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A troubled soul manages to hold his own

Comebacks by 1960s icons/drug casualties with long histories of mental illness, declining talents and other troubles should be approached with caution. One too many rambling “performances” from Sky Saxon or expensive tickets to watch Brian Wilson read a teleprompter and bang on an unplugged keyboard will make any diehard a little gun-shy.

And so, Roky Erickson‘s four appearances during this year’s South by Southwest week in Austin, Texas, were cause for tempered enthusiasm.

It sounded too good to be true: Reports were that Erickson’s latest comeback was the real deal. Rave reviews were rolling in for the Thirteenth Floor Elevators founder, whose troubles off the stage had become as legendary, if not more so, than his incredible music.

Erickson played his first full set in years last September at the Austin City Limits festival, backed by the Explosives, who are Austin punk/new wave legends in their own rite. Throughout most of 2005, Erickson joined the Explosives, his band from 1980-82, for the last two songs of their set. But the ACL festival was no small step, and apparently Erickson made the giant leap back onstage.

Erickson’s March 16th show at Threadgill’s seemed the best bet. Not an official SXSW show, the event was the annual Roky Erickson Psychedelic Ice Cream Social. The $30 cover went to Erickson’s trust, established three years ago by his brother Sumner Erickson, and served as insurance to keep the crowd of SXSW freeloaders down to a manageable size.

The strategy to bring Erickson back slowly paid off with an amazing one-hour performance that found the star of the show to be in great voice and holding his own on guitar. The incongruity of the setting was striking: a friendly restaurant that could have doubled as a family picnic; onstage is a guy who could be your good-natured, burned-out uncle wearing a permanent big grin and being showered with love from the audience, while he belted out menacing tunes about alligators, aliens, zombies, Satan and other not-so-friendly topics. But it worked.

From the opener, “It’s a Cold Night for Alligators,” Erickson was lucid and clearly enjoying himself. He played a steady rhythm guitar and cranked up the distortion for solos on two or three tunes. Explosives guitarist Cam King did most of the talking and called out the songs one by one with no set list, with Erickson classics like “Two-Headed Dog,” “Starry Eyes” and “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” among the highlights. Powell St. John, who earlier had played a good set featuring the songs he wrote for the Elevators, joined Erickson for the most appropriate tune of the day, “Right Track Now,” then stayed on to add harmonica for the obvious closer, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”

Following a well-deserved encore of “I Walked With a Zombie,” Erickson moved off the stage like anything but.

— By Joe Belock