4377-rokylive1College-aged folks gripping cups of beer sat cross-legged on Webster Hall’s floor waiting for the show to begin, and as a haze of smoke cut through the multicolored lights shining throughout the aging cathedral-style venue, the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” blasting, one might have imagined someone was playing a trick on poor Roky Erickson. After all, the year is 2010 and following everything the former 13th Floor Elevator has been through – classic-rock canonization, horror-movie concept albums, drug busts, insane asylums, documentaries and the lack of a hit single since 1965’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me” – a mental trip back to the ’60s may not be what the now (reportedly) stable Erickson needs in his life. But buying into that assumption would be completely missing the point of his recent album and tour with Okkervil River, in which he’s mellowed out and decided to revisit his past and close the door on all of its various demons; the album, True Love Cast Out All Evil was even bookended by recordings from his stint at the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

The show began with Okkervil River protégés Bird of Youth conjuring, well, Okkervil River with a load of Will Sheff-ian phrasing and melodies. But that’s too easy of a jab, and as a whole the band was a perfectly acceptable first act to the night’s entertainment. Singer/songwriter Beth Wawerna, whose mid-range vocals were complemented by guitarist Clinton Newman’s soaring falsetto, can definitely command a group of musicians better than she can an audience – some awkward stage banter and “Lost” references tripped up the visibly nervous frontwoman. A simple but wonderfully handled take on 13th Floor Elevators’ “I Had To Tell You” (with permission from Erickson, apparently) came near the end of the set as an appetizer for the older sect of the crowd that came to see Erickson and didn’t really give a damn about Okkervil River.

And when Erickson, along with the six members of Okkervil, casually but cautiously took stage a little after 10pm, it was impossible not to cheer for the guy. After all, they even had a backdrop of fake stars draped behind the man who famously thought he was an alien for a moderate chunk of his adult life. It was evident even before “Night of the Vampire” kicked things off that Erickson was not fully with it; a member of Okkervil helped him strap his guitar on and off, and several members helped him with cues throughout the set. He seemed to shout out lyrics as he remembered them, whether they were in the right bar/key or not, and he constantly lagged a half-step behind the band in some chord changes, with his guitar presumably turned way down in the mix. But Okkervil River’s dedication to fighting through this (often with four electric guitars blazing), coupled with Erickson’s contagious charmed smile, pulled through as a moving tribute to the faded star.

“Night of the Vampire” emphasized shrieking harmonized guitars twice as fierce as those in the original, “Stand for the Fire Demon,” the first half’s highlight, showed that Okkervil could pass for perfectly capable hard-rock cover band, and a slightly dissonant and twisted take on “Ooh! My Soul” (a “personal favorite” of Erickson’s) dipped outside the expected fare but in turn finally got the crowd moving a bit. Besides one quick “Hey,” Erickson, despite being front and center, seemed to perform in the shadow of his backing band, but as the end of the set neared, he showed signs of being a real live human being. The one-two punch of “True Love Cast Out All Evil” and “Be And Bring Me Home,” with it’s lines, “I don’t care what they say/ I don’t care what they think,” resonating louder than ever in front of a packed Webster Hall, was an introspective tour de force of Erickson’s current attitude and perspective. He even stepped into the spotlight to try a guitar solo in “I Walked with a Zombie,” and afterward got into a brief exchange with Sheff about how “in the old days” the following tune “would’ve been called our first single,” before mumbling something about CDs and Time Warner.

Of course, Erickson and his six new friends returned from a half-minute encore break to shred on “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and bring it all back home. Everyone knew it was coming, but it was still hard to miss the collective chills resonating through the room as he uttered that first line. The band extended the song to an appropriate length, with Sheff taking harmonica duty and the others seeming to love every second of it. But no one left the stage with a bigger smile on his face than Roky Erickson, and as easy of a line it is, whether he decides to stay in the spotlight for a while longer or not – we really will miss him.

(Photos: S. M. Kriebel)

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