By The Hand Of The Father (“Un Viaje Del Siglo Veinte”) – Las Manitas (Austin, TX)
Alejandro Escovedo’s music has always crossed many borders, and dealt with issues of families, fathers and children. Which makes him the perfect choice as music composer for By The Hand Of The Father, a theatrical work-in-progress by Los Angeles-based About Productions, which had a private invite-only debut at the South by Southwest Music Festival. This was a preview version (the full performance will debut next year), and in spite of a few rough edges, the production is already tremendously compelling.
Subtitled “Un Viaje del Siglo Veinte” (Spanish for “A 20th-Century Journey”), By The Hand Of The Father traces the struggles of an earlier generation of Mexican immigrants trying to make its way in America. It’s an interesting angle, revisiting the turn of an earlier century as we approach another millennium, through the prism of a generation that had to assimilate to a new time as well as a new place.
The piece was structured as a series of impressionistic ruminations from the viewpoint of children remembering stories about their fathers. Co-writers Eric Gutierrez and Rose Portillo gave dramatic readings, mostly recounting highly personal moments — such as Gutierrez’s realization that his father never liked going to the beach because the ocean was a reminder of the war he’d had to fight in as a young man. Emotional but not sentimental, By The Hand Of The Father conjured a mood similar to Oscar Hijuelos’ wonderful 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love.
Along with providing musical backup, punctuation and counterpoint, Escovedo contributed dialogue to some of the more surreal three-way spoken-word interludes. He also sang three proper songs, including the new composition “Wave Goodbye”. “With These Hands” (the title track to his 1996 album) and “The Ballad Of The Sun And The Moon” (from 1993’s Thirteen Years) meshed so perfectly with the material, it was as if they were written specifically to be used in this way.
It’s no slight to any of the principles to say that the most memorable part actually came from one of the bit players — Tejano star Ruben Ramos, who absolutely lit up the room when he came onstage. Singing in both English and Spanish, he held the audience rapt from the moment he stepped up to the microphone.
This being a theatrical production, there wasn’t supposed to be any between-song applause. The crowd, however, simply could not help itself, and interrupted the show with a standing ovation.