Alejandro Escovedo. An American Musical Journey


Ever notice when you circle a date on the calendar, it’s as if time slows?  Happens in my world with certainty when it comes to a small handful of artists.  Alejandro Escovedo sits squarely in that rare spot.  While The Dakota may not be the first place you’d think to catch him, he’s carved out an established sell out in that classy little venue. 

What makes The Dakota so cool with the right artist involves far more than just superb food, great sightlines and comfortable seating.  It’s the kind of place that’s perfect for an entire crew or your family.  Sometimes we miss a bit of the social when we step onto a crowded club floor.  For someone like me, or the oft mentioned Front Row Paul, there’s not much which will distract from what’s happening on stage.  Yet, most fans aren’t quite so hardcore.  They’re more comfortable finding a companion with whom to attend.  But what usually happens is we end up miming “I’ll catch up with you at merch or out front after!”  Never the case at The Dakota.

When Alejandro hit the stage he simply wanted to reflect for a couple minutes on how he loved this particular spot; how he admired the musical legacy of this town.  As one of the Austin originals, he knows what constitutes a scene.  He recalled all the stages.  From the 400 Bar to The Entry, Mainroom, Turf, Fine Line, MN Zoo.  He’s played them all.

And that got me reflecting on the many times I’ve seen him play and how so many years have run by since that first electrifying show.  I believe he was in the same mode tonight.  Reflective.  He’s moving beyond the moment, except when delivering the song, to a contemplation of all those experiences which have come to define Alejandro Escovedo and his legacy.  He is content with there being more miles than money.  The evening began with him telling us that he was going to play some slow ones.  He’d play some fast ones.  Sad ones.  Hard ones and soft ones.  He was going to play it all.  Two hours later, he had. 

I began by saying he’s one of a small handful who are special to me.  Let me try to describe the types who occupy that space.  Names like Ian Hunter, Dave Alvin, Nick Lowe, Patti Smith.  Artists who have written songs others can only dream about (or cover).  Writers who have the gift of producing songs that are so good, they literally sing themselves.  Rather than use that gift commercially, they use it as a platform for their poetry.  Can they rock your socks off?  Sure.  But the true gift is never getting in the way of the song itself.  When you master that, you get that Bob Dylan/Tom Petty kind of thing where any night’s arrangement may sound nothing like your favorite record; it just breathes new life or conjures another face to something tried and true.  Those are the songs that just plain work.  Not many can do it.

Nobody does it any better than Escovedo.  Long time fans have seen him in punk configurations, with violas and cellos, as a straight up rock and roll band or as an acoustic troubadour.  Tonight he showed up with his trio of Mark Henne on drums and Scott Danborn using a variety of keys.  The beauty of the trio is the flexibility.  Some of the classic rockers took on a more organic, stripped color.  It assured that when the purpose of the song was the story’s pathos, the poetry came first.  But have no doubt that when the punk sneered and began grinding on that guitar, those three pieces could punch holes in the wall.  One of the many moments of levity and banter had Alejandro assuring us that he had it on good authority that he was not the loudest act to play The Dakota.  I’m tempted to call bullshit.

The best nights for me square the circle.  Connections get made and lights go on.  In the first couple songs I was jotting down notes to help me put this piece together.  I told myself to reference those artists who write songs that sing themselves; who year after year after year keep putting out valuable music.  The guys who never succumb to Dad Rock.  Who just rock til they drop.  My notes say…just like Ian Hunter.

Maybe it’s because I’m halfway through Ian Hunter’s new biography.  Maybe it’s because through a wonderful confluence of events, family members on a recent tour were joined each night by Lucero’s Rick Steff to sing the Mott version of All The Young Dudes.  This because during a sound check, said family members confessed to Steff their love of that particular band.  That it had been their father’s favorite band growing up!  Common ground.  Steff confessed that he, too, loved that band more than any other as he came of age.  So it was Steff who recommended the biography a couple weeks back.

I was aware of a connection between Ian Hunter and Alejandro Escovedo.  Hunter guested on his 2010 album Street Songs of Love.  Midway through the show, he grew serious for a moment and dedicated a song to a friend back in Austin whose mother had recently passed away.  He explained that while he was growing up, his favorite band was Mott The Hoople.  He introduced Ian Hunter’s I Wish I Was Your Mother. Not because it was a Hunter song but because Alejandro’s was always her favorite version.  The moment was  genuine and beautiful.  Thank you for a tribute to one we’ll never know but he felt should be marked.

And that, I think, tells us a lot about the man.  One of 13 children.  Growing up poor but surrounded by music.  He’s always favored the underdog.  His songs often revolve around the unnoticed individual whose life and dignity is as important to those who love them as they are unimportant to those who blindly walk past them.  Or worse, look down upon them.  He lived it.  He won’t forget it.  And he’ll sing their stories until we stop and extend a hand.    

He told us things would go fast, go slow.  It would get loud and it would get quiet.  Quiet?  How about turning up the house lights, grabbing an acoustic, a fiddle, hand percussion and the band walking out into the crowd?  He’d greet the folks who space he’d just invaded (or graced more likely) and decide, along with Henne and Danborn, what they wanted to do.  Then he’d tell the story from some part of his life that shaped the song and they’d play it.  Just like sitting in the living room or on the porch.  Simple, unadorned.  Perfect, heartfelt songs from The Crossing.  The band did three unplugged from the audience.  One on each end.  One in the middle.  If the trio was on your end, it was as intimate as you can get.  If they were on the other, we all sat forward.  Leaning in to listen.  You could hear a pin drop.  At a concert by the former frontman of San Francisco’s earliest great punk band?  Who’d a thunk it?

He said he’d do it all.  While they were doing the set from the floor, a waiter slipped over to snap a photo and remarked:  “I have never seen anybody do that here!”  Half hour later, the band wrapped with an incendiary Chelsea Hotel ’78; the tale of the morning after opening for The Sex Pistols and seeing Sid Vicious hauled out in a straightjacket after the murder of his girlfriend Nancy.  A different waiter came by and shot a couple quick photos.  Looked at me and shook his head with wide eyes:  “Nobody!  Nobody has ever rocked this stage harder!”  What both staff members said was true.  That kind of dynamic range in a single set, is truly one of a kind.

The days of hardcore touring are behind Alejandro Escovedo.  He’s selective about what he wants to do and where he wants to go.  He’s more than earned the right.  So the chances to see him may be more limited in the future.  However, when he does draw up those shows, we are usually among the fortunate.  He did promise to come back.  When the state has dispensaries.  So not before August.  I can relate to that.  I can wait that long.

And when it gets announced, I’ll circle the date on the calendar.  In the meantime, something tells me that in the coming weeks, I’ll be deep down a rabbit hole listening to Mott The Hoople, Lucero and most of all Alejandro Escovedo.  It won’t be my first journey.  I know the joy that’s coming from that deep dive.  Great to kick it off with the new summer, flanked by all my favorite people.  It’s nights like this that remind me why live music is as good as it gets.