Roky Erickson
The Bell House, Brooklyn, November 10
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Going to in to any performance by Roky Erickson, the psych-rock legend infamous for his long battle with mental health demons (he used to blare televisions and radios to block out the voices in his head), there’s always a sense of uncertainty. How long will he play? What shape will his voice and his guitar-playing be in? Will he be able to pull it off at all?

Fortunately, the two times I’d previously been lucky enough to catch his one-time rare appearances, the answer to that last question had always been a resounding “yes,” even when the answer to the first query turned out to be for only three songs. Still, after a rousing set from the A-Bones, with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan sitting in on guitar and keys and the Flamin’ Groovies’ Roy Loney joining them for a few songs, including the Groovies’ “Teenage Head,” the uncertainty wasn’t shaken. But once Roky took the stage, any lingering doubts dissipated. Backed by guitarist Kyle Ellison, bassist John Michael Dayspring and drummer Kyle Schneider, Roky looked elfin, but not mystified as he ran through songs like “Creature with the Atom Brain” and “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” that showed off his acid-tinged derivations on Texas blues. It was interesting that he wasn’t playing with Okkervil River, who backed him on his comeback album from earlier this year, True Love Cast Out All Evil, or the Explosives, whom often back him when he’s playing at home in Texas. But regardless of who was behind him, Roky is the star, however apathetic he seems toward that role.

For most of the night, Roky stuck to his early-80s Aliens songbook, only acknowledging the new album for two songs, “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” and “John Lawman,” both of which settled in comfortably amongst the icon’s other repertoire. “Bloody Hammer” and “Stand for the Fire Demon” revealed Erickson still able to toss off little solos and accents on his hollow-body. His vocals were less than prominent, which I suspect was due to being both too low in the mix and a little strained from the rigors of touring. Still, the hour-long show was stunning, not for proficiency, but for the song selection and for a backing band with an affinity for the songs’ intrinsic intangibles. “The Wind and More” was particularly riveting, with Roky belting out the song’s refrains with vigor.

By the time Roky got to “Two Headed Dog,” after other gems like “Night of the Vampire” and “I Walked with a Zombie,” it was clear that, while time has taken some toll on him, he is more than capable of doing his catalog justice. That song roared like the beast it is. When it was over, Roky left the stage with the band before reappearing quickly. They ran through Janis Joplin’s “Oh, My Soul” before finally closing with “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the song that almost made Erickson and his band, the 13th Floor Elevators, famous nearly half a century ago. It was a fitting closing sentiment, though for now one can treasure every moment of the singer’s resurgence.