In 2004, I saw Joe Ely perform at the Austin City Limits Festival. (At the time I lived in Austin, attending graduate school in philosophy and law school at UT.) Before I saw Joe Ely, I didn’t think I liked country. In fact, I thought I hated it. My concept of country, though, was limited to mainstream radio country; think Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart.” When I saw Joe Ely, I realized that there were sounds that belonged to the great family tree of country and Western—I’d classify them as alt-country and Americana now—that I liked, and that were very different from the pop country I still don’t like. Now, these 14 years later, I’ve rediscovered many of the Americana artists played on “folk music” weekends on my local public radio when I was growing up, like Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin.
Austin, “The Live Music Capital of the World,” and the state of Texas more generally, has played a central role in the shaping of Americana and alt-country music. From SXSW to Austin City Limits, from Townes Van Zandt to Willie Nelson to Nanci Griffith, the city has served as an incubator of talent and cutting-edge musical styles. Like Guy Clark sang in “Dublin Blues,” I often “wish I was in Austin.” On Tuesday evening, a little bit of Austin graced DC in the iconic figures of Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely. Though hailing, respectively, from Lubbock and San Antonio, these two legends treated the City Winery to an Austin-style songwriters’ circle. While both have been known to dial up the intensity and tear down the intensity, this was a more intimate performance: two great musicians swapping songs and stories for an appreciative audience.
Ely, 71, and Escovedo, 67, may be getting on in years, but they still sound great, and they had a wealth of material to draw on. Escovedo started things off with a heartbreaking story of how, when he was a child, his family suddenly moved from Texas to California, taking nothing with them, leading into “San Antonio Rain,” from his 2012 album, Big Station. This got Ely thinking of the reverse migration back to Texas, and he played the Flatlanders song “Homeland Refugee.” Ely played another Flatlanders tune, the classic “Tonight, Downtown,” after telling a delightful story about going to the dry cleaner owned by some family friends and trying on other people’s clothes.
Most concerts, as readers know, are based on a set list, a predetermined list of songs to be played in a particular order. Obviously, there are advantages to planning a performance, even for a solo performer, and, when working with a full band, it can almost be necessary. Tuesday evening’s performance, however, was not based on a set list, but was rather spontaneous, with Ely and Escovedo choosing their songs in response to each other’s playing. At one point, Ely exclaimed, “I don’t know what to play next!” After he told a story about showing the Clash around Texas, he made an abortive attempt to play “I Fought The Law,” the Lubbock-native Sonny Curtis cover that was their first hit.
Whether playing love ballads like “All Just To Get You” (Ely) and “Rosalie” (Escovedo) or heartbreaking songs about the American city like “Beauty Of Your Smile” (Escovedo) and “Silver City” (Ely), Tuesday’s concert was a moving, intimate affair. I found myself deeply touched by these artists who helped create and set the standard for Americana. Folks, this one is a can’t miss. Check out the tour dates, here. http://www.alejandroescovedo.com/