Rarely do club shows seem to have as much at stake as a pair that braved the February freeze of the midwest.
For Alejandro Escovedo, the highly-anticipated, sold-out performance at Chicago’s suburban FitzGerald’s marked a return to the road after a couple years of convalescence. Over the course of his recovery following his April 2003 collapse from hepatitis C complications, he must have wondered whether he’d ever be able to take the stage again, let alone command it the way he once had. On the eve of this show, maybe he still had doubts.
For Mark Olson and Gary Louris, a reunion tour — launched with a sold-out show at Iowa State’s cozy Maintenance Shop — would go a long way toward determining whether the former partners in the Jayhawks had a future together. Ten years ago, Olson left the band and Louris decided to continue the Jayhawks without him, a development that left some bitterness. During the years that the two reportedly didn’t talk, they must have doubted whether they’d ever again share the stage as touring partners. The M-Shop opener was like an out-of-town warm-up, a lower-pressure rehearsal for higher-profile shows to come. Sure, Olson and Louris could still sing together, but was it possible for them to pick up where they’d left off?
There was a reunion element to Escovedo’s performance as well, with his former True Believers bandmate Jon Dee Graham riding shotgun as lead guitarist and opening act. Given the rumored tensions (even rivalry) between the two strong-willed songwriters in the wake of the Believers’ disbanding 16 years ago, you could have once gotten longer odds on Escovedo and Graham reuniting than on Olson and Louris. Celebrating a shared history, their teaming renewed a legacy. “We always carry the luck of the True Believers wherever we go,” Escovedo told the crowd, and that luck hasn’t always been good.
Though Escovedo could hardly have asked for a more receptive audience than the one he found at FitzGerald’s — the roadhouse that has long served as his Chicago-area home away from his Texas Hill Country home — there initially appeared to be plenty of caution surrounding his return. It was as if two years of recovery from the road had left the artist as delicate as a hothouse flower. The show started earlier than is typical for a weekend headliner at the club, and signs by the stage admonished “No Smoking.” The contract called for a tight 75 minutes from Escovedo and band, long enough to provide a true test and give the audience its money’s worth, but not so long that it would push the limits of an artist who needed to rediscover where those limits were. A stalwart athlete in healthier times, Escovedo appeared boyishly frail as he took the stage.
At first, he and the band seemed cautious about hitting the music too hard, as if afraid something might shatter. Between the plaintive strains of the set-opening “Paradise” and an unexpected cover of Bob Dylan’s “Dark Eyes” (a mid-’80s obscurity that Escovedo turned transcendent), he told the appreciative crowd with soft-spoken sincerity, “I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to be back here.” Acknowledging the support of the club’s benefit show in 2003 and the fans who had bought the Por Vida benefit album, Escovedo plainly wanted to show his gratitude by giving the audience what it had come for, the chance to bear witness to something extraordinary.
With a band matching the chamber strains of violinist Susan Voelz and cellist Brian Standefer against the harder-rocking interplay of guitarist Graham and drummer Hector Muñoz, the set interspersed a smattering of new material with a selection that ranged from the spellbinding “Baby’s Got New Plans” to the live-wire charge of “Everybody Says They Love Me”. As the set progressed, the momentum built, with the artist sounding stronger and the band more assertive as the set hit the hour mark.
Yet it wasn’t until the cataclysmic cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” that the music really let loose, bringing a fury to the performance that elevated it beyond punk retread. And when someone in the audience responded to the musical aggression by throwing a piece of ice at Escovedo’s cheek, the evening threatened to go up for grabs, as the band turned its aggression toward trying to find the offender. It was the sort of moment that might have caused a meltdown at a Lucinda Williams show, but it seemed to forge a steelier resolve in Escovedo.
Instead of leaving the stage at 75 minutes, he and the band raged for almost twice that long, with a reckless energy toward the extended climax that contrasted with the refinement of the first half — as if Leonard Cohen had turned into Mott The Hoople. From a ferocious “Castanets” to a hard-rocking segue from Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs” into “Losing Your Touch”, the music swept the crowd away with an abandon that was more bucking bronc than hothouse flower.
As Escovedo recounted some of his previous magical performances at FitzGerald’s, he told the crowd, “I’ll never forget this club, and I’ll never forget you.” For those who witnessed his riveting return, the feeling is obviously mutual.
If Escovedo had needed any spur to get his competitive juices flowing, the powerhouse set by opener Jon Dee Graham would have given most headliners more than they could handle. Over the propulsive support of his rhythm section — dubbed the “Fighting Cocks” — Graham’s jagged, angular guitar brought an explosive charge to material of redemption and renewal. As his triumphant 2004 album The Great Battle attested, Graham is making the most creatively vital music of his career. From the buoyant “I Don’t Feel That Way” to the transcendent “Majesty Of Love” to the celebration of this “Big Sweet Life”, Graham sang like a guy who believes in second chances and making the most of them.
A second chance was also the key to the reunion tour of Mark Olson and Gary Louris. Though the word “Jayhawks” was never spoken from the stage or mentioned in the promotion of these shows, it was plain from the way the two tread carefully around each other, making sure not to step on any toes, that they were trying to determine whether they could be partners again. The tour-opening show had some of the uneasy anticipation of a divorced couple making a tentative stab at a second chance, seeing if there’s anything left to recapture.
In order to deflect the heavier expectations that a full-fledged Jayhawks reunion would bring, they went outside the band for supporting players, enlisting drummer Ray Woods and multi-instrumentalist Mike “Raz” Russell, with Olson switching between bass (his early instrument in the Jayhawks) and keyboards. The stripped-down arrangements had a slap-dash quality to them, closer in spirit to Olson’s work with his wife, Victoria Williams, in the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdrippers than to the aural expansiveness and ambitious popcraft Louris has brought to the post-Olson Jayhawks.
Olson seemed to return naturally to the frontman role, providing most of the song introductions and between-song patter. And though Louris contributed harmonies to most of Olson’s post-Jayhawks material, Olson sang little on the songs from Louris’s tenure fronting the Jayhawks, with “Angelyne” in particular finding the band stumbling where it should have soared.
“There’s a bit of a learning curve here tonight,” admitted Louris, though the encouragement of a crowd of a couple hundred Jayhawks fanatics assured the musicians they were among friends. The quartet responded with a generous set of more than two hours of music, encompassing everything from early material the Jayhawks had never recorded through fan favorites such as “Blue” and “Two Angels” to more recent highlights such as “One Man’s Problem” and “Tailspin”.
Though this opening show found the band sounding somewhere between unrehearsed and under-rehearsed, the reedy strains of Olson’s voice blending with the higher tenor of Louris evoked the glories of the Everlys, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. In pre-tour interviews, Olson had left little doubt that he hoped to rejoin the Jayhawks; the question is whether the Jayhawks would want the songwriter who had abandoned them to return as the band’s dominant influence. On this night, Olson left little doubt that if he returns to the band, it’ll be his band again.
In the wake of the show, however, it appeared that there may not even be a band to welcome him back. A week into the tour, Louris announced the Jayhawks had disbanded, though he subsequently left the door open for a possible reunion. Instead of providing answers about the Jayhawks’ future, the tour ultimately raised a lot more questions.