Monday, July 13, 2009

Not Enough People Love Him and I Don't Know Why

Perhaps Alejandro Escovedo almost always tours with strings because his voice is in their register, if sometimes unstrung. Of course that one sentence is already too far into the story for many of you, as Escovedo has never got much beyond cult status--sadly mentioning that his niece is Sheila E. might be the best way to put him on most folks' cutural radar. But over his four decade career (wrong word, as that implies a plan), Escovedo has made more good music of more kinds than most, and by being so insufferably un-pigeon-hole-able has never even got the acclaim of, say, a Leonard Cohen, ever the cynical-Buddhist-roué (a genre-busting role, sure, but a consistent one). Escovedo first performed with the SF punks the Nuns, even playing at the infamous Sex Pistols' last concert. But since 1975 he's gone country punk and then maybe just country (Rank & File and the True Believers), fronted the thank the wham-bam-of-glam band Buick MacKane, and released solo albums fine enough to get him named No Depression's artist of the decade (1990s). Of course, those albums feature tunes as sweet as the love song "Broken Bottle" and a cover of The Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Oh, and he's Mexican-American, but that signifies more culturally (a whole song cycle for his dad and the immigrant experience) than musically ("Castanets," for instance, isn't Latin-tinged but an out-and-out rocker, something like the Chuck Berry meets the Replacements). I mean us anglo-folk can't even say he's the guy who covered "La Bamba" or something.

But we can love his music and his performances of that music, as what looked to be a near sold-out house did at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday night. He opened in front of the stage (it's a usual bit of his performance, working in or near the crowd), and that's part of his power--he draws you in, sometimes so you might swoon, sometimes to make you flinch. Playing with his longtime guitarist David Pulkinghame and a cellist whose name, alas, I couldn't quite catch, they kicked off with "Five Hearts Breaking," a song that sets his musical scene well. The cello gets to both soar and saw; the song whispers and wings--his love of volume/tempo shifts echo how his art witnesses life's duality; as for the words, well, her voice is five hearts breaking, but it's saying, "Believe believe and everything will be alright." Escovedo sings it likes he means it--he always does--so we end up with a song that says believe while recognizing exactly why we shouldn't, too. It's way (weigh?) more than a pop ditty.

That's how the rest of the show went, too. Escovedo brought out show opener (and, sadly, sort of a bore) Chuck Prophet, musical accomplice for his most recent fine album Real Animal, for the last two-thirds of the set, and even those who were not-for-Prophet before had to be converted with killer versions of "Always a Friend" (so damn catchy), "Sister Lost Soul" (slowed down and even more mournful), and others.

Finally, for encores he both pleased and slightly pissed off this fan, and not just because he didn't play the monumental "Pissed Off 2 a.m." Nope, it's because he promised so much that I wanted more--he's not the kind of guy who you let off the hook for just a fine show, it has to be a killer (in every way). First, they played "Broken Bottle," with its haunting melody and wistful lyrics, ever a crowd pleaser. Except I've seen the definitive version of it live, Jon Langford and Sally Timms doing a death-defyingly slow version at McCabe's a few years back. Now, Escovedo could probably win the song back, but not with the help of his special guest Amy Cook, who suffers from that over-dramatic singing thing that gives me American Idol creeps. You have to be more gnetle with a "Broken Bottle" you know. Next up was a cover of the Bowie-penned Mott the Hoople-performed "All the Young Dudes," another winner, till Ms. Cook got her verse and wrung its poor neck. (Sorry to be harsh, but Cook doesn't deliver in my musical kitchen as it were.) Then to close they opted to resurrect an obscure cover (it's on a Bloodshot Records anniversary disc) of Mick Jagger's (no, not the Stones, we're talking solo Jagger) "Evening Gown." It's a terrific country rock romp, a bit too melodically straightforward to fit on Exile on Main Street perhaps, and it fits Escovedo's timbre perfectly. Alas, instead of dueting with (and no, I'm not obsessed, but it sure does seem odd to me he comes up twice) Jon Langford as he did on the recording, he dueted with Chuck Prophet. And going from Jon Langford to Chuck Prophet is like going from Rembrandt to Thomas Kincaide, minus the units moved, of course.

So, what should have been out and out a brilliant way to go out was just damn good. But Escovedo is so damn good, I wanted more.

I realize this probably says more about me than the show.

Here's a version of "Everybody Loves Me" with a violin in place of the cello, but you'll get the point.

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Blogger Marty said...

Gracias, Jorge. Nice post.

12:44 AM  
Blogger MyMeta4 said...

Alejandro is one of those exceptional artists who, like Richard Thompson, his fans know can be either great or stunning. So I think George did a nice job teasing out the seeming paradox of saying Alejandro's show was great... and why that comment actually that conveys a wee bit of disappointment. <> Having heard Chuck Prophet twice and not being the least won over, I, too, wonder what role Chuck really played in Al's fabulous album "Real Animal." I think Al is being extremely gracious in his comments about Chuck, who perhaps served more as an organized and motivator that true collaborator. <> In any event, any Alejandro concert is still a treat - such great music with so much soul and compassion and acceptance of the human condition. And he was gracious afterwards signing autographs and talking about music.

12:25 PM  

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