SXSW 2008 – John’s Sunday Night Highlight: Alejandro Escovedo

For all intents and purposes, SXSW turns into a pumpkin at 2 a.m. Saturday night, but true aficionados know that it ain’t really over until the legendary Alejandro Escovedo leaves the Continental Club stage after his unofficial closing night show on Sunday.

We knew going in that this year’s set was going to be something special (well, OK, we always know that, but this year it was going to be special for an entirely new reason) because it had been announced in advance that Escovedo would be performing his forthcoming album, Real Animal, live, in its entirety, from start to finish at this show. With the album not dropping until June 24, this was hugely exciting news for Escovedo fans.

The first sign that an additional special treat might be in store for us occurred when one of my dinner companions noticed none other than Lucinda Williams being seated at a table near us at Vespaio (two blocks from the Continental Club, and a pre-Alejandro tradition of mine going back 8 or 9 years now). After dinner, but before entering the club, we got the word from someone in the know: Lucinda was to join Tim Easton (who was backed by the very fine Whipsaws for this show) for a song during his set. I could go on, but why not peep the results for yourself?:

Later, following a solid set fronting his own band, Chuck Prophet (who co-wrote and co-produced Real Animal with Escovedo) pulled double-duty, joining Escovedo’s band as an auxiliary member for this show. The extra guitar firepower that Prophet brought to the band was expertly deployed as, based on the live experience, this album is a rocker above all else. And gloriously, deliriously, jaw-droppingly so at that.

Kicking things off was “Always a Friend,” sounding like Escovedo’s finest rocker since “Castanets.” Kicking the set off with a powerhouse like this, Escovedo and his band were clearly out for blood on this night, bringing the rock at a level that’s typically expected in an encore as opposed to an opening selection. And though it would prove to be just the tip of the iceberg, it was “Always a Friend” that was captured on video and shared via YouTube, so help yourself to a taste:

The second song, “Makes Perfect Sense,” while lacking the hooks of its predecessor, still found Escovedo singing his heart out – which was to be the case all night. With Prophet on guitar, Escovedo was free to pour his all into singing and performing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him burn so brightly as he did throughout this show.

Escovedo dedicated his third song, “Sister Lost Soul,” to “the fallen soldiers … Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious…” and this one found Escovedo’s drummer, the magnificent Hector Munoz, playing a very cool Ronnettes-style beat behind the raging guitars.

“Dance with Me” followed, and was musically reminiscent of “Sacramento & Polk,” which is to say it rocked. Hard.

The pace slowed for the fifth song, “Sensitive Boys,” the first of the album’s ballads. Escovedo dedicated this one to all the bands whose paths he would cross when on the road in the early to mid-‘80s, name-checking (among others), the Huskers and my beloved Replacements.

Escovedo explained that track six, “Golden Bear,” was named after a club in Huntington Beach, CA, where he spent his formative years. This one was a brooding, pensive slow-burn leading up to a full-tilt release.

The title track was up next, with Escovedo sharing that it’s “about Iggy,” and (appropriately) it’s another barnburner. After finishing the song, Escovedo joyously remarked, “I could play that one all night… that’s some shit right there. That’s the whole record as far as I’m concerned.”

I’m afraid my notes fail me regarding the eighth track, “People,” as other than noting the title, all I’ve got to go on is that this was the first (and, if memory serves, only) song for which Escovedo relied on a lyric sheet.

Escovedo introduced the next song, “Hollywood Hills,” as being, “another sensitive number … a love song, dream song … about a guy telling a story about his long lost love.” This one is gorgeous and has a Zevon-esque feel.

The tenth song, “Nuns Song,” was introduced as being about the titular Nuns, the punk outfit with whom Escovedo cut his musical teeth. In response to cheers from the audience at the mention of the Nuns, Escovedo deadpanned, “we sucked.”

Next up was “The Swallows of San Juan,” which Escovedo said was, “about getting to the source of this music that we loved so much back in the day.” This one’s another stunner, featuring a beautiful loping beat, and lyrics that are as evocative as they are filled with hope.

Of the twelfth song, “Chip and Tony,” Escovedo said that it “has nothing to do with [Rank and File], but it’s called that anyway.” Again, I’m afraid that’s all I captured in my notes.

The live debut of Real Animal concluded with what Escovedo explained was the first song he and Prophet wrote for the album, “Slow Down.” An achingly lovely reflective number, it sounds like the perfect ending to what promises to be an album of the year contender.

The crowd was treated with a two-song encore of covers, and though they featured some stellar dueling between Prophet and guest guitarist Charlie Sexton, we all knew that the encores were just the cherries on top of an already delectable treat.

Now if only I could get my hands on an advance copy of Real Animal

About the author:  John Anderson is a SXSW addict, having attended "South-by" every year since 1999. His South-by geekery spilled over into the realm of blogging in 2006, and he is grateful to the Twangville audience for having indulged his South-by ravings since 2008.

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