Alejandro Escovedo bolted into his show at The Jewish Mother Saturday night counting “1,2,3,4” and leading his band into the bracing rock of “Always a Friend,” perhaps the catchiest and most ear-friendly tune of a long career filled with them.
While Escovedo’s music over his four decades as a performer has ranged from string-backed Southwestern ballads to cow punk (he was an originator with the great band, Rank and File) to bluesy Stones stomps (The True Believers), he was announcing this evening would be one rock gut punch after another.
Escovedo collapsed and nearly died of complications from Hepatitis C in 2003 and it’s been a long road back for him. But there was nothing tentative about this show (his plight resulted in the two CD set, “Por Vida: with artists like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Los Lonely Boys, The Jayhawks and Son Volt recording his tunes) . He looked every bit as commanding and vital as he did more than a decade ago when I saw him lead a band through a sweat-drenched set at The Mercury Lounge in New York. Naming this touring band “The Sensitive Boys,” a nod to a song on his latest, “Real Animal,” was an in-joke.
For this tour, Escovedo, who has gone on the road solo or with spare accompaniment and also as a big band leader, chose a tight four-piece featuring guitarist David Pulkingham, bassist Bobby Daniel, and long-time drummer Hector Munoz. They were supple enough to follow Escovedo’s changing leads and moods, giving the show both an urgency and a spontaneity perfect for the tight, crowded confines of the Jewish Mother. Their only error may have been relying on the guys from Vampire Weekend for fashion advice and showing up on stage wearing scarves.
Pulkingham switched from electric guitar to nylon-stringed classical acoustic playing each with punkish fervor, ringing clarity or wall-bending distortion when needed. Daniel and Munoz were locked in all night and, as Escovedo said, “it all starts with the rhythm section.” They drove a set of 13 songs featuring tunes from Escovedo’s solo career, which began in 1992 after the breakup of The True Believers, and ending with two sing-along covers.
They rarely relented throughout the 90-minute set, launching into “Everybody Loves Me” for the second cut to open the show with a double shot of hard rock. Escovedo, who turned 59 earlier in the months, said he was working out some new songs for a return to the studio with producer Tony Visconti, who manned the knobs for his superb latest, “Real Animal.” All of them were keepers, from this third song of the set, “Anchor,” through “Down in the Bowery,” written for his 17-year-old son, a skater and hip hop fan who loved The Ramones, as Escovedo did, to the encore opener, “Tender Heart,” fueled by Pulkingham’s Keith Richards-style guitar attacks. “I’ve got nothing you need, but everything you want,” Escovedo sang.
Escovedo is one of the premier songwriters of our times, fluent in a ridiculous range of genres. This is the guy who opened for the last Sex Pistols show in 1978. There are echoes of everything from Lou Reed to Townes Van Zandt to Roky Erickson in his work.
“Real Animal,” released in 2008, was hailed as a creative pinnacle for Escovedo. And while the often autobiographical songs and straight-forward arrangements were easily appealing, it was just the latest in a line of stellar releases, including “A Man Under the Influence,” “Thirteen Years,” and “Gravity.” From “Animal” he pulled “Sister Lost Soul,” dedicated to those he’s lost along the way, including Stephen Bruton. “Nobody Left Unbroken; Nobody left unscarred; Nobody here is talking; That’s just the way things are.” It’s an simple summary of his life and career, but singing about it before an enthusiastic crowd somehow salve the wounds.
Among the show’s highlights were Pulkingham’s flamenco punk guitar playing on “I Was Drunk” and the distorted guitar interplay between him and Escovedo on “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” another autobiographical tune about living in Manhattan’s infamous fleabag in the late 1970s.
Escovedo introduced the set closer by telling a story about a friend who called him to say the tune, “Castanets,” was on a New York Times top ten list. Then he told him the origin of the list: it was from George W. Bush’s iPod. “It ruined the song for me,” Escovedo said, noting he didn’t play it again until an appearance at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. The band tore into a version that brought the crowd to its feet.
For the encore, Escovedo tried out “Tender Heart, ” a solid rocker which he said had been played in concert for the first time the night before, then reached back for covers of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” and The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” encouraging a willing audience to sing the choruses. After, many lingered for autographs. But it also seemed they wanted to savor the performance, unwilling to let the night slip quite so easily into memory.
\ Set List
“Always a Friend”
“Everybody Loves Me”
“Anchor” (new song)
“This Bed is Getting Crowded” (new song)
“Sister Lost Soul”
“Down in the Bowery” (new song)
“I Was Drunk”
“One True Love”
“Faith” (new song)
“Iko Iko”intro interlude
“Chelsea Hotel ’78”
“Lickin’ Stick” outro interlude
“Tender Heart” (new song)
“All the Young Dudes”
“Beast of Burden”