Saturday, November 1, 2014

The 13th Floor Elevators' "Live Evolution Lost": Music Review

Recorded when (most of the?) band's members endured the aftermath of acid stronger than they had anticipated, this live recording at Houston Music Theatre on February 18, 1967 features  this Austin. Texas, psychedelic quintet's earlier songs. Electric Jug playing Tommy Hall, guitarist & vocalist Roky Erickson, guitarist Stacy Sutherland (who confessed later to a bad trip) bass player Benny Thurman, and drummer John Ike Walton made it through a 90-minute set. This appears as a triple LP/double CD remastered by Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom (whose band has covered "Roller Coaster") and assembled by band expert Paul Drummond. The file provided for review, however, features only the first CD; the second disc presents a jam with opening act Conqueroon.

Starting off with "(I've Got) Levitation," Erickson's voice sounds thin (as does the whole production, probably given the limitations of the tape and conditions; the liner notes unseen by this reviewer may clarify the situation under which this concert was preserved for us). But Sutherland's chunky chords and Hall's electric jug, the signature addition which enriches this band's eerie sound, manage to leap the distance between stage and listener. The audience here feels far away, perhaps on their own trips.

"Roller Coaster" rides along on the strength of the band's best rhythms, and Thurman's bass can be better heard here, supporting Erickson's enunciated lyrics about sensory alteration over Walton's energetic drum fills and the shivers of that amplified jug. Five minutes allows the Elevators to stretch out more, digging deeper into the darker corners of this wobbly, disorienting celebration of release.

The chords that mimic the titular "Fire Engine" smartly keep the speed up. It races past. "Reverberation (Doubt)" as its parentheses hints burrows into the darker side of dislocation, beneath the skin, as Erickson preaches an invitation to breach hesitation, to push one through to the other side. Hall's jug skitters about and, again, Walton's drums clang and clash under Sutherland's searching riff.

Opening side two of the vinyl, "Don't Fall Down" drags, frankly. Whomever contributes backing vocals must have been experiencing the chemicals, and the rhythm section and guitars seem to stumble. Perhaps the title proved prophetic. Still, the jug soldiers on and the guitar ends this nicely.

For "Tried To Hide" the staggered approach works better.  The scattershot vocals suit the harmonica-driven mood better, and this could fit in well with the San Francisco counterparts to the Elevators. (Fans say that the Avalon Ballroom bootlegs are the best extant live impressions of this band; this Houston concert, however, was the one their label had wished to officially set down for release.) 

A watery delivery for "Splash 1" feels as if singer and band are submerged. They struggle to rise above with harmonies but the pacing shuffles about in a melancholic melody of loss and longing. After the frenetic tempo of many of their songs, this and the giddier but shaky "You're Gonna Miss Me" display the fragility of Erickson, over sometimes Byrdsian or Beatlesque progressions, well.

"Monkey Island" lives up to its title, years before The Rolling Stones sang of the same simian, or a bit before the Beatles, come to think of it. This captures the same bluesy jitters of the Stones, in a more boastful vocal by Erickson. The band by now seems from their side to be finding its feet again, even if the song halts rather suddenly, which a monkey might do, too.

On the vinyl, jams are preceded by two songs which conclude the first CD. "Kingdom Of Heaven" sustains the bluesier feel of the concert by now. A rattling "She Lives (In A Time Of Her Own)" scrambles and skids about over a looser groove. The tape may have some faults as the vocals skip and the fidelity on an admittedly dodgy source recording seems more strained, but it's a lively song. Its unsteady gait, whether from tape or band, nonetheless reveals the band's determination to bash on.

While these live versions may not equal their studio originals, nearly all from their self-titled 1966 debut LP, they will reward fans eager for more of this band, given their short career and few recordings. I imagine the physical product rather than the download I have heard, furthermore, will entertain listeners and readers with its archival photos and period art from what proved quite a year.
(Edited and in shorter form 8-3-14 to Spectrum Culture.)

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