Playback: Saving Souls at the Electric Church

New venue the Electric Church converts local psychics, and Samuel Grey Horse recounts his mule variations

Hollow Trees performing at the Electric Church in April (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Strange things are happening at the old Jesus Is Alive Ministries on Cesar Chavez.

There, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary have been canonized as patron saints. Liquid light shows, meanwhile, are considered the sacrament. And Sunday service has been replaced with late-night Friday and Saturday masses, wherein hundreds spill in to accept the communion of live music.

Nestled in an industrial area on Austin's Eastside, the defunct chapel went electric when overtaken by musicians and projectionists in February. Instant creative space! Since then, the Electric Church has seen their parish flourish into one of Austin's most talked about "underground" music venues.

A large congregation amassed last Friday for a bill highlighted by proto-metal San Marcos squad Crypt Trip and Ft. Worth experimental fuzzers Fogg performing in front of TV static visuals. The following night, devotees witnessed a captivating performance from Sailor Poon member Madison Whitaker's shimmering art rock project Whit. While the Church's calendar reps various genres, including garage-y New Wavers Big Bill holding down a Friday residency throughout June, the temple largely exists as an outgrowth of Austin's psychedelic scene.

"The original psychedelic movement is something that struck a chord inside all of us," says Levi Murray, who co-founded the venue with his Sun Machine bandmates Nate Rendon and Jese Hernandez, and Ether Wave visual architect Fez Moreno. "We want to keep the old version alive through what we're doing."

"It's also a celebration of electricity and the new age," interjects Moreno, who designs the endeavor's Fillmore-esque posters and can typically be found during shows on a platform surrounded by an arsenal of projectors. "It's like a new religion, worshipping lights and electric sound blaring from speakers. Aquarian Age shit."

The cult of the Electric Church was born years ago at a rental house on Gunter Street, where the group held backyard concerts until their neighbors' patience was sufficiently tested. Hernandez laughs at the recollection of getting arrested while dressed in a purple psychedelic robe. In 2016, they briefly occupied a former gym at Seventh and Springdale, but exited amid frustration when the property owner wouldn't produce a lease.

Unrelenting, Murray and company threw additional house shows. They followed that by booking events at Barracuda and Sahara Lounge before landing the serendipitous property at 5018 E. Cesar Chavez. This time, they secured a one-year lease from an old-school local who used to frequent Austin's early psychedelic headquarters the Vulcan Gas Company and thus appreciates their creative mission.

"We saw that as a blessing," smiles Rendon.

The Electric Church waters its own musical garden by hosting a weekly open jam on Wednesdays, where musical pilgrims – armed with everything from guitars to flutes – assemble in odd combinations while Moreno welcomes aspiring projectionists to create accompanying visuals.

"My favorite part is that we get a lot of kids on Wednesdays who aren't in bands yet," offers Rendon. "They want to be. They're just young and don't know the right people. Then there are people who are in established bands, and those two elements come together. Because of all the people meeting each other, you'll see bands come out of it in the future."

"People have told me they feel better after they leave," adds Murray. "They feel like they went to church."

Mule Variations

Perched atop his mule with an acoustic guitar slung around his neck, Samuel Grey Horse absorbs a tribal Bo Diddley beat and leads a call-and-response chorus: "Toksha Ake Kola." The audience, gathered in the gravel parking lot of Sam's Town Point for the monthly Joint at the Point songwriter series, hollers back the native expression, meaning, "See you again my friend."

This is South Austin at its far-out zenith.

Samuel Grey Horse (Photo by John Anderson)

Many townies have caught a glimpse of the omnipresent urban horseman riding down the street on Mula or his horse Tex, posing for photos with tourists, or hitching his animals outside the White Horse and Continental Club. Also well-known is his ride with death. In 2010, while working as a trainer at a racetrack, the Austin native born Samuel Olivo got dragged by a horse called Big Red, breaking his neck, back, and a dozen ribs, collapsing both his lungs, and cracking his skull.

After catching the STAR Flight helicopter to Seton Medical Center, the singer lapsed into a coma. He awoke to doctors telling him he'd never ride – maybe never walk – again. He's since proved them wrong.

Less famous, but equally fascinating, is his musicianship. Last year, he released his debut album, a Casper Rawls-produced collection of rootsy tunes featuring local A-listers Glenn Fukunaga, Bukka Allen, Warren Hood, and David Grissom. The scrappy vocalist exudes the gratefulness of a death-cheater, the spirituality of a red-road Native, and sings of a mythic encounter with APD in Western ballad "Arrested on Horseback."

Turns out Grey Horse made national news in 2011 when he was arrested on Sixth Street for a DUI on horseback. He admits to having two drinks that night, but claims that he was mostly under the influence of post-accident pain medication. Police arrested him, took him to the hospital, and impounded his horse and mule. The next morning he faced a judge.

"I went to court and the judge asked me: 'Did you come in here shooting your six-shooter?' I said, 'No, of course not, your honor.' The judge said, 'There's a law in Texas that you can still ride your horse. As long as you don't come in here shooting your six-shooters, you're free to go,'" recalls Grey Horse with a laugh.

So goes the song: "I live in Austin, Texas. That's where I got my name. Arrested on horseback, how my life has changed."

Half Notes

Frank Speller, UT's Associate Professor Emeritus of Organ, passed away on May 15. The acclaimed teacher/composer, 78, whose extensive international performances included a recital at Paris' Notre-Dame cathedral, was a key figure in the development of the three-story, 5,315-pipe Visser-Rowland tracker organ inside Bates Recital Hall – America's largest at the time of its 1981 installation. During his 44-year tenure at the university, Speller also featured the extravagant instrument on his own albums, which included sacred music and chorale compositions, as well as in Halloween productions of Phantom of the Opera where he donned a Phantom mask.

Tritonal boasts more Spotify plays and Facebook followers than Gary Clark Jr. and Shakey Graves, collaborates with EDM sensation Chainsmokers, and performs to massive audiences worldwide, yet remains far from a household name in Austin due to our music community's ambivalence toward commercial dance pop. The DJ duo of Dave Reed and Chad Cisneros, in action since 2008, play two hometown shows at Kingdom this weekend. Friday yields a "classic" set focusing on progressive house and trance. Saturday brings a "modern" set demonstrating their big-room sound loaded with vocal hooks.

Free Week in July? Music venues in the Red River Cultural District join forces for Hot Summer Nights, a free music series celebrating Austin's most vibrant music strip. Running July 13-16 at all the key RRCD venues, the convergence will boost business during the slow summer months.

Mayor Steve Adler met with venue owners, music advocates, and Economic Development Department staff on Tuesday to discuss the contentious Agent of Change and entertainment license policy in what several sources described as a productive meeting. A new draft is expected Friday.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Electric Church, Samuel Grey Horse, Frank Speller, Tritonal, Hot Summer Nights, Agent of Change

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