Alejandro Escovedo played in Raleigh Sunday to close out this year’s Artsplosure Festival, a show that had a few things working against it — wilting late-day heat, the not-great acoustics of loud music in outdoor spaces, weariness after an all-night drive down from New York and a pickup lineup not entirely familiar with all the songs in the setlist.
“We’re, uh, loose today,” Escovedo quipped at one point after a false start.
As usual, however, all he had to do was start singing and everything was all right. I’ve been going to see Escovedo shows since I was a University of Texas grad-school student in my early 20s, and he’s been maybe my biggest musical, personal and critical constant through three-plus decades. I’ve written about him all over and seen him more times than I can count — playing in nightclubs, theaters, restaurants and living rooms as well as the occasional street corner. And the next time one of his shows leaves me unmoved will be the first.
I actually find him not terribly easy to write about, simply because my emotional response to his music tends to be along the lines of: If you get it, no explanation is necessary and if you don’t, none will suffice. While I have been, at best, an irregular church-goer as an adult, Escovedo shows are among the closest church-like rituals I have — not in the sense of worship, but compass-setting. His voice and songs resonate on my particular wavelength more than just about anyone else, and going to one of his shows always feels like bumping into my younger self.
Given the abbreviated outdoor street-festival setting, this wasn’t the full-on epic that Escovedo’s late-night shows can be. But over the course of an hour and 13 songs, most of them recent and focused on his latest album The Crossing, he evoked the journey we’re all taking, and rocked it up.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the newer songs were angry — and how could they not be, given Escovedo’s immigrant roots and what a hot-button issue the U.S. Southern border is nowadays? Songs from The Crossing blazed, especially “Fury and Fire” (written, Escovedo said, in response to Donald Trump’s race-baiting 2015 presidential-candidacy announcement) and the snarling “Teenage Luggage” chorus of, “You think you know me/You’ll never know me/You’re a bigot with a bad guitar.”
But I found myself responding more to “Always a Friend,” and the more personal, upbeat songs. There’s always one moment at an Escovedo show where everything in my world feels like it snaps into place, and this time it was the oldie “Castanets.” A smoking rocker with a Chuck Berry-style guitar riff for the ages, “Castanets” was recorded close to two decades ago right here in North Carolina — produced by Chris Stamey, with Mitch Easter on lead guitar. Eric Heywood ably played it this time, and it was spectacular as always.
The melding of North Carolina and Texas felt like a personal bonus, for those who knew.
Clay Crouch said:
Thank you for this wonderful piece. Your fourth paragraph says it all.
They were definitely working without a net on Sunday. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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I was right behind you, Dave (no, not the guy with the dog on his shoulder) and would have loved to meet you had I known.
What a weird set, though. An outdoor venue during the day, at a free Civic event with little kids dancing, and Alejandro pulls out “Sally Was A Cop” as the closer? (On the heels of “Fire and Fury” and all the other dark songs from the new album). I still can’t decide if it was ballsy, sneering, or just tone-deaf, but he lost a good bit of the crowd at that point. 1AM at the club, sure, but who are you trying to convince at the end of Artsplosure?
And I thought he had to be joking about the band not knowing “Always a Friend” — am I wrong in thinking that’s his most well-known song in a decade, with the Springsteen connection? — but it sure seemed to be true, coming off like a first-pass rehearsal. And if you are going to call out a cover for the encore it would help if someone knows the chords for the chorus ( the guy behind me was yelling “it’s C, C”! There’s a fine line between loose and slapdash which this performance tiptoed right up to.
But once a punk, always a punk I guess, and anybody still rocking this hard at 70± can call their own shots.
“But once a punk, always a punk I guess, and anybody still rocking this hard at 70± can call their own shots.”
You introduced me to Alejandro Escovedo and his music in November of 2003 when you in your N & O article encouraged people to attend the benefit to raise money to help with his medical bills in his fight against Hep-C. It was Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey in the line up of performers that got me to the show but I was introduced to some excellent music from Pattie Hurst Shifter, Chatham County Line, Bleeding Hearts, Goner, Two Dollar Pistol, the Backsliders and Six String Drag, among others. I thought, “Who is this musicians who inspired all of these artists to come out to play for this benefit?” I started checking out his music and was blown away. I finally got a chance to see Alejandro perform a couple of years later in a former Baptist Church in Nashville, North Carolina. I watched on TV when Alejandro performed “Alwsays a Friend” with Bruce Springsteen at the Democratic Convention that nominated Barack Obama to run for President. I got to see Alejandro again in 2010 when he returned suit and played at a benefit to raise money to help Chip Robinson with his medical bills from an accident suffered while Chip was working as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan. I’ve seen Alejandro another three times since then and it is always a wonderful inspired and inspiring performance. I consider The Crossing to be Alejandro’s masterpiece. It is music for our point in time. Thank you Alejandro for the music. Thank you David for the introduction.
Honored to have played a part in introducing you to the flock!