October 24, 2008
The highway of rock ‘n’ roll is littered with mediocre bands and forgettable honky tonks. Sour notes that ring out over a cliché’d chorus without any real care as to what matters in the song.
But, when one of the country’s best songwriters and musical craftsmen is playing a bar within driving distance, not even the cold rain is going to keep a true fan away. On Friday, October 24, the 40 Watt welcomed the genre defying rocker Alejandro Escovedo to play as part of the evening’s triple billing.
Sandwiching the Texas musician between openers the Satin Peaches and the evening’s headliners, Magnolia Electric Company, only allowed for a Rhode Island-sized set. However, always the consummate performer, Escovedo took the Classic City for a ride through punk, garage, country, glam, and Americana.
Taking the stage to the George Jones’ classic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Alejandro’s glowing personality permeated the sparsely filled club. Was it the early start time that was keeping people away? Was it the dreary weather outside? Or the fact that the majority of people still do not know about this amazing live performer and his honest songbook?
While I remained dumbstruck, Alejandro, unfazed and ready to play some rock ’n’ roll, treated the dedicated listeners to a driving version of “Put You Down.” Out on tour with a positively tight four piece band, the opener, with its swift changes and quick turns, saw Alejandro rip into full windmill frenzy. When, if ever, have you seen a musician use the windmill effectively on an opening song? The audience new it and moved forward – this guy’s the real deal.
With accompaniment by the multi-leveled guitarist David Pulkingham, the band transitioned directly into the loose, E Street rock feel of “Always a Friend.” Off of Escovedo’s most recent solo album, Real Animal, “Friend” doesn’t take the same corners as the opener, but the feel is actually expanded by Pulkingham’s and bassist Josh Gravelin’s backing vocals; this enhancement is one of backstreet cool. The cool turned to the dirty as David’s licks chose their own path into “Everybody Loves Me;” these licks fit the distaste of lyrics like “I love the way you kiss, but I can’t stand the pain.” Escovedo felt Pulkingham’s direction, and the two squared off in a guitar breakdown before bending the notes back into the full band drive.
Shedding the coat for the acoustic guitar, Alejandro launched into “Sister Lost Soul” with its guiding bass line and group chorus. The song comes close to wrapping one up in the sadness of longing and loss, but by keeping the focus on remembrance, Alejandro successfully keeps the song away from the depressive. The same is true about the “Swallows of San Juan” as the surfer at heart brought the audience into a rapt silence; one couldn’t even hear a beer being served. Escovedo is such a genuine performer that he takes over every venue and audience that he plays before. He wants everyone to have a good time, but he wants to you think, to feel, to understand, and that interaction is what brings his songs to life.
The white tuxedo jacket imagery of Sid Vicious being dragged out of the Chelsea Hotel is something that all of us can imagine as being surreal, but Alejandro was one who experienced it. “Chelsea Hotel ‘78” doesn’t take on the longing that “Soul” does because it captures the chaos of that time, that music, and that situation; Alejandro has written a punk attitude fueled song in the moment of ‘78 and “Soul” is a song written in the moment of ‘08. Time does shift perspective. A punk rocker with his feet firmly planted in songwriter sensitivity, Escovedo again wowed the fans and converted the slowly filling venue with the Iggy Pop-dedicated “Real as an Animal.” Whether it was the spot on group vocals or Hector Munoz’ pounding drums that drove the point home that everyone should have arrived sooner, I don’t know, but by the time the song had ended, only a few remained seated. Alejandro acknowledged the few still seated and therefore played a restrained version of “Castanets” which actually made the build much fiercer. The slow, funky rhythm lead to a reading of the lyrics before a group pause launched everyone into the supercharged stage way of playing the song.
Eight songs in and the band was laying down their instruments and clearing the stage for the night’s main act. However, the enthusiastic fans and converted devotees brought the group back out on stage amidst clamoring applause and cheers for an encore. Never have I seen a non-headlining act called back out for an encore; it was definitely well deserved. Accepting the invitation, Alejandro ripped into the Mott the Hoople classic, “All the Young Dudes” before bowing graciously to the crowd and exiting the stage. Now that’s headliner material.