There was a time, maybe ten years ago and change, when any sighting of Texas singer Roky Erickson on a stage, even in ragged voice and disheveled condition, was a rare blessing. It is an example of how far Erickson — the electrifying teenage voice of Sixties psychedelic adventurers the 13th Floor Elevators and, for most of the next three decades, one of the acid era’s most notorious casualties — has come in that time, in health and restored career, that his May 25th show at Webster Hall in New York, with the younger Lone Star band Okkervil River, was less than epochal, with some creaky vocal harmonies and distracted vocal performances. That is the stuff of anyone else’s off night. But for Erickson, this is progress.. He is more of a regular working musician now than he ever was with the commercially accursed Elevators. It is a relief to judge him in performance according to his true gifts and possibilities, rather than out of sorrow and wishful thinking.
Erickson is promoting his first solo album of new recordings since the mid-Nineties, True Love Cast Out All Evil. Made with Okkervil River and masterfully produced and arranged by that band’s founding singer-guitarist Will Sheff, the record is hell and high water at the same time: a collection of songs Erickson wrote at the Seventies height of his troubles (incarceration, shock treatment, mental illness, poverty), rendered by him in powerful regenerated voice, with a survivor’s energy and relief. At Webster Hall, Erickson sounded strongest telling those stories and passing on the hard lessons: the abject surrender inside the climbing-Elevators force of “Goodbye Sweet Dreams;” the acute pain and forgiveness in the waltz “Be and Bring Me Home;” the elementary triumph in the title song. Okkervil River plowed through Erickson’s Eighties horror-rock songs “Don’t Slander Me” and “Two Headed Dog” like delighted children of Nuggets, but he seemed less connected to that part of his past, sometimes singing off-mic and coming in late on his lines.
Erickson had no such problem with the sole cover in the set, a fast fine tear through Little Richard’s “Ooh My Soul,” which gave Erickson a chance to fire up the pitted wolf howl of his Elevators youth. But the great surprise of the night was “Reverberation (Doubt)” from the Elevators’ 1966 debut album. Since his return to active duty, Erickson has avoided the acid-sermon songs he wrote with the Elevators’ jug player and LSD zealot Tommy Hall, and it’s unlikely we will hear Erickson revisit Hall’s serpentine reveries in “Slip Inside This House,” from 1967’s Easter Everywhere, anytime soon. Yet Hall’s lyrics in “Reverberation” are really about prison — the ones we build for ourselves out of fear. With Okkervil River building a black swirl of fuzz around him, Erickson barked and bleated through the drone like a proud free man — someone who had been there and come back, for good.