Remember when Little Richard quit rock and roll because he was worried about going to hell? Roky Erickson is what would have happened if he went... and came back. The 61-year-old '60s survivor, fronting a sleek three-piece band whose collective age may have added to 61, played a 75-minute set at the Continental Club Wednesday night haunted by monsters and demons, the leering Iggy Pop and snowblind Black Sabbath. It was sinister, driving and downright evil - slow, grinding blues "The Beast Is Coming" would have spooked the devil himself, and provoked a few howls from Aftermath's neighbors in the packed house - but it wasn't especially psychedelic. There was nothing trippy, or noodly, or even remotely hippie-ish about nightmares come to life like wailing opener "Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)" or the glowering "Bloody Hammer." Wednesday was less a rock show than an exorcism.
Books have been written about the phantasmagoria in Erickson's head, but not much ever gets said about what an accomplished guitarist he is. But the difference between the man who wandered onstage, arms folded, with an expression like his (two-headed) dog had just died, and the serene countenance of the of same man only seconds later after strapping on his solid-body electric was palpable. Like a light bulb going on.
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Every so often this grizzled Orpheus would step to the left, turn to face lead guitarist Kyle Ellison, and descend into a private netherworld of razor-blade chords and Faustian fills. "Night of the Vampire" was pure undiluted anguish, "Don't Shake Me Lucifer" stoked graveyard boogie, "Stand for the Fire Demon" a gripping sacrificial offering to whatever it is that helps him sleep at night. (Or, more likely, whatever helps him sleep during the day.) Erickson's music doesn't so much keep the demons in his music at bay as lull them into a trance, one side of their faces grinning with devilish glee, the other side weeping in agony. A lot of people didn't know what to make of it. The most common facial expression was slack-jawed awe, not rabid devotion. (Those who weren't barking at the moon, that is.) In the unforgiving light of day, it's still a little hard to believe this nocturnal emission from the bowels of the blues actually happened.
Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. People were stunned. All we could ask each other was "Was that as good as I thought it was?" We all answered about the same thing, too: "I... think so." We may never know for sure. But for the sake of standing there during "You're Gonna Miss Me," feeling the historical weight of the song that stirred the cauldron of punk rock and heavy metal descend like a shroud, let's assume it did. That felt pretty goddamn real. After a quarter-century away - "I told you I'd come back," Erickson said during "Creature With the Atom Brain," and did he ever - Erickson's return to Houston was nothing less than a nightmare come true. We walked with a zombie Wednesday night, and he didn't do us wrong.