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Arts and Entertainment

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River @ Music Box Theater 5/18/10 and Eagle Rock Center For The Arts 5/19/10

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(See also Melissa Moore’s post and photo gallery on the Eagle Rock show).

Roky Erickson and Okkervil River’s appearance at an after-school ice cream party for kids reached its peak of surrealism at the moment when the band stopped to ask the youngsters packing the Eagle Rock Arts Center if they had any questions. “Does the drummer get splinters from playing so fast?” “Naw, I don’t think he does,” answered Erickson, “but hopefully it don’t have a taboo on it, like in Louisiana they call it a gris-gris.” Another wanted to know, what did he think about the ukelele? “I like it, and I like that music… I should get me a statue of one.” As to “why is the vampire song so loud?”, Roky reasoned “When it’s cold, and people are wearing all their scarves and neckerchiefs and everything, you have to make it loud enough to sink in.”

After that last exchange, the band picked their instruments back up and slammed into the 13th Floor Elevators classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, and the entire room began to bounce. Some of the kids plugged their ears, others jammed out on air guitar and danced in the aisles. It was the parents, though, that looked downright ecstatic. Finally, thanks to the kind folks of FYF Fest, a real rock show that you can experience with your children, without having to stay up late or pay for a sitter. Watching the whole thing unfold, taking in the looks of wide-eyed wonder on faces young and old, was one of the most pleasantly bizarre experiences of my gig-going life.

Erickson might seem a strange choice for a kids’ show, given his penchant for singing about demons, goblins and Lucifer himself. Though he cut all the numbers that specifically namecheck Satan, he did unleash “Night Of The Vampire”, “I Walked With A Zombie” and “Two Headed Dog” on the tykes, along with a Little Richard song and an immensely powerful “Goodbye Sweet Dream”. Most of the children seemed to take it in stride, having a good time but unaware that what they were seeing was anything special. But at the end, I saw a girl who must have been about five approach guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo and ask for a quick guitar lesson, which Gurgiolo graciously provided. Someday, that little girl could turn out to be a musical force to be reckoned with.

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Tuesday night’s more traditional set at the Music Box focused on songs from the new album True Love Cast Out All Evil. The most solid performances - an effervescent, joyous “Bring Back The Past”, a gently glowing rendition of the title song, a tear-inducing country waltz “Be And Bring Me Home”, and the harrowing “fuck the police” anthem “John Lawman” - were the evening’s highlights, music that wouldn’t exist without Okkervil River’s assistance in revisiting his back catalog and re-framing the songs that missed a proper release in their time.

The association with Okkervil, initiated by an invitation to appear together at the Austin Music Awards in 2008 and culminating with leader Will Sheff taking on production duties for the new studio album, has been beneficial in every way. The group is just so damn capable… the horror-rock songs swirl with noisy, fucked-up abandon without losing their shape, the sad/ pretty ones are sparkling clear and gorgeous, and Roky’s voice is always given the spotlight. Gurgiolo’s lead guitar was spectatcular on both old and new material, frantic leads boiling over on tunes like “Two Headed Dog” and “Reverberation”, or the model of crisp, melodic restraint on “Starry Eyes” and “Be And Bring Me Home.” And with Sheff acting as personal cheerleader and coach for Roky, as in their recent interview situations, they generally manage to remain cohesive onstage.

Only the epic waltz “Forever”gave Erickson some difficulty as the low end of his voice was reduced to gravel, and he fought to remember the words and hit his cues on time. The group did a remarkable job following him at these moments, Sheff mouthing the lyrics for a nervous-looking Roky and conducting the musicians through the ragged spots.

Those lapses turned out to be momentary, and as the band broke into more familiar territory, Erickson's confidence and energy levels rose back up. Covering Little Richard’s “Ooh My Soul”, he gave one of the best and most unchained vocal performances of the night. For the closing triple-shot of “Starry Eyes”, “Reverberation (Doubt)” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, he’d rallied completely. Though the latter is the one song he does every single time he gets on stage, the only one that could be said to have been overexposed, it’s still one of the most thrilling little nuggets of garage/ psych ever written, especially when it breaks down menacingly at the bridge - “I gave you a warning, but you never heeded it” - before exploding again into its defiant declaration of “I’m not coming home.” It’s one of those things that never fails to induce chills, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, and the live treatment was no disappointment.

At the ice cream party the next day, amazingly enough, they sounded even better. Roky looked relaxed and cheerful, and having whittled the set list to the most familiar material, totally confident. The band played with a minimal PA but balanced their stage sound accordingly, and sounded nearly perfect from where I stood. The entire crew seemed to be having a wonderful time; I can only imagine, starting up a song and seeing a roomful of small children start smiling and dancing… that’s got to make your day.

As for me, I’ve just nearly finished a piece about Roky without once feeling inclined to mention his notorious back story of mental illness and wrongful incarceration. It never really came up at the kids’ show, though there were rumblings of it at the Music Box. I’d like to to take this as a sign that his own reputation in the music world has the potential to be re-drawn, to have the word "casualty" taken out of it and the focus restored to his astonishing contributions. There are now a couple of hundred young kids who know Roky Erickson as a singer and musician, still performing with vigor at 63 years old, without needing to know anything else about him. And that makes my day.