Though Alejandro Escovedo has been around for two decades, it took Springsteen bringing him up on stage a couple months ago to bring him to my attention. For others similarly in the dark, Escovedo’s been rocking away in Austin since the 80’s, starting off in band like The Nuns and Rank and File. He slowly earned himself a local reputation as a songwriter par excellence, so respected by his peers that when he needed money for Hepatitis C treatments in ’03, famous friends like Steve Earle and Son Volt recorded his songs for a tribute album. With his newest release Real Animal and big shot manager Jon Landau behind him, he’s making a legion of new fans and brought his Texas rock to the tiny Paradise Rock Club Thursday.
Local band Tulsa, however, got the evening off to a very boring start. Though the songs might have been good, the onstage delivery was so dreary the crowd fought to keep from falling asleep. As every midtempo angst ballad sounded like the next, it was a power trio with no power, and lead singer Carter Tanton’s nasal drawl sounded like he was nodding off himself.
Soon after they mercifully left the stage, Escovedo came out with a five-piece band. Unexpected in a rock show, two of those pieces were violin and cello. Immediately proving why they belonged, the two began a dissonant intro, soaring and grating simultaneously with either real or well-simulated distortion. Instrument upon instrument joined until with a drum crash the band roared into “Put You Down.” For the rest of the night, Escovedo strutted the stage like a rock star, giving a stadium-sized show for the tiny club. His guitar was tight and aggressive, channeling Joe Strummer (who he name-checked) with a windmill or two thrown in for good measure. And when he put down the guitar for “Real as an Animal,” he prowled the small stage, mic stand trailing behind as he barked out the Iggy Pop-inspired lyrics.
The band picked up on Escovedo’s focused energy, and channeled a balls-out performance themselves, the Sex Pistols’ drive combined with Springsteen’s technical perfection. The guitarist’s frequent solos were focused, improvised but never jammy, eliciting cheers from the audience each time. The strings fought their way to make a similar impression, dissonant and schmaltzy in turns, but always fitting in to even the most guitar-based songs.
Song selection drew heavily from his recent album, including soon-to-be fan favorites like “Always a Friend” (the one he sang with Bruce) and “Sister Lost Soul.” “Chelsea Hotel ‘78” rocked the hardest though, breaking down to just vocals and drums before a build-up that rivals “Jungleland.” The most driven moment of the night came in set-closer “Castanets,” however. A song President Bush listed among his favorites, Escovedo was so insulted he retired it for three years, bringing it back now only with a tirade about how he’s going to build a fence around Texas to stop Bush from coming back (“Chicano homeland security”). Needless to say, the Massachusetts crowd approved.
Older songs showed greater musical diversity however. The stunning mini-suite flamenco of “Juarez” and “Rosalie” featured beautiful nylon-stringed plucking that perfectly matched the lead-in story about Escovedo’s father’s immigration. A break from all the rock, the sorrowful soul of this slow mariachi medley brought the crowd to a standstill in the emotion that seeped through every word and guitar flourish.
For anyone still unimpressed, Escovedo’s encores proved a lesson in crowd-pleasing, two covers that had everyone shouting and swaying along. “All the Young Dudes” was faithfully performed, but the extended take on “Beast of Burden” how to rock in middle-age without embarrassing yourself. Mick, take note. Escovedo may not be a household name, but the passion he performs with makes you wonder if he should be.
Put You Down
Always A Friend
Everybody Loves Me
Sister Lost Soul
Chelsea Hotel '78
Deerhead On The Wall
Juarez > Rosalie
People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
Real As An Animal
All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople cover)
Beast Of Burden (Rolling Stones cover)