LIVE: Alejandro Escovedo Trio @ Cohoes Music Hall, 5/11/16
Review by Steven Stock
Photographs by Michael Hochanadel
Alejandro Escovedo often introduces his songs at length, but he was more loquacious than usual in the intimate confines of the Cohoes Music Hall on a recent Wednesday. Backed by longtime cohort Brian Standefer on cello and newcomer Sean Giddings on piano, guitarist Escovedo only made it through ten tracks in his 90-minute set. Fortunately he’s a superb raconteur, and Escovedo’s musings served to heighten the emotional impact of his already powerful songwriting.
Escovedo has a new album, Burn Something Beautiful (produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and former Young Fresh Fellow/Minus 5 stalwart Scott McCaughey), set for release September 30, but he elected to keep the new material under wraps, instead revisiting some of the highlights of his solo catalog. Before opening with “Five Hearts Breaking” from 1992’s Gravity, Escovedo recalled an ill-fated tour with Rank & File, his subsequent move to Austin (“a tiny, tiny speck of red in a huge ocean of blue”), and the impressive litany of songwriters he encountered there.
With its opening line of “Austin’s changed, it’s true,” “Bottom of the World” (from 2012’s Big Station) provided a perfect segue and also a reminder of how deeply personal Escovedo’s writing can be, his adeptness at mining his personal life for his art. The performance resonated more deeply after Escovedo mentioned marrying a woman from Houston (“the bottom of the world”), being priced out of Austin and moving to Dallas.
The 65-year-old Escovedo was born in San Antonio after his parents emigrated from Mexico. “Sally Was a Cop” (another Big Station standout) is his stark depiction of what the drug cartels have wrought south of the border:
“Shot in the face
In the ditches of Tecate
35 bodies lying in the highway
Children forced to dig the graves of their fathers
Sally was a cop but now she’s a soldier”
The intrusive drum machine track Giddings triggered for this song was a bit over-bearing, but perhaps the dehumanized mechanical beat was meant to evoke the coldness of the cartel’s assassins.
A pair of more personal numbers from 2001’s A Man Under the Influence, “Rosalie” and “Velvet Guitar,” better suited the chamber trio instrumentation of this line-up, with Standefer’s delicate cello lines and Giddings’ keyboard licks coiling around and punctuating Escovedo’s aggressively strummed acoustic guitar.
Escovedo next recalled his late-’70s tenure in the San Francisco-based punk band the Nuns. “Thank you for not clapping,” he said with a grin. “I always say if you’re clapping for the Nuns, you’ve never seen them. The only claim to fame the Nuns ever really had is that they opened the Sex Pistols’ last show at Winterland.” And with that Escovedo strapped on an electric guitar and the trio checked into a gritty rendition of “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” from 2008’s Real Animal. The synthesized drum beat made perfect sense in this particular maelstrom, Standefer sawing his cello with a ferocity that evoked John Cale’s viola playing in the Velvet Underground.
Next up was the haunting “Arizona,” from the Cale-produced 2006 release The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo’s defiant return after a three-year layoff precipitated by a hepatitis C-induced health crisis, exacerbated by his lack of health insurance. “(Cale) wanted me to dig deeper than I ever had – and I had dug pretty deep on my records – but he wanted me to go even further,” said Escovedo. “And this is the first song I wrote after I was able to come back and make a record. This was about giving up those things that were once very much a good time for me, but I was no longer able to do.”
After that somber interlude Escovedo lightened the mood considerably. In 2008 Escovedo was managed by Jon Landau, who had a slightly more famous client named Bruce Springsteen. Landau slipped the Boss an advance copy of Real Animal, and Springsteen was immediately smitten with “Always a Friend.” So when Bruce’s 2008 Magic tour hit Houston’s Toyota Center on April 14, he extended a last-minute invitation to have Alejandro join the E Street Band onstage in front of what Escovedo recalled as “30,00 people” (actual capacity of the Toyota Center is 19,000, but who’s counting?). Their subsequent duet version of “Always a Friend” is available on YouTube and the download-only Magic Tour Highlights EP. In Cohoes, with a slightly smaller crowd of around 130 or so, Escovedo dedicated the tune “to my dear friend Michael Eck.”
The evening closed with a couple of cover versions. “Let’s do one in Spanish before Trump builds that wall and outlaws Spanish,” announced Escovedo before the trio launched into a lovely version of Oaxacan bolero maestro Alvaro Carrillo’s “Sabor a mi.” Escovedo lamented the passing of both Prince (who was once engaged to Esvovedo’s niece Sheila E.) and David Bowie with an elegiac version of “All the Young Dudes,” a song Bowie wrote and produced for Mott the Hoople in a successful 1972 bid to revive Mott’s career (after they turned down “Suffragette City!”).
Opener Lucette is a 24-year-old woman blessed with a beguiling voice, some chops on the piano, a charming, self-deprecating stage presence and a surfeit of ballads. Love ballads, murder ballads, stately covers of ballads by Ryan Adams and Tom Waits… She’s clearly talented, but her stage presentation would surely benefit from some tempo changes. Her originals were uniformly tasteful, perhaps a bit earnest, and might be even more appealing if she added a dollop of the delightful sense of humor Lucette revealed in her between-song banter.
Excerpt from Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union: “Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo has been knocking out one truly great album after another since his solo debut back in 1992 – and he made some mighty fine albums before that with such bands as Rank & File and the True Believers. Sadly, he still hasn’t been able to break out of cult status and into mainstream success. The small crowd of discerning folks at the Cohoes Music Hall on Wednesday night didn’t care. They were already aware that talent is no guarantee of success in the music biz. And they already knew about Escovedo’s towering musical talent. One reason for lack of big-time success might be his unpredictability. He’s made regular tour stops in the Capital Region since the days of such now-defunct music venues as Valentine’s Music Hall and Revolution Hall, but he rarely – if ever – returns with the same musicians in tow. In Cohoes, it was a trio – Escovedo on guitar with cellist Brian Standefer and electric keyboardist Sean Giddings. Escovedo announced at the start that this tour was in support of the recent re-issues of his first two solo albums, Gravity and Thirteen Years, before opening the show with the heart-wrenching ‘Five Hearts Breaking’ from his debut disc. But in typically unpredictable fashion, that was the only song that he played from those albums.”
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO TRIO SET LIST
Five Hearts Breaking
The Bottom of the World
Sally Was a Cop
Chelsea Hotel ’78
Always a Friend
Sabor a mi (in Spanish)
All the Young Dudes (David Bowie)
LUCETTE SET LIST
Fields of Plenty
Oh My Sweet Carolina (Ryan Adams)
Out of the Rain
Picture in a Frame (Tom Waits)
Something That’s Wrong