From Punk to Country
Schuba's - Chicago
April 23, 1999
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 1999, Volume 6, #5
Written by John Metzger
You never know just what you're going to hear from Alejandro Escovedo. He's long been a fixture on the Austin music scene, yet his music often strays far from the typical Austin craft. In the '70s, he spent time in the punk band The Nuns, while in the '80s he co-founded Rank & File, one of the earliest groups in the insurgent country genre. Escovedo's music has continued to evolve in the '90s as he established himself as a solo artist by forming both the metal-esque Buick MacKane and the eclectic Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra.
It's Escovedo's Austin background, though, that has helped him to refine his songwriting ability. His songs paint vivid images, often conveying gut-wrenching emotion. Musically, he embraces influences as diverse as Lou Reed and Jimmie Rodgers. With the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, the talented singer-songwriter has surrounded himself with an incredible array of musicians, who are capable of spinning a tune in any number of new directions, while touching upon the many disparate styles of Escovedo's past.
On April 23, Escovedo and his orchestra settled into the intimate confines of Schuba's Tavern in Chicago for nearly two hours of mind-blowing, genre-hopping music. Celebrating the release of his new album Bourbonitis Blues, the band launched into a re-worked version of Guilty that was full of big, crunchy guitar chords and Rolling Stones-influenced rock. In fact, the Stones' influence was scattered throughout the set, as Escovedo and guitarist Joe Eddy Hines locked into that familiar blues-based groove on quite a few occasions. In addition, the group tackled Sway and a beautiful rendition of Mick Jagger's Evening Gown. (In fact, it was the latter song from which Bourbonitis Blues was born, as the group had gathered initially to record this one track for an album celebrating Bloodshot Records' anniversary).
Nevertheless, the evening was truly a study in contrasts. The group dug deep into Escovedo's repertoire, delivering a gripping performance that seamlessly meshed country, folk, punk, classical, and rock music. Throughout the eighteen-song set, the sextet produced a lush sound, sprinkled with the subtle nuances of Brian Standefer's cello and Eric Heywood's pedal steel. On Five Hearts Breaking, Standefer and Heywood constructed a tearful ambience that contrasted with the hope in Escovedo's voice as he sang, "Everything will be alright."
As the evening wore on, the song styles seemed to diverge, yet Escovedo and his group made it work. After the swirling, psychedelic trip of Sacramento & Polk, which was reminiscent of an orchestrated incarnation of Morphine, the ensemble delivered the achingly beautiful Follow You Around, which was written for Townes Van Zandt. A cover of Gun Club's Sex Beat rode a slow, deliberate groove into an awesome wall of ear-splitting feedback. It was as if the collective had filtered the cacophonous crescendo that concludes The Beatles' A Day in the Life through an orchestral blur of punk fervor. From the ashes of Sex Beat, the group allowed the feedback to re-converge and flourish into the amphetamine rush of The Stooges' I Wanna Be Your Dog.
Over the course of the concert, Escovedo more than proved his refusal to be contained in a molded, one-style format. In these days of commercial, one-hit wonders where the music industry seems bent on preserving stylistic boundaries, it's refreshing to see an artist refuse to play the game. Throughout his career, Escovedo has crafted a number of outstanding songs, but if one thing's certain, there's a lot more yet to come.
Bourbonitis Blues is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 1999 The Music Box