Alejandro Escovedo’s every-night breakthrough
If you’re familiar with the pre-dot-com history of No Depression, you likely already know how far my own musical history goes back with Alejandro Escovedo. If not, this should give you some idea. It was ten years ago that Grant Alden and I declared him our Artist of the Decade for the 1990s; I wrote our March-April 1998 cover story after having spent more than a decade watching Escovedo go from up-and-coming bandleader to down-and-out local hero to up-and-coming solo artist to down-and-out critic’s darling.
It was at that last stage when No Depression presumptuously rode in on our white horse and decided the world needed to know that this guy was not someone who should be left on the sidelines, again. Bloodshot Records did the same, releasing his live compilation More Miles Than Money in ’98 and then his superb studio album A Man Under The Influence in 2001. He’s been (as usual) up and down since then nearly dying from complications of Hepatitis C in 2003, but living to see many of his heroes and comrades participate a three-disc benefit tribute album of his songs in 2004, and finding a new label home with Back Porch/Manhattan. (The ultimate irony being that the labels’ parent company is EMI, which dumped Escovedo’s band the True Believers two decades ago.)
This year has brought an entirely new chapter to the Escovedo story: A management change resulted in him joining the camp of Jon Landau and Barbara Carr, longtime managers of Bruce Springsteen, and, voila, in April he appeared onstage with Springsteen in Houston, performing his new single “Always A Friend” with Bruce and the E Street Band backing him up. The live recording ended up on a digital benefit EP. In June, Escovedo’s new disc Real Animal sold well enough to be his first album to crack the Billboard charts.
Which is both an accomplishment and an astonishment the latter because it took this long for an Escovedo album to chart. And, all of these breakthroughs aside, it’s not like Escovedo has suddenly made it to the big time. Though he performed at the Democratic National Convention in late August, and on “The Tonight Show” in early September, he still frequently travels in a van, and he still mostly plays not theaters or concert halls but nightclubs.
Which is where we encountered him last night, at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina. Whether this is a success story is a matter of perspective; probably around 300 folks were at the Cradle for this Thursday-night show, which might seem subpar unless you compare it to the show I saw him play about a block down the street in November 2000 at Go Studios, to around 50 people. Which is to say, I suppose, that if Escovedo still isn’t a star, at least there are more people are aware of him than there were eight years ago.
Sometimes I feel a bit pessimistic about this, in that what I see in Escovedo is the kind of talent which should put him at the level of, say, Lyle Lovett. That’s not a stretch, by any means; those who saw Escovedo’s marathon Sunday-night SXSW-closing shows at La Zona Rosa during the 1990s can attest that what he delivered with his thirteen-to-fifteen-piece “orchestra” (strings, horns, percussion and steel guitar embellishing the standard rock-band lineup) was every bit the equal of Lovett’s long-revered Large Band performances.
But you can’t bring those large bands on the road unless you’ve already reached a level where it’s affordable. Thus, Escovedo’s traveling show is usually leaner; sometimes a string quartet, which has its own sort of magic, but on this night a standard guitar-bass-drums backing.
Whatever the configuration, Escovedo never fails to deliver: He is, above all else, a consummate bandleader and live performer. His set on this night began with the one-two electric-crunch punch of “Put You Down” (from his 1996 disc With These Hands) and the current hit “Always A Friend” before a seamless switch to a more acoustic approach for the new album’s “Sister Lost Soul”.
Alejandro Escovedo performs “Sister Lost Soul” at Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland Oct. 19, five days before last night’s show at Cat’s Cradle in N.C.
On both that song and the border ballad “Rosalie”, Escovedo and guitarist David Pulkingham delivered exquisitely picked preludes, the latter based on the instrumental “Thirteen Years” theme from Escovedo’s 1993 album of the same name. What had begun as a boisterous barroom crowd suddenly had become pin-drop quiet not by any request from the performer, but simply because of the power and pull of the music he was playing.
This is one of the keys to understanding Escovedo’s appeal, and appreciating his art: He is a master of dynamics. Not so much in the sense that, say, Nirvana would go from a whisper to a scream from the verse to the chorus; but rather, within the scope of his set, Escovedo can be loud and hard as fuck on one song, then quiet and tender as the wee hours of the morning in the next. Somehow this is not incongruous in his music; indeed, it is his music.
He’s also, like most of the masters of American song, constantly revisiting and reinventing his own work. Toward the end of “I Was Drunk”, he and Pulkingham (who were bolstered by drummer Hector Munoz and bassist Josh Gravelin) suddenly but seamlessly segued from a waltz into…a flamenco?…and then back and forth and back again, as if they couldn’t decide which sounded better. Somehow they made the transitions seem natural, second-nature to the song’s internal spirit and rhythm.
After playing the poignant “People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)”, which was a fitting choice for his Democratic Convention appearance a few weeks back with its “fierce urgency of now”-esque chorus recitation, “We’ve still got time, but never quite as much as you think” Escovedo closed out his main set as he’d started it, rocking the house (with the new album’s “Real As An Animal” and the Man Under The Influence highlight “Castanets”). For an encore, he did another thing that has long been a key to his appeal: He connected directly with the local audience, by pulling Chapel Hill singer Lynn Blakey of Tres Chicas onstage to join him for covers of Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes” and the Rolling Stones’ “Beast Of Burden”.
On the latter song, Escovedo set aside his guitar and allowed his frontman instincts to come to the fore, prowling the stage while encouraging Blakey to let her emotions flow free in their playful but purposeful duet performance. Perhaps it’s this kind of personal connection that ultimately distinguishes the essence of Escovedo from that of a Lyle Lovett/Large Band aesthetic: While Alejandro possesses the instincts to play at that level if his notoriety ever reaches those heights, his art is also admirably populist. Even after all these years, he still can move everybody in the room as if he’s singing to them directly, one-on-one. I’ve seen him do it more than a hundred times…and, no, that’s not an exaggeration.
It’s what I wrote ten years ago in that ND cover story, and last night’s show merely drove it all home again: “Alejandro Escovedo’s music finally boils down to the simplest, most direct connection between the artist and any one person who might be out there listening.”