Alejandro Escovedo Benefit – Paramount Theatre (Austin, TX)
It was, in a way, appropriate that Por Vida: Benefit For Life, the all-star kickoff fundraiser for Alejandro Escovedo and the Alejandro Fund, occurred a couple of days after the Day of the Dead.
Held on November 1 and 2, El Dia de los Muertos — a mixture of pre-Columbian and Christian observances — is celebrated throughout Mexico and in much of South Texas. It’s a holiday devoted to communing with the departed, in which vanished souls return to visit their homes and families.
Escovedo, of course, is still among the quick, but the big ensemble show at the Paramount Theatre in Austin on November 4 did indeed represent a metaphorical return to life and the embrace of friends, peers and admirers. One of Austin’s most prolific and universally beloved musicians of the past two decades, Escovedo developed serious complications of Hepatitis C in 2003, forcing him to forgo public performances almost entirely for the past year and a half.
As word spread of Escovedo’s health problems and his lack of insurance, a series of benefit concerts were organized, culminating in the release earlier this year of the two-disc set, Por Vida: A Tribute To The Songs Of Alejandro Escovedo. Sales from the album benefited Escovedo and planted the seeds for the Alejandro Fund, which is devoted to raising awareness about Hepatitis C and helping provide medical assistance to uninsured professional musicians suffering from the disease. (An introductory film screened before the concert featured Escovedo and Asleep At the Wheel’s Ray Benson and informed the audience about Hepatitis C and its ramifications).
The Austin concert was a spinoff of the album project, presenting some of the same wide-ranging array of talent that made the two-disc album such an eclectic delight. It’s hard to imagine another concert project that would entice Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, Tex-Mex rockers Los Lonely Boys, former Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, West Texas balladeer Butch Hancock, the distaff musical triptych Tres Chicas, and Arizona indie-rock band Calexico onto the same stage.
Themes of family and renewal have always resounded in Escovedo’s mature work (one of his more recent works is a play, By The Hand Of The Father, that references his family and roots), so it was no surprise that this concert was resonant of family, both literal and musical. Older brother Pete Escovedo and niece Sheila E. turned the lilting “Ballad Of The Sun And Moon” into a roaring percussion showcase. Jon Dee Graham, Escovedo’s brother-in-arms through the tumultuous history of the True Believers, crooned and rasped his way through a crunchy, rocking rendition of “Helpless” (with an incongruous but lovely cello in the background).
“Al, when you were asleep, I would go through your pockets and look for cash,” he confessed from the stage, “and you were just as broke as I was.”
Los Lonely Boys, a trio of West Texas brothers who are carrying on a family musical tradition of their own, rolled and romped through “Castanets” (the best Stones song Mick & Keith never wrote) and their own breakout hit, “Heaven”. And Tejano music icon Ruben (“El Gato Negro”) Ramos, who has served as something of a musical father figure since shortly after Escovedo moved to Austin, got some of the biggest cheers of the night — and the rapt and unswerving attention of every woman in the joint — with his yearning, heartbreakingly tender, cut-crystal rendition of “13 Years”.
Charlie Sexton proved to be the night’s indispensable utility man. He helped organize, arrange and delegate much of the evening’s complex musical structure and did yeoman duty with the various onstage collaborations. His own contributions, particularly with Ramos, with Lenny Kaye during “Sacramento & Polk”, and his own elegant take on “Dear Head On The Wall”, were invaluable.
The man his own self finally took center stage at just past midnight (it was a long night, folks). With Pete and Sheila E., Sexton, Graham, Nicholas Tremulis and others joining him, the angular, black-clad Escovedo strapped on a black Les Paul and proceeded (with a liberated cry of “C’mon!!”) to shred “Break This Time”. With each windmill of his arm, Escovedo seemed to focus energy and joy around his frail figure.
It was a moment to savor, a reminder of why Austin listeners and musicians alike have always cherished Escovedo in all his musical incarnations — from his early ’80s tenure with Rank And File (the cowpunk ensemble that introduced him to local listeners), to the mid-’80s heyday of the True Believers (the group many hometown aficionados still consider the defining Austin band of the past two decades), to his ’90s excursions with the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra (whose iconic SXSW-closing night shows at La Zona Rosa remain a cherished memory), to his mature solo albums (a body of work distilled through infusions of joy and loss in equal measure).
However reed-thin he might have looked onstage, Escovedo has cast a shadow that is wide, deep and permanent. As this show demonstrated, that shadow has reached out to touch family and friends, at home and far beyond alike.