By Michael Lello
WILKES-BARRE – When you hear certain songs, you can also hear the compositional process, the structure and the intent. Here’s the verse, there’s the hook, here’s the bridge and chorus.
Other songs sound like they emerged from the ether, bubbling up from some primordial reserve of sound and emotion. Of course, those songs are just as painstakingly composed, but there’s something in the conviction and pureness of their delivery that make you think otherwise. Only special artists pull that off, and it’s no stage trick – it’s inherent.
That’s what happened Tuesday night when the underrated, prolific and powerful Alejandro Escovedo performed in the latest installment of the FM Kirby Center’s “Live from the Chandelier Lobby” series. With an air of mystery, he walked into the venue from the front door, past showgoers, and then backstage, while his band, the Sensitive Boys, took the stage for an instrumental introduction. Escovedo emerged and the group locked into “Put You Down” from his 1996 release “With These Hands.” Singing of “an evil place,” the rhythm section locked into a taut groove and guitarist Jon Sanchez unspooled sinister leads. You could hear where desert rockers like Queens Of The Stone Age might have found some inspiration.
Other early highlights of the set included “Can’t Make Me Run,” with more snaky Sanchez solos and Escovedo leading a singalong of “don’t give up on love”; the Austin resident’s not-so-loving tribute to Houston, “Bottom of the World”; and “San Antonio Rain.” Escovedo said when he was young, the family picked up, left everything in San Antonio – “horses, dogs, cats, clothes, toys” – moved to California and never came back. “After years of therapy, I decided to just write this song,” he said.
Later in the performance, “Arizona,” with its big, wide-open chords, was a standout, and set up one of the evening’s most arresting moments: Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys’ searing rendition of the Neil Young classic “Like A Hurricane.” The band stayed faithful to the original, while Escovedo did not attempt to parrot Young’s vocal tone or cadence, giving the song a familiar and fresh feel at the same time. Sanchez’s leads all night foreshadowed his work here, especially if you knew the band has been playing this tune, but it was Escovedo, who played second fiddle on guitar to Sanchez all night, that stepped up with a jaw-dropping, visceral tremolo bar-abetted solo that was the emotional high point of the concert.
“Sally Was A Cop,” from “Big Station,” the bandleader’s latest album, had a tight rock feel, reminiscent of the similarly underappreciated Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The sounds rippled away, and Escovedo thanked the audience and walked off.
For the encore, Escovedo again channeled another artist, this time the inimitable Tom Waits, tackling his song “Goin’ Out West.” Working without a guitar and singing into a secondary distorted microphone, Escovedo stalked the stage like a madman unhinged, crouched as he sang. When the song came to an end, he simply pointed to his bandmates and again disappeared, with the same air of dark mystery that accompanied his arrival.