitar playing. With Erickson’s back turned, Gibbons surveys the studio and points to his friend Roky to elicit earnest yelps from the crowd. You can easily imagine shining eyes behind those dark sunglasses. To close, the band launches into its pre-Summer of Love nugget “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, which has the whole band singing along on the chorus, as Erickson seems lost in the lyric about having to leave, repeating: “You didn’t realize, you didn’t realizzzeee, you didn’t realizzzeee…” One of the few Elevators songs that he still plays, its crunch remains soulful, though the veil should probably be lifted. Very little of this music could still be called psychedelic: its heavy guitar force, tight bass-and-drums rhythm, and straight-ahead presentation really don’t gel with the term. Chants of “Rok-eee” bring the band out to encore with a rendition of “The Wind and More” that offers a guitar face-off between Erickson and Gibbons. When Krc’s big snare intro into “I Walked with a Zombie” begins, Erickson and crew replace the somnolent quality of the 1980 original with a more jaunty feel, more like the surprising R.E.M. cover from the Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye tribute. It’s as if Erickson were a country gentleman taking a stroll around a creepy estate: a fitting conclusion for a Texas Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer who has, seemingly, always been here before.
Roky Erickson and the Explosives