There was a lot to absorb even before the first act took the stage at the fifth annual Spread Your Wings benefit concert. Spread Your Wings began in 2001 when Missi Ivie and Bob Graham, great friends to Charlotte’s Americana music crowd as well as artists traveling through the Queen City, organized a twelve-act concert to raise awareness of breast cancer at a time when Ivie was battling the disease. Graham and a healthy Ivie remain the benefit’s coordinators, tireless hosts, and spiritual advisors, and they’re well aware that five years is an important milestone in breast cancer recovery.
On the bill for SYW5, as in 2001, was Kevin Gordon, a Louisiana native — at a time when those two words conjure images of destruction and suffering and loss. There was local hero David Childers, who’s played more Spread Your Wings concerts than anybody, including that inaugural marathon gathering. Also on board was Jon Dee Graham, a man who has recently seen the Austin music community rally around him and his son Willie (who has Legg Perthes Disease) with a benefit concert and CD. And then there was Alejandro Escovedo, who was playing in Charlotte for the first time since the 2001 show. Bringing things full circle, Ivie and Graham had helped organize a 2004 benefit for Escovedo in Charlotte, and Escovedo was quoted in several pre-Spread Your Wings articles about how Ivie’s courage continues to inspire him as he deals with his own health issues.
But when it comes down to it, even when folks walk in the door with their hearts already pinned to their sleeves, people come to concerts for the music, not the subplots. And the often urgent, always vivid sounds that filled the Neighborhood Theatre for five hours would have succeeded in stirring emotions even without such compelling back stories.
Gordon and his band had the 6 p.m. slot, meaning they had to compete with dinner. That their set ended up being music to arrive by didn’t seem to bother them as they gutted out a cross-section of songs from Gordon’s new O Come Look At The Burning, as well as a couple of older tunes. The high point was a snap-to-attention take on “Down To The Well”, as close to a signature song as the still-emerging Gordon has, that served to draw latecomers into the fold.
David Childers, from nearby Mt. Holly, and his band the Modern Don Juans leaned on their upcoming disc Jailhouse Religion (due in January) and its Don Dixon-produced predecessor Room #23 for the bulk of their set before closing with a smart pair of covers, Tom Waits’ “Union Square” and Carl Perkins’ “Dixie Fried”. The Don Juans might look like a mismatched trio — a smalltown-shy guitar ace, a dangerous-looking bass player with Rockabilly Hall of Fame hair, and Childers’ lookalike son on drums — but they moved deftly from the country soul of “Bottom Of The Bottle” to the ferocious rock of “Straightaway Child” and “Danse Macabre”.
Jon Dee Graham played alone and several times commented on the soloness of it all. “I know it’s dorky to play a solo when it’s only you and a guitar, but I’d like to do that now,” he said at one point, and off he went into Richard Thompson territory. The set’s highlight was an unrecorded love song with the recurring line (and probable title) “We will remain”; throughout, Graham demonstrated that, with a big enough presence, one guy and a guitar can hold his own amongst a bill of rock bands.
The last of those rock bands featured Alejandro Escovedo joined by Graham on guitar and lap steel, drummer Hector Munoz, cellist Matt Fish, violinist Susan Voelz, bassist Mark Andes, and keyboardist Bruce Salmon. The first part of their set list hit all of Escovedo’s solo records, plus two new tunes. Then things turned into a dream set for a child of FM radio: The Rolling Stones’ “Sway” gave way to a four-song encore of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”, Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes”, the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, and an electrifying version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” that found Escovedo free-associating about Hank Williams and Big Star.
The group expertly toyed with dynamics and expectations all night, in the same way that Escovedo has always blurred beauty and volume — that is, finding the beauty in volume and turning up the volume on beauty. That contrast was best exemplified by two moments: first, the breathtaking melody that was left floating at the end of the band’s main set as everybody walked off except Fish and Voelz; and second, the cathartic clang when Escovedo smashed his guitar at the end of the night.
Another telling moment came when the closing line of “Five Hearts Breaking” — “Everything will be all right” was nearly echoed three songs later by the percussive bridge of “Crooked Frame”, which proclaims, “I would be all right.” Once is a wish, twice starts to feel like a promise.
So, yeah, I entered the Neighborhood Theatre with heart on sleeve like most everybody else. But with the music-as-fellowship spirit that seems to drive Spread Your Wings, especially this year’s installment, it would have been out there soon enough anyway. And, thus, it was all that much easier for it to burst when I looked to my right during the encore to see Escovedo’s young daughter Kiki happily riding the shoulders of Missi Ivie. Everything was all right.