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Pop music review: Roky Erickson

With the help of roots rockers Okkervil River, the psychedelic pioneer revisits dreams and nightmares in a stirring show at the Music Box @ Fonda.

May 20, 2010|By Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times

In a 90-minute concert filled with images of vampires, demons and multi-headed hounds, the most striking imagery did away with B-movie specters. It was late in the evening when Roky Erickson — once thought to be a causality of the psychedelic rock era — sang "Goodbye Sweet Dreams." It's a heartbreakingly simple sentiment, but one that humanized Erickson's nightmare visions.

With his howling rock 'n' roll work in the '60s with the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson is credited as a pioneer of the psychedelic movement. The decades that followed, however, were marked by battles with mental illness, and the resulting music flirted with the bizarre and the macabre.

He was paired Tuesday at the Music Box @ Fonda with exquisite roots rock force by Okkervil River, which supported the Austin, Texas, artist on his recent Anti-Records album, "True Love Cast Out All Evil," Erickson sang about walking with zombies and killing strangers. Today, however, he owns a voice that's gruff, commanding and more than a little worn, and the 62-year-old's tales of horror were remade into songs of survival.

"Once I had love, and you never return," Erickson sang on "Goodbye Sweet Dreams," his voice tattered with age, and cracking ever-so-slightly in the chorus. Okkervil frontman-guitarist Will Sheff led a slow build of distortion and fuzz-stoked guitars, a gradual swelling of noise that underscored the song's sense of inevitable failings.

Erickson leaned heavily on Sheff, who had a boyish grin even as he was mouthing Erickson the opening lyrics to the Little Richard raver "Ooh! My Soul." The tone on "True Love Cast Out All Evil" is reverential. Live, Okkervil River went for a more celebratory tone, reflecting on deep mental scars with the pride of someone still standing. "I only pray that I won't fall," Erickson growled on "Bring Back the Past" — his voice still an imposing menace.

While moments, such as the gospel horn and keyboard inflections of "Be and Bring Me Home," played out like an extended prayer, any sense that an Okkervil River-backed Erickson show would be a quiet one were wiped away in the opening moments. Okkervil's three-guitar attack turned "Night of the Vampire" into scorched-earth sludge; Erickson, with frazzled, unkempt hair and a round figure, looked like he had just emerged from a swamp.

An one-song encore resurrected 1966's "You're Gonna Miss Me," the closest thing Erickson ever had to a national hit. Brash, fast and angry, the song's acid-soaked guitars stood at the time as a pre-punk anthem, and more than three decades later opened the 2000 film "High Fidelity." As the song neared its conclusion Tuesday night, Sheff swapped his acoustic for an electric. Erickson turned, stopped strumming and watched as Sheff and Lauren Gurgiolo wailed the song to finish.

Erickson had earned the set-closing breather. He had, after all, spent the night revisiting hard times, battles fought and psychic wars never really won — only now kept at bay.

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