ROKY ERICKSON with the Black Angels
8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24 | The Social, 54 N. Orange Ave. | 407-246-1419 | thesocial.org | $18-$20
Roky Erickson should have been one of rock & roll’s biggest tragedies. In the late 1960s, drugs, mental illness and institutionalization collided for the pioneering 13th Floor Elevators frontman. His troubled life since has reflected the reverberations of that head-on, seemingly inevitable tailspin. Erickson wasn’t on the brink of the abyss – he was in it, disintegrating in obscurity and neglected solitude.
But since 2001, when his brother Sumner obtained legal custody of him, Erickson has been on a stunning climb to recovery in health and career. Vaulted by the heralded 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, which depicted his condition with eye-opening reality, he became a cause célèbre. His return to the stage began slowly in 2005, starting with local Austin gigs and gradually ramping up to festival appearances. By 2008, he was under a new creative moon, making music unparalleled since his work in the 1980s and forging bonds with modern bands like Okkervil River and Mogwai. That year, Erickson and the Black Angels first connected.
The Angels played Roky Erickson’s Ice Cream Social (his annual benefit at the South by Southwest Music Festival) just as Erickson was contemplating touring again. Once one of Erickson’s people saw the fellow Austinites perform, the idea to have them serve as his backing band was born. The fit was natural, but the logistics were steep.
“We were in San Francisco, and his manager called us out of the blue and asked if we wanted to be Roky Erickson’s backing band,” says Black Angels frontman Alex Maas. “And of course we were like, ‘Wow, this is insane. Of course, you know? We’d love to.’ We had never done anything like that before. We, of course, weren’t hesitant to the idea, but we were like, ‘Wow, how are we going to do this?’”
So they crammed – at least as much as Erickson’s stamina would allow, which Maas says was only about 20 minutes at a time. They learned songs from both his 13th Floor Elevators and solo eras, even re-teaching Erickson some of the former material.
“When we were getting ready for the tour, we never really played a full set in rehearsal,” Maas says. “And so we were a little nervous going into the first couple shows. We weren’t sure how it was gonna feel. But it was great, it was great, it was great.”
But that 2008 tour only hit major West Coast cities. Now, after all these years, the stars have aligned again to do the East Coast for the first time together. Although Erickson now has his own band, this special historic bill pairs the legend with a young psych-rock band at the top of their game. But Maas wonders how much longer the 66-year-old Erickson will tour. “There’s a lot of ways he can make money without having to tour at his age, you know?”
During their 2008 association, Erickson’s management also offered the Black Angels the opportunity to record some of his unreleased songs. They recorded almost a dozen of them, but the venture fizzled. Maas insists the band never lost interest.
“I think they just kind of lost funding. And Roky’s camp kind of ended up doing similar projects with other bands, I guess.” (Erickson recorded a stirring, widely acclaimed album with Okkervil River, 2010’s True Love Cast Out All Evil.)
The project was shelved, until now. When the Angels discovered they were rejoining Erickson on the road, Maas says the band had one thought: “We’re not gonna go on tour without some of these songs on hand with us, you know, because it’s been since 2008.” So, they got back in the studio and finished a 7-inch record for this tour.
Because of both his talent and the fact that – by a mountain of wild odds – it shouldn’t have happened, this opportunity to see Roky Erickson perform is that exceedingly rare kind. Instead of becoming another Syd Barrett tale, one of psychedelic rock’s defining icons has become one of music’s most redemptive comebacks.
“When we were playing music with Roky, it was very interesting to see how music kind of brightened him up and made him more alive and made him more clear in thought,” Maas says. “I would like to see his legacy translate in a musical, therapeutic way. … Roky’s living proof of somebody [for] whom music will, at the end of the day, save him. And I think that’s true for a lot of people.”