Formed in Austin, Texas, in 1965, the 13th Floor Elevators were psychedelic pioneers, influencing the likes of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, “led by outsider genius Roky Erickson, who combined offbeat spiritualism with crude R&B,” according to Allmusic. “Many have cited them as the first true psychedelic rock band, and if they weren’t, they certainly predated most of the San Francisco bands that gave the sound a global audience. The Elevators played a bracing fusion of garage rock and genre-defying musical exploration powered by Roky Erickson’s feral vocals and rhythm guitar.” Erickson and his bandmates were known as vocal proponents of mind-expanding drugs, and when the frontman was arrested in Texas for the possession of just one joint, he pleaded insanity rather than go to jail for up to a decade. Erickson spent three-and-a-half years in a mental institution and was subjected to electroshock therapy and Thorazine treatments before being released in 1972. He eventually became a notable recluse along the lines of Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston and Skip Spence. But Erickson (above, performing “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” and “Two Headed Dog”) still occasionally found time to record and even tour. His most recent solo release, True Love Cast Out All Evil (stream it below), backed by Okkervil River, came out in 2010. “A tumultuous history hasn’t stopped the former 13th Floor Elevator from achieving greatness,” said NME. And Pitchfork added: “On this affecting and ultimately triumphant album, Erickson comes out on top.” His new tour launches today, and Erickson plays Rough Trade NYC on Tuesday and Wednesday. L.A. experimental rockers Death Valley Girls open both shows.
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Roky Erickson – Webster Hall – May 25, 2010
Troubled rock legend Roky Erickson brought his wild catalog to Webster Hall last night, replete with moments both brash and reflective. Being backed by Okkervil River was the perfect complement, as Will Sheff and his bandmates blended country smoothness and hazy, loose blues to match Erickson’s erratic rock sound. Fresh off releasing an album together, True Love Cast Out All Evil, the collective was a wonderful marriage of sound and personality. Sheff took the lead through the early parts of the performance, shouting out the set list and interacting with the crowd. Erickson’s reticence and nervousness gave the feel of an old mass, with his back to the audience, only turning to his rock and roll worshipers to speak in his strange tongue.
But somewhere between the mid-set Little Richard cover and “I Walked with a Zombie” at the end, a flip was switched in Erickson, and he came to life with personality and bravado. As he and the band dove deep into songs from his 13th Floor Elevator days—like “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” and “Reverberation (Doubt)”—his lucidity grew and he embraced the fans before him. Instead of looking at Sheff for which chords to play, Erickson furiously ripped through them as his signature voice rang out as loud as his 62 years would allow. He even engaged the crowd, cracking jokes about his oldest songs now being on CDs. As if this middle-of-the-show awakening didn’t do enough to envelop the audience in joy, Erickson finished his encore with “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” a song that even casual rock fans know, and turned Webster Hall into a psychedelic-rock dance party deserving of Roky Erickson. —Sean O’Kane
Photos courtesy of Sean O’Kane | seanokanephoto.com