“You don’t know how good it feels to be up here again,” Alejandro Escovedo said a few songs into his first live show in nearly a year.
Maybe not, but we could guess. If it was anything like the feeling Escovedo gave off, then pretty damned great — yet also tinged with an underlying wistfulness and, yes, pain. Escovedo has always been brilliant at conveying emotions, making listeners feel what he’s feeling. Even with Hepatitis C sapping his strength and adding the occasional ragged edge to his voice, that has not changed.
Playing in his traditional Sunday-night South By Southwest finale slot, Escovedo drew an overflow crowd that filled the undersized Continental Club to bursting. He rose to the occasion with an epochal 90-minute performance that people will probably be talking about for years.
It was a special night all the way around, one of connections renewed. The bill included two of Escovedo’s brothers, Javier and Mario (the latter with his band the Dragons), who both played superlative sets. Alejandro’s backup band featured guitarist Jon Dee Graham (his long-ago True Believers bandmate) and drummer Hector MuÃ±oz, fresh off his induction into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.
But the biggest reconnection of all was between Escovedo and an audience of fans who probably didn’t even realize just how much they had missed seeing him on a stage until the man was there before them. It was enough to put a lump in your throat, and keep it there.
Larger-than-life intimations of mortality course through Escovedo’s songs, which seem more resonant than ever given his current situation. “Pissed Off 2 A.M.”, as fine a treatise on dying love as anyone has ever written, quieted the crowd to a hush. So did “One True Love”, a song so beautiful it darn near hurts. Escovedo warned that the live version wouldn’t have the exquisite vocal harmonies of the Chris Stamey-produced recording (which can be heard at www.alejandrofund.com), but it was tremendously moving nonetheless.
As good as the main set was, the encore was almost supernatural. First came a cover of Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes”, a raucous sing-along that could have gone on for a lot longer than it did. But just as well that it ended with relative quickness, because everyone had something left for the closing song, “Castanets”.
Guitars blazing, Escovedo and band hit “Castanets” like a runaway train hurtling down a mountain, and the entire house went just bonkers. Even though the audience was packed in tightly enough to make movement difficult, everybody danced (or at least jumped up and down). One of the Continental’s cocktail waitresses solved that problem by climbing onstage to dance right in front of Graham, gyrating wildly and whipping her long blonde hair around as Graham revved up and played on and on.
“She plays castanets, she works without a net, I like her better when she walks away!”
Just to put the perfect exclamation point on it, singer Patricia Vonne appeared onstage at that moment, stylishly wielding a pair of castanets — an exotic presence in boots, leather jacket and cowboy hat. Escovedo used to introduce “Castanets” by explaining that it was inspired by “an arrhythmic castanets player.” But there was nothing the least bit arrhythmic about Vonne (the sister of film director Robert Rodriguez) playing her castanets like a virtuoso around Escovedo as he sang.
“I love her hair in a tangled mess, I like her better when she walks away!”
It almost looked like Vonne was conjuring up spells around Escovedo — or blessings. And let us hope they take.