Por Vida: For Alejandro Escovedo – Abbey Pub (Chicago, IL)
When Alejandro Escovedo was hospitalized in April to treat complications caused by Hepatitis C, it was difficult to imagine any good coming out of the grim situation. While Escovedo’s health remains tenuous and his finances insecure — he has no insurance to cover mounting medical bills and can’t tour while he recuperates — the response to Escovedo’s plight has been inspiring. Across the country, musicians, industry folks and fans have come together to raise money for Escovedo, to pay tribute to his talents, and — as Alejandro would certainly want it — to have fun and make a mighty fine noise.
Fittingly, the first local benefit concerts were held in Austin, Escovedo’s home for the past 20-odd years, and Chicago, where he has found an especially large and loyal following in the past decade.
The Chicago event, christened “Por Vida” (literally, “for life”) after the Spanish blessing Escovedo often invokes, was a two-night affair (much like the one at Austin’s Continental Club a few weeks earlier). The first night, hosted by the mid-sized Abbey Pub, was part Bloodshot label showcase, part civic celebration of Escovedo’s sprawling influence and multifaceted sound.
Ex-Blacks frontman Danny Black kicked things off, leading his latest scrappy trio through a set of catchy, rattling pop influenced by the Beatles and their Brit Invasion followers, yet nodding to Escovedo’s garage-rock roots. Fired by Black’s muddy guitar licks and classic scruffy yelp, the band let up in pace — but not intensity — only for a straight reading of Escovedo’s tippler’s waltz “I Was Drunk”.
Folk-blues belter Nora O’Connor’s sweet vibrato was abetted by the rich, sensitive playing of a stellar cast. With Andrew Bird on violin, Matt Weber (Mount Pilot) on lead guitar, and Chris Mills’ rhythm section of Ryan Hembrey (bass) and Gerald Dowd (drums), O’Connor led delicious covers of James Mathus’ “Back To The Bottom”, Tom Waits’ “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again”, and a luxuriant, sad version of Escovedo’s “The Last To Know”.
Having been everything from a glam punk and a sedate folkie to a guitar noisemonger and a chamber maestro, Escovedo would have liked the adventurous performance of Frisbie. A retro-pop outfit by trade, brothers Steve and Liam Frisbie offered their usual strummy hooks and soaring vocals only as bookends to a set that included cameos by country-soul crooner Kelly Hogan, multi-instrumentalist Dave-Max Crawford, and drummer Dowd. They delivered faithful renditions of Escovedo’s “Rosalie” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sway” (an Escovedo live-show staple); a sly, funky King Floyd cover; and a rousing run through the gospel standard “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”.
If that didn’t demonstrate the breadth of Escovedo’s influence, the opposite tacks taken by the next two acts certainly did. Though they battled nagging feedback and a restless crowd, Jane Baxter Miller (guitar and vocals) and Kent Kessler (standup bass) delivered a set of acoustic country and gospel highlighted by a fragile, determined take on Escovedo’s “One More Time”. Next, Dollar Store rumbled through a set of loud rock that proved sloppier than even frontman Dean Schlabowske’s rowdy regular gig, the Waco Brothers. The high points were a rock-tonk take on Cher’s “Believe”; and the evening’s second rendition of “I Was Drunk”, featuring fine work from guitarist Tex Schmidt.
After four hours, the crowd — which also participated in a fund-raising raffle for such items as art by Jon Langford and Ryan Adams — began to thin. But the onstage energy didn’t flag; fronting his crack foursome, Robbie Fulks offered a typically irreverent dedication to Alejandro (“Cocktails”, “because he loooves to drink”) and a laid-back take on Escovedo’s “Wedding Day”, made like Yngwie Malmsteen on “Cigarette State”, and wound up with an all-out squall on “Let’s Kill Saturday Night”.
Closing duties fell to members of Poi Dog Pondering, here dubbed Disciples of the Seven Samurai. Frontman Frank Orrall explained that the name was a nod to a late-’80s Austin outfit Escovedo had played in called Seven Samurai that also included Poi Dog members Max Crawford and Susan Voelz. The group mixed Seven Samurai favorites (Ronnie Lane’s “Glad & Sorry”) with songs such as “Pulling Touch” from Poi Dog’s old Austin days.
Chicago’s Por Vida festival continued the following night at Fitzgerald’s nightclub. Further information on Escovedo’s condition and the fund-raising effort is available at www.alejandrofund.com.