Real As An Animal
Originally posted on Troubadour Blues: A Film by Tom Weber
A recent trip to Cleveland reminded me all over again what I liked about the “old” music business, before the Internet and cheap digital technology turned every kid with a guitar and a computer into an instant recording artist.
They were called The Lighthouse and The Whaler, they seem like nice people with nice parents who love them very much, and I feel bad about picking on them. I clapped dutifully after every song, and I would not have minded them at a jam session or open stage or private showcase at Folk Alliance.
But they were opening a show at a fairly big club, in the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, for one of the greatest rock & rollers ever to walk the earth, and their being on that stage at the Beachland Ballroom just seemed so WRONG.
There were four of them: a guy who played guitar, mandolin, and sang lead; a second guy who played violin, melodica and electronic keyboard; a third guy who played drums and glockenspiel and sang harmony; and a girl who played a Rhodes piano, mandolin, guitar, and sang harmony. They were all earnest, bespectacled art-school types. Like I said before, nice people; I feel bad about picking on them.
They really didn’t have much stage presence. They either looked at their instruments or at the floor, rarely even looking at each other. I felt like I was eavesdropping on band practice in somebody’s family room.
They had pleasant, ethereal harmonies, but the songs all sounded the same. The drummer seems to know only one beat. All of them played multiple instruments, but not that well; there seemed to be a lot of wasted motion onstage. They didn’t have a bass player, and they REALLY needed a bass player — there was nothing anchoring the sound; it felt as if a small gust of wind would blow it away.
They have an EP, and they’re about to release a full-length record. They’re on MySpace and Amazon and iTunes and Rhapsody. I’m sure they have a lot of friends on Facebook, and I’d be willing to bet that they Twitter. As far as connecting with an audience of strangers, entertaining them and making an impression, they were completely out of their depth.
Alejandro Escovedo’s band took the stage like pirates boarding a cruise ship: tall, scary-looking men with pale, weathered complexions from thousands of late nights playing on the road in bars.
Bass player Bobby Daniel bore more than a passing resemblance to a taller Keith Richards. Drummer Hector Munoz, stocky and muscular, looked like he didn’t put up with a lot of nonsense from anyone. Guitarist David Pulkingham made an amiable enough compere, but you wouldn’t want to mess with these guys.
They looked dangerous, the way that Muddy Waters and Albert Collins and Lightnin’ Hopkins looked dangerous. They know that good rock & roll must remain dangerous.
Alejandro himself — whip-thin, his impenetrable Aztec features lightened by an occasional grin — was last to take the stage. The band immediately powered into “Always A Friend,” the opening track from his current album, and you knew that the professionals had taken over.
The intensity didn’t let up for the next two hours, which featured songs so new that Alejandro had to sing one of them while reading the words out of a notebook, starting the song over because he began on the wrong verse. Between songs, he explained that they’re on their way to Lexington, Kentucky, to record another album with legendary producer Tony Visconti (who did all those great Bowie and T. Rex and Mott the Hoople albums in the ’70s).
That’s when it hit me, about the value of the old system, the way Alejandro came up, the way Dave Alvin and Peter Case and Gurf Morlix and Rick Danko and Levon Helm came up. The way I came up.
You cut your teeth as a teenager playing cover songs for other kids in school gyms and church basements and teen hangouts (for us in Erie, it was the YMCAs and their “Y-Co” dances on weekend nights). If you could cut it, and if you had a union card, you might start getting bar gigs playing for an older crowd.
Bar audiences in those days were loud and demanding. They went out to drink and dance and get rowdy. You couldn’t get away with more than one or two original songs before they’d start clamoring for something they knew, “Mustang Sally” or “Louie Louie” or “Gloria,” the common repertoire of our generation.
The point is, there was a sort of farm club system for bands in those days, and you never got to the next level until you had mastered the previous one. Musicians honed their chops through years of playing covers, mixed with their own songs, working their way up from local to regional gigging and then, for a lucky few, to the national stage. By the time you opened a show for a touring band, you knew what moved a crowd, what songs got them onto the dance floor and kept them there, when to slip one in that would make them think.
“Gloria” and “In the Midnight Hour” and “Satisfaction” were the songs that everybody knew, and they informed our own songwriting. Few bands could afford to put out records, and you never recorded a song until you had tried it out on a live audience. But, because there were so few local records being put out, radio stations invariable played and promoted them. That scene in the Tom Hanks movie, That Thing You Do, where the kids freak out when they hear their song on the radio, that was real.
Bobby Daniel and Hector Munoz and David Pulkingham and Alejandro Escovedo know how to play live because they have been doing it since they were teenagers. Maybe it’s the only thing they know how to do, but they are masters. They’ve kept their edge through the years because they love what they’re doing; they have a passion for the music that years of playing in sweaty bars hasn’t dimmed. Real as an animal, to quote one of Alejandro’s songs.
They ended the night with two covers, “All The Young Dudes” and “Beast of Burden.” Everybody knew the words. Everybody sang along. People with lighters held them overhead. It was one of those great rock & roll moments, where you felt like part of something bigger than yourself.
I looked around for the opening band. They were out in the lobby signing up new Facebook friends. I don’t think they were listening.