Saturday, February 1, 2014

Roky Erickson Live at the Granada

Garage rocker/psychedelic innovator Roky Erickson's fascination with horror flicks is well-documented. He gleefully laughed in Vincent Price fashion behind his piano as flames burned bright. Freak lab-experiments litter his verses and demons are never far from thought. Even his most "well-known" solo song romanticizes zombies in a way Romero could only dream of. 

But perhaps the most important thing he's cribbed from countless horror films is the notion of the "sole survivor." As the psychedelic defining 13th Floor Elevators were drifting apart, he landed in a psychiatric hospital for several years, where he suffered through doses of Thorazine and electroconvulsive therapy. When he came out and began to undertake a solo career, he walked massively out of step. The Misfits like embrace he had for B-movie schlock wasn't chic enough for the mainstream and the golden days of psych-rock had begun to rust. He overcame the odds to craft a pair of fledgling, but impactful solo records. Erickson then vanished again, only to fully return with 2010's extremely well-received True Love Cast Out All Evil. In short, he's rock's ultimate survivor. Like Laurie Strode or Martin Brody, he's survived every flesh wound and psychic scar.

Perhaps unintentionally playing up his anachronistic career, Erickson arrived on-stage at the Granada on Friday tucked into a suffocating black button up and lounging cargo pants. He was less rockstar and more father-figure. That said, any parental tutelage came to a screeching halt as soon as the rousing "It's A Cold Night for Alligators" left the station. Erickson's Texas fried voice cut through the thick layers of static to speak of being "forever in loss."

His and the Hounds of Baskerville's wicked take on the Elevators' "The Kingdom of Heaven (Is Within You)"  was another shadow-lingerer. Erickson's hesitant gulps between critical lines in the track registered as preparing to take a dose of the most toxic cough syrup imaginable. While "garage rock" is one of the most common labels appended to Erickson, "blues" felt more appropriate in this case. And in true bluesman fashion, he turned his back to the audience during a critical solo. In service of a militant drum part, "Reverberation" chose a similar fate. A broken organ provided the only solace as the track looked inward to a "helpless mind."

This dour worldview wasn't all-consuming however. Erickson shared genuine chuckles and gave salutes to his youthful bandmates who kept dropping song suggestions his way all night long. "Slip Inside This House"s thick-as-molasses groove brought Erickson's distant gaze into a narrower focus and offered one of the night's best dance opportunities. Nearing 50 years old, "I've Seen Your Face (Splash 1)" retained its unguarded earnestness. More sugary than lysergic, it cut "like a knife" as the battle-tested Erickson warbled "we needn't bother sleeping, all we might say is understood." For someone who frequently scribbled lyrics into legal pads, his most arresting moments are the least fussed over. 

All roads lead to "You're Gonna Miss Me", the linchpin of Roky Erickson's oeuvre. Ditching the electric jug, the Nuggets warhorse reconfigured into a muscular rockabilly tune. Though the titular threat still came as a howl, its intent has changed over time. Originally a lover's proclamation that no love will ever measure up, it's now an encapsulation of Erickson. His absences are as pronounced as his appearances. Trudging out into a lightly snow-capped night I considered the import of his appearance, as a quote from a recently purchased reissue of Don't Slander Me bounced around in my mind. "You'll never know how scary rock and roll is" he once told record-collector Peter Buesnel. He's right. But nights like these give us a chance to understand.

 "I've Seen Your Face (Splash 1)"

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