Benefit For Alejandro Escovedo – Slim’s (San Francisco, CA)
Like millions of Americans, Alejandro Escovedo, dogged seven years now by hepatitis C, has no medical insurance. Yet the master of moody roots chamber music has hundreds of musicians, from legends to locals, throwing benefits to defray his expenses (check www.alejandrofund.com for one that may be happening near you). San Francisco’s ran four hours, to an agreeably full house.
With seven acts shuttling one after another, there were bound to be problems (dead mikes, fluctuating volume, and one explosion of static suavely described from the sound board as “an anomaly”). MC George Wendt (Norm from “Cheers”, and a longtime Escovedo fan back to the True Believers days) came seemingly unprepared, and uninclined to improvise. But for performers confined to a few numbers, pacing isn’t an issue; they can deliver an intensity that contrasts pleasurably to a full set.
The effect of this compression was demonstrated by openers the Court And Spark, whose three numbers were each more rocking than the last; subsequently, they backed Jesse DeNatale on his two tunes, with similar results. Chris Smither, with a beautiful blue guitar and his customary chair, reminisced wistfully about performing his “Lola” at the Vermont State Pen, sang the late Dave Carter’s garrulous “Crocodile Man” without dropping any of its Chuck-Berry-on-a-twisty-road lyrics, and took advantage of his open D tuning to rage through Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”, establishing humor as a motif in the evening’s stage patter.
The chronically kinetic Peter Case has no trouble blazing through regular-length sets; during his five tunes, from “Crooked Mile” to the harmonica-wailing “First Light”, he just about broke the sound barrier, with only between-song tune-ups keeping him from becoming a blur. At one such interval, he fretted that he had “no momentum” — what the hell was he talking about? This could be the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.
Unless it’s Dave Alvin, though his four-song set was tantalizingly brief. He mused his way through “Dry River”, got maximum mileage from the anthemic chorus of “Abilene”, and busted a string midway through the new tune “Ash Grove”, a salute to the legendary L.A. venue. Accompanied by fiddler Amy Ferris — a former member of Escovedo’s touring band — and the evening’s all-purpose factotum, Chris Gaffney, Alvin finished with the traditional tune “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”, with Case and Smither taking each taking a verse.
Jonathan Richman, backed by drummer Tommy Larkin, pitched his Lou-Reed-gone-Raffi routine straight to the cult in attendance, singing in three languages and executing his patented aerobics kicks. The show now gone fully electric, Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express provided the first intentional feedback of the evening. Prophet had a ball turning Slim’s into a garage, dealing out distortion and pristine harmonies evenly. Case, the evening’s Zelig, dueted on “Two Angels” — a song from Case’s Blue Guitar album that became a staple of Escovedo’s repertoire in the ’90s — after he and Prophet scrambled for a mutually acceptable key.
The Iguanas didn’t so much close the show as play last, victims of the inevitable entropy of a school night. Prophet joined them to kick and cuss stalled amps back to life, and stuck around for the teen-lust vignette “The Radio Was Our Song”.
It’s fortunate for both Escovedo and his fans that he has such friends and allies to make solidarity so positively pleasurable. If he were tight with, say, Celine Dion, who wouldn’t just send a check? (Of course, Celine herself wouldn’t need a benefit: she’s Canadian.)