What makes a special live music night on the town? For me there is a set of criteria that carries significant weight when it comes to determining whether it’s simply enjoyable or something that lingers as special. The floor is already high, isn’t it? It’s hard not enjoy yourself when out for a show. But there are ways to kick it up a notch.
Start with a band or artist that you truly admire. One you don’t get to see that often. Preferably, one that has recently released new material that they’re justifiably proud of. A good venue sure helps. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right! I’m also a big fan of being able to choose something that I actually want to eat in a leisurely manner. (As opposed to grabbing a granola bar and 5 Hr Energy as I rush out the door.). Most important for someone who hits a majority of shows solo, joining friends and family with whom to share the music. It’s icing on the cake when they dig it as much as you do.
Alejandro Escovedo at The Dakota. A summer night with my wife, two newly arrived (and newly minted) Dutch friends, an out of town musician whose company I appreciate. Put them together for a combination that checks all the boxes.
Portland singer/songwriter Casey Neal timed his entrance to perfection. The remains of our meal were just swept away; the remains of a good bottle of wine enough to keep anybody from having to be the one to suggest another. I was not familiar with Neal’s work before last night. His set proved one of those unexpected pleasant surprises. Not surprised at the quality of his work. That’s a given at The Dakota. Just very pleased with how much I liked it. How it seemed so simpatico with what we knew was coming from Escovedo.
Neal’s set was low key and smart. A reminder that three chords, a battered acoustic guitar and somebody who knows what they’re doing is all you need to create a song. It doesn’t hurt to have one of those voices that was made for entertaining people. His is big, textured and rings clear. The songs themselves evoke an unerring sense of place. Open spaces and far horizons. Light rain and coastal fog swallowing the light from the car’s head lamps. Sun reflecting off the river of a high desert river. You cross the landscape when you travel with Neal.
Alejandro Escovedo is a traveling troubadour in the literal sense of the word. For the past 45 years he has criss-crossed the United States sharing his music. The Twin Cities has been a regular stop for the man from Austin. Find his star on the wall at First Avenue. Talk to Turf Club patrons about their favorite shows. I’ve seen him at the Zoo and Fine Line. The past handful of times in town, he has called The Dakota home. When he talks about his friends and experiences here, you know he’s being genuine. But I also expect he can say that about a number of cities. He has spent his life in his own personal musical and literal crossing.
Sometimes I ponder what constitutes artistic success in the world of music. The normal standard of measurement seems to revolve around commercial success. How many albums can you sell? How big are the venues you sell out? Do you move from place to place in a chartered jet, tour bus or a battered Econoline with a well earned name?
On rare occasion, the accouterments of fame are well deserved. More often, not. Every generation spins the wheel, anoints a new Elvis and throws a hero up the pop charts. Not many remain there long. History will tell us,in no uncertain terms, what music mattered. What was worthwhile and what was ultimately fast food grabbed at the drive thru.
We can argue long into the night where that line between entertainer and artist should be drawn. It is not my intent to disparage the value of entertaining. (Please, God, let the artist I’m about to see understand the need to breathe life and energy into the music if I’ve paid to witness!) It’s simply that, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of the art form is the creation of the song; its conception, birth and delivery as opposed to its execution.
How many times have you been thrilled by the way some other artist covers a song you love? It’s usually the song that history allows to be passed to future generations. You can count on your fingers the number of performers who have transcended the industry to become something bigger. The songs of Woody Guthrie, The Beatles or Bob Dylan will be here long after we’re gone.
So maybe it’s a blessing that artists like Escovedo have always flown just under the popular radar. They have spent a career building a loyal fan base one person at a time. Delivering performances that rage, lament, exhilarate and enlighten night after night. Recording albums that follow a personal muse rather than employ a formula for replicating past success. These are the guys who are known as musicians’ musicians. I have great respect for these kind of artists. The Dave Alvins, the Lucinda Williamses, the Alejandro Escovedos.
Perhaps it’s that grounding in reality that keeps it possible for us to relate the way we do. We see ourselves in the characters they create, in the personal experiences they share. I may love The Stones. But if Mick Jagger wants to tug at my heart strings with the reflections of a little migrant child packed in a sweltering car of siblings on his own Grapes Of Wrath or Kerouac road trip, it’s going to fail. Jagger may tell that story. But our brains know that he’s simply watching the journey unfold from 30,000 feet in his Lear Jet. Alejandro is the individual who you could find (at least until recently) strolling down South Congress in Austin, swapping stories and songs with his friends. There’s no demi-god in that. There’s a lot of I’d like to call him friend in that.
Note before I forget, he didn’t play Wasn’t I Always A Friend To You! Maybe after all these years, and all these times I’ve seen him, he no longer needs to ask. It’s also testament to how wonderfully constructed last night’s show was. How do you step around a song like that? The set list has to hold its own. Or you’re simply being self-indulgent. Playing only what you want rather than honoring the people who have come to see you. Escovedo is anything but self-indulgent. Every song he offered last night was brilliant.
When I sat down to write this review, I meant to recap the songs he played with his band. A remarkably accomplished group of Eric Heywood on guitar and peddle steel, Kimone Kirk on bass and the ever present Hector Munoz behind the kit. If I go that route, I’ll still be sitting here trying to find words long after tonight’s fireworks have turned to ash on the bottom of the St Croix.
So let’s suffice to say that he blasted the club with rockers like Anchor, Teenage Luggage, Fire and Fury and Sally Was A Cop (with it’s ad-libbed picture of a drowned father and daughter on a river bank). He tugged at our hearts with classics like Sensitive Boys or San Antonio Rain, penned with his friend Chuck Prophet. Arizona from the criminally underrated Boxing Mirror which he did with John Cale was mesmerizing with the peddle steel layer.
But last night was more about his swan song. Escovedo announced that in a couple of weeks he is retiring from active touring. 45 years on the road will take its toll. He intends to write his memoir and watch his dogs run in the yard. I guarantee you I’ll have a first edition of that story when it is told. It’s been a truly remarkable crossing. Across the Rio Grande, eventually across the desert to California in the late 1950’s. The story of immigrants. A family of 13 children. Eight of whom became successful touring musicians. An American success story.
A story of a young punk leading his San Francisco band The Nuns into a world of mayhem. The Nuns opened for The Sex Pistols the night Sid killed Nancy. He stood at the door of the Chelsea Hotel lobby as Vicious was led away in a straight jacket. Yet somehow he survived it all, told the tales and did what he was put on the planet to do. Write brilliant songs, rail against hypocrisy and hate. Shoulder the mantle of the likes of Woody Guthrie, albeit with a loud electric guitar.
There was a palpable pathos to this show. In all the times I’ve seen him, I’ve never heard as many personal, heartfelt stories. The man was reminiscing. The emotions careened between the sheer joy and appreciation of being able to stand on stage and play his music for people who obviously love him and the melancholy of knowing the end (at least in the way we’ve come to know it) is in sight.
The song Sister Lost Soul comes from one of my desert island list of albums, Real Animal. (Imagine what a kick it was when my musician friend told me before the show that it was also near the top of his personal list! And this guy owns a record store, for crying out loud. So if you’re not familiar, maybe you should do yourself a rock and roll favor). Sister Lost Soul is a wrenching look back. An homage to all his friends from the rock and roll world who died too soon. The artists that success or pain or the road eventually ground to dust. It’s always been one of my favorites and it is a regular item of a set list. Last night it was different. It transcended all those lost punk rockers. It seemed a touching farewell to all of us who have showed up to hear him. To all those players with whom he has toured and co-written songs. There was a nostalgia and thankfulness for what’s been. The song drew tears from my eyes.
A great man left The Dakota stage. Instead of soaking it in he spent it shining a spot light on the friends he calls his band. The epitome of grace. A living reminder that we are all immigrants here, except our Native American friends. It’s what has colored the tapestry of American life. Something we too often take for granted, as I was reminded by my Dutch table mates.
Escovedo begins another crossing. One that began with his 12 year old father, wading across the river and culminated in what might be considered America’s greatest musical family. A quiet legacy of greatness. It’s time to write a memoir, a tale of there and back again. To watch a dog run free and happy in his own back yard. A crossing to the next chapter in a remarkable life.