For someone who has released some of his most accessible material in recent years, Alejandro Escovedo continues to remain unconventional and hard to pin down — a chief reason why his fans embrace him and, perhaps, why his critical acclaim has outpaced his popularity.
This intimate club date before a crowd of 100 or so, sandwiched between TV appearances in New York to promote his new album, Big Station, was the latest evidence of that, as Escovedo and his five-piece band — the three Sensitive Boys were joined by two female backup singers/musicians — pushed boundaries and a perhaps handful of unwritten showbiz rules.
The 61-year-old Escovedo, a fixture in Austin, Texas, has long been pegged as an alt-country artist since launching his solo career in his early 40s after tours in a handful of bands, but he often leans toward his punk roots and, at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes performs with a string quartet. With that kind of range, musical curveballs are to be expected, and Escovedo served one up to start the night. He and lead guitarist Billy White engaged in a sweet, seemingly innocent dueling guitar intro that led not into one of Escovedo’s many melodic songs of love and loss — he is, after all, a sensitive boy himself -— but Big Station‘s gritty “Sally Was a Cop.” How many singer-songwriters would open with a harsh tale of drug-related violence in Mexico?
There were more twists ahead, with mixed results. Midway through the set, after a predictable opening stretch showcasing songs from Big Station and its two equally strong (and radio-ready) predecessors, Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, Escovedo stripped off his guitar momentarily and proclaimed, “It’s time to wake up,” before leading the band through an intense, sinister reworking of The Stooges‘ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” propelled by the chugging rumble of Bobby Daniel‘s bass. After a rare, crunching guitar solo from Escovedo, they segued seamlessly into his own “Chelsea Hotel ’78” — a rowdy ode to his younger days in the New York punk scene. All told, this interlude that served as the set’s centerpiece made for a good 10 minutes of surprisingly high energy that did indeed stir the Monday night crowd but also underscored how Escovedo and company exuded seemingly less passion for the new material (though the rousing “Man of the World” was an undeniable highlight among the seven offerings from the new disc).
A short time later, Escovedo made his one reach deep into in his catalog, for the always crowd-pleasing rocker “Castanets,” before calling a like-minded singer-songwriter with a punk pedigree — Jesse Malin, of on-again New York band D Generation — to the stage for a covers-heavy encore. There was a rollicking take on Whiskeytown‘s “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” (Escovedo sang on that 1997 recording by Ryan Adams‘ old band), the near-obligatory Rolling Stones cover (an interminable run through “Beast of Burden” that found Malin a bit miscast) and a somewhat clunky rendering of The Clash‘s hit “Rock the Casbah” that bordered on glorified karaoke as Escovedo and Malin traded vocals.
But before the show could end on such a clichéd note as three straight sloppy covers, Escovedo and the band instead closed with Big Station‘s finale, the Spanish-sung ballad “Sabor a Mi,” which represented one final unexpected turn. Actually, there was one more, if you count the fact that Escovedo did not perform what is probably his best known song, 2008’s “Always a Friend.” To call it a hit would be a stretch, but Bruce Springsteen did release a live version of he and the E Street Band backing him on the track, and it was used recently in a TV commercial for, of all things, women’s shoes.
How’s that for unconventional?
— By George Henn
Alejandro Escovedo on tour (schedule subject to change):
* June 13: World Cafe Live — Wilmington, Del.
* June 15: The Egg — Albany, N.Y.
* June 16: Brighton Music Hall — Boston
* June 17: Clearwater Festival — Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Photo by Marina Chavez