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Three Songs No Flash

Third Eye Of The Storm: The 13th Floor Elevators Live In Texas
Ben Graham , June 1st, 2015 14:23

Ben Graham wonders if the tornados and storms battering Austin's Levitation Festival are the work of time travellers heading to witness the return of true psychedelic pioneers The 13th Floor Elevators. Photos courtesy Briana Purser (group) and Roger Ho (jug)

I've come to Austin in search of a legendary band. Perhaps the last legendary band; the only group from rock's heroic age that are still shrouded in mystery and can't be reduced down to Google searches, reissue campaigns and neatly airbrushed PR biographies. The fact that all the surviving original members of The 13th Floor Elevators are reforming for a 50th anniversary show at Levitation 2015 - formerly the Austin Psych Fest - seems impossible, even in this age of rock & roll singularity, when every band that ever existed is still out there and touring in some tenuous, bastardised form. Yet the fact I've spent the last two years writing a book that, among other things, explains just how unlikely this reunion is, also makes me feel that the Elevators' second coming is an inevitability: the result of planets aligning and a strange cosmic synchronicity that has also caused the extreme Biblical weather- storms, floods, tornadoes- that Texas is currently experiencing.

The night I flew into Austin they apparently had the heaviest rain since 1919, causing flash flooding and road closures across the region. On Carson Creek Ranch, where the Levitation Festival is held, the Colorado River burst its banks and flooded the site. Organisers the Reverberation Appreciation Society worked a miracle to make sure that the festival went ahead at all, moving stages, losing several planned features and extending over more wet, muddy turf than intended, stretching their resources, staff and infrastructure almost to breaking point.

In fact, although a storm hit just as the gates opened on Friday, the weekend actually stays warm and relatively dry. The first two days see sets from Spiritualized, Tame Impala, Lightning Bolt, Earth, Thee Oh Sees, Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain among others, but Sunday is all about the Elevators. Yet with Austin still on tornado watch and a major storm forecast at 100% likelihood at 10pm- just as the veteran band are due onstage- it still seems possible that the much-anticipated reunion just won't happen at all.

Formed in Austin in 1965, the Elevators were the first band to describe their music as psychedelic, and in founder/lyricist/jug player Tommy Hall they had a genuine acid visionary who proselytised the use of LSD as a tool for enlightenment and cosmic understanding, rather than as a recreational buzz. Teenage singer Roky Erickson was possessed of one of the most powerful voices of the era, equal parts angelic and demonic; his soulful screams communicating the often terrifying nuances of the acid experience that couldn't all be captured by Hall's poetry. Genius guitarist Stacy Sutherland was killed in 1978, and they featured several rhythm players: founding drummer John Ike Walton and their longest-serving bassist, Ronnie Leatherman, are returning to join the long-AWOL Hall and the perpetually troubled Erickson onstage tonight.

Although the band struggled on through 1968, and partial reformations occurred in 1973 and 1984, Erickson, Hall, Walton and Leatherman last played on stage together in 1967. Erickson went on to a solo career interrupted first by incarceration in Rusk State Hospital For The Criminally Insane (for possession of a single joint), and later by intermittent periods of severe mental illness. Tommy Hall meanwhile disappeared into the shadows of myth, living in a San Francisco flophouse and declining to talk about his old band, let alone play music again. Instead he's worked for forty years on "The Design," an all-encompassing theory drawing together philosophy, physics, mysticism, yoga and "existential mathematics." Inspired by William Blake, Hall once transposed a map of the Holy Land over Texas, concluding that Houston was the New Jerusalem and that Austin was Bethlehem. Now some rough beast is slouching towards Austin to be reborn. But can the centre hold?

Billy Miller, who played with Roky Erickson in the Aliens, once said that he thought that the Elevators were a popular band among time travellers, because he saw a couple at a late Roky Erickson show who he recognised from a 13th Floor Elevators concert in the 1960s, and they were wearing exactly the same clothes and looked to be exactly the same age at both events. It seems likely then that travellers from all across the time stream will be jaunting in for this show, naturally causing atmospheric turbulence and severe weather, including electrical storms. You can see them wandering around the site; dandified timelords straight from Gallifrey, or still dressed for whatever time and place they were last visiting, which generally seems to have been late 60s San Francisco, or Woodstock. Round the side of the stage local tattooed folk artists are selling wood block paintings depicting Roky in the grip of his most nightmarish songs; nearby, some young local musicians who are friends with the son of bassist and Vietnam vet Ronnie Leatherman are asking festivalgoers to paint a picture or write a message to convey their emotions to the Elevators' members. It's like a religious revival, or some medieval fair in honour of a local saint; but one who will actually be making an appearance onstage, stigmata and all.

Planes landing at nearby Bergstrom Airport are coming in terrifyingly low overhead, the wind is rising throughout the day, but the temperatures stay uncomfortably high, even as dark clouds blot out the sun. Hourly pre-recorded broadcasts announce that extreme weather is expected, bringing storms, hail, lightning and tornadoes, and that the event may be cancelled at short notice, and we'll be advised on seeking emergency shelter. Despite this I witness storming sets from Mugstar, the GOASST and house band the Black Angels, playing a particularly synapse-frying set before the way is clear for the 13th Floor Elevators to take to the stage once again.

We are now in the eye of the storm, the centre of the psychic vortex, but still it seems possible that it won't really happen. Yet there they are, dammit; John Ike Walton, tall and rangy in a white shirt and white Stetson, and Ronnie Leatherman looking wizened but cool, alongside guitarists Fred Mitchin (who plays in a local Elevators tribute band but has been gigging since the late 60s) and Eli Southard (from Roky's current backing band, The Hounds of Baskerville). Roky's son Jegar is also present, and as their official set start time goes by they still seem to be discussing cues and arrangements. But then finally the DJ is faded out and on walk Roky Erickson and Tommy Hall, direct from the mists of Valhalla; Roky full-bearded and larger than when I last saw him, and Tommy with the long grey beard of a true hermit / alchemist, dressed in coat and slouch hat and carrying his jug in a bag as though he's just come straight from the station on his first visit to Austin in forty years. He sits down at the front of the stage, Jegar passes Roky a guitar and a pick, and suddenly we're off, riding the spiralling, ecstatic riff straight into 'She Lives (In A Time Of Her Own)'.

Roky seems tense and troubled and his voice is a gravelly rasp, very different to the high piercing wail of the possessed young man on the original recordings. Yet one thing is clear; unlike the more technically proficient solo shows I've seen him give, this is absolutely for real. When performing his solo material Roky often seems to be on autopilot, in the best possible way; he can perform those numbers without thinking about it, and it's almost better if he doesn't. Tonight he's singing songs he rarely revisits, and in some cases hasn't for decades. Moreover he's back playing with the band that arguably begat all of his lifelong demons, singing these haunted, occult numbers in the city that first responded to them by sentencing him to electro-shock therapy and heavy sedation, locking him up alongside mass murderers and child rapists (as if to somehow attempt to make up for this, backstage tonight Roky and the band were presented with a bizarre but official proclamation, signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, "honouring their contribution towards inventing psychedelic rock & roll").

It's little wonder then that Roky is feeling the pressure and the emotional weight of the moment, and on 'Tried To Hide' I wonder if he's singing to himself; of how he tried to hide from this music, but found that it wouldn't let him go. He seems to be carrying a huge weight, not speaking between songs but sighing and muttering to himself like a man being led to the gallows. He's forgiven for forgetting, or blanking out, many of Hall's complex, lengthy lyrics; it doesn't matter that his hands only rarely and uncertainly stray towards his guitar. What matters is that he's giving all he has to give; that he's living these songs as he sings them, and all of his troubled experience over the past fifty years is right there in his incredibly soulful performance. That goes for the whole band; these are old men who've lived hard, real lives, not the pampered existences of celebrity musicians, and it's all there in their playing. If you want to hear slick recreations of the records, go see a tribute band; this is about seeing the real people who made this music, in the here and now, writing a final chapter before your very eyes.

And despite all this, the music is brilliant anyway. Walton's basic, powerhouse drumming continually drives the band forward, herding them on like wayward steers. Mitchin and Southard are confident guitarists, the latter discreetly adding a few of his own chiming licks to songs, and Hall's jug playing is a revelation, a truly unearthly, unsettling vibration that adds an essential edge to the songs. His baleful howls sound more like a wounded banshee than a siren on 'Fire Engine', and 'Earthquake' seems in danger of collapsing at any moment before somehow righting itself and taking on a life of its own. Often, the songs often seem to be struggling to escape their own massively amplified gravity, weighed down by temporal drag but then miraculously breaking free to become brilliantly weightless, with fresh instrumental breaks that connect us to the undreamt-of harmony of the spheres. This is how the mythic 'third voice' surprisingly appears in their music tonight; not in the feedback wail of a hungry garage band, but as a holy ghost in the complex layers and harmonics of soulful, surf-folk and psychedelic rock & roll.

Following an ambitious 'Slip inside This House,' 'Levitation' truly levitates and 'Splash One' is almost unbearably poignant and soulful, Roky singing of how he's "home to stay" with the pain and regret of one who's travelled very far from home in the course of his life. He speaks his way through a magical, reflective 'Kingdom of Heaven' but comes into his own on 'Nobody to Love' (written by late guitarist Stacy Sutherland), the earthier feel more suited to his current range. The band hits the home strait with powerful, terrifying renditions of 'Reverberation' and 'Rollercoaster,' then returns for 'You're Gonna Miss Me,' John Ike swinging his Stetson as he sits back down like a rodeo rider, and Jegar adding a blistering harmonica solo. Afterwards they take a final bow, but Tommy Hall continues to walk offstage, seemingly assuming he isn't wanted, until a wave from Mitchin convinces him to come to the front one final time, grinning and tapping the side of his head; a gesture the significance of which I'm still pondering.

And with that, they're gone; the Elevators people start to drift away and fans of headliners the Flaming Lips, dressed in circus-ready freakshow finery, start to move in. A young guy with a ginger moustache and a rag bandana turns to me as the band leaves the stage. "Did that really happen?" he asks me. "I don't know," I reply. But it really did.

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