LIVE: Alejandro Escovedo & the Sensitive Boys @ Club Helsinki, 7/10/15

Review by Steven Stock

When Alejandro Escovedo strode onstage Friday night at 9pm, Hudson’s Club Helsinki was a supper club, very proper if not quite posh, everyone in their seats and many of the patrons seemingly more interested in the delicacies on their plates than the musical fare. How quickly things change! Just 90 minutes later Escovedo was playing a down-home honky-tonk, and most of the near-capacity audience was crowded onto the impromptu dance floor in front of the stage, singing along to a slinky cover of the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” as if their lives depended on it.

Without a new album to plug, the 64-year-old (and looking like 40) Escovedo was free to rummage through highlights of his solo career, with the bulk of the set drawn from his four most recent outings: 2006’s brooding John Cale-produced The Boxing Mirror and the subsequent Tony Visconti-helmed trilogy, 2008’s Real Animal, 2010’s Street Songs of Love and 2012’s Big Station.

Despite breaking in a new drummer – this was Shawn Peters second night with the quartet – and guitarist, Escovedo was relaxed and talkative, speaking of his fondness for adopted hometown Austin before easing into “Bottom of the World,” reminiscing about being one of 12 siblings packed into a four-door Chevy for a vacation that turned into a move prior to “San Antonio Rain” and dedicating “Down in the Bowery” to one of his seven kids. His music is often way too ballsy for VH1, but the “Storytellers” format would suit Escovedo just fine.

New guitarist Billy Masters is quite a find – even more than drummer Peters he seemed to be propelling up-tempo rockers such as “Anchor” and “I Was Drunk,” blending early-rock and rockabilly influences with a punk attack that evoked X’s Billy Zoom circa 1983. The sound was, as usual at Club Helsinki, exquisite – loud enough for rock ’n’ roll but crystal clear. If all upstate concert halls sounded this good the world would be a better place. The only weak spot of the performance was the backing vocals – despite being the only longtime member of the band, bassist Bobby Daniel seemed more comfortable hiding behind his curtain of hair than stepping up to the mic. On his records, Escovedo employs backing vocals and harmonies to great effect, so hopefully as the new band gels they’ll feature these more prominently.

A kick-ass version of “Arizona” led without any pause into a soaring, flat-out gorgeous cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” For much of the show, Escovedo was content to play rhythm guitar, leaving all the heroics to Masters, but here Escovedo was inspired by his bandmate’s solo and replied in kind, reminding all of us that he’s no slouch on guitar, either. You really should have been there: for a moment all the women were beautiful, all the drinks were delicious, and all things were possible.

All things, that is, except for the audience successfully singing the chorus. We were bad, truly awful, so epically odious that Escovedo had to stop the band and admonish us. “That was…” he paused, searching for a kind term, “a little schizophrenic. Listen, Neil Young didn’t sing this in key, I’m not singing in key, so you don’t need to worry about singing in key!”

A little chastened by their failure as singers but still exuberant from the music, most of the crowd abandoned their just desserts and packed the dance floor for the final two songs – a rousing rendition of “Castanets” and the aforementioned “Beast of Burden,” with Escovedo crooning like Sam Cooke. Man, this guy is good – when he comes back next year, I expect to see all of you at the Club Helsinki Honky-Tonk.

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