Show Review: Alejandro Escovedo Birthday Show w/Don Antonio at City Winery, Nashville

Show Reviews

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photos by Lisa Davidson

I had never heard of Alejandro Escovedo before moving to Nashville in the late 90s. A friend I worked with loved him and turned me on to his work with Rank & File as well as his solo offerings. I liked what I heard but over the years I drifted in and out of spells where I would reach for his records. I saw him in a small theatre with Joe Ely a few years back for the first time. I was blown away by the bare stripped-down songs sung with only he and Ely on acoustic guitars. As I sat there listening all I could imagine is just how good these songs would sound with a full band. Flash forward five or six years and I am sitting at City Winery in Nashville,, anxiously waiting for Alejandro and Don Antonio to take the stage.

We were treated to an opening set by Don Antonio, the Italian band Escovedo worked with to write and record The Crossing. The lead singer looks like Reuben Blades which for some reason I found amusing. The band was tight and each song was uniquely their own. I kept thinking about how great Escovedo was going to sound with these guys backing him up.

In full disclosure I had not listened to The Crossing before going to the show. Not sure how this happened but the fault lies solely on my shoulders. While I had read reviews and found the concept intriguing, I avoiding the recordings (once I knew I was covering the show) as I wanted to experience these songs for the first time in a live environment. Once Escovedo walked on stage and the first notes of “Footsteps in the Shadows” rang out I was glad I made that decision. The song starts out ominously, which makes sense given its subject matter, and it continues building and cresting. The sax undercuts the moment before it returns to the gritty dangerous feel of guitars whaling against each other. It was an amazing moment and just recalling the urgent pulsing vocals I get goose bumps. “Texas Is My Mother” follows with the reverb from the guitars filling the room. Escovedo and Antonio Gramnetieri have a great chemistry and the interplay of their guitars take over the back part of the song and remind me of “All Along the Watchtower”. Escovedo takes a second to talk about how he and Don Antonio came to work together. He said he was going to tour Europe two years ago and had to pick from three bands, two were English and one was Italian. He chose the Italians and flew to Italy to play for a day and a half before kicking off the tour in Frankfurt. “Teenage Luggage” a tales of two immigrants (one Mexican and the other Italian) who like punk rock and all things 70’s is next up. It was very punky in terms of feel and lyrics and the horns and keys found a nice home amidst the raucousness. Stepping away from The Crossing material, Escovedo revisits “Castanets” from his 2001 release A Man Under the Influence. It is when you hear songs like this that you scratch your heads as to why Escovedo is not more of a household name. It is furious, the guitars are ramped up and rocked out, the keys are pounding and Escovedo is having a blast putting six-piece band through its paces. “Outlaw for You” is fun and upbeat with a vintage Detroit keyboard feel meshing nicely with the growly saxophone.

“Something Blue” also from The Crossing is a beautiful moment. Escovedo is strongly invested in this song and his honest voice resonates. As the song progresses it gets a little more rock and takes on a genuine heartland vibe. While I have alluded to how great Don Antonio is in backing Escovedo, let me take a second to drive this point home. They are beyond excellent. Having known each other since they were kids and growing up in the same village there is a synergy among them that definitely impacts the music. I am not sure an American band could have delivered what they brought to the party. “MC Overload” kicks off with some feedback before the thundering rumbling drums and guitars take it up another notch. You just have to love lines like “In my Italian Shoes I’m gonna overtake the bandstand” delivered with a semi-defiant sneer. Everything seemed to just keep getting louder as Gramentieri and Escovedo traded off guitar licks for one of the more visceral moments of the evening. Going in a very different direction, Escovedo goes back to 2008’s Real Animal for “Sensitive Boys”, co-written with Chuck Prophet. An autobiographical song about his life being in bands it is slow and achingly beautiful. Escovedo sings the hell out of this one, his 68 year-old voice untouched by time. The sax fills at the end provide the perfect close to a perfect song. “Sonica USA” brings back the early punk energy. As an extra bonus, Dead Boys guitarist and Nashville resident Cheetah Chrome joins the band for a genuine DIY garage rock rave-up! It is loud and bone rattling, just the way it should be. Before I can even recover from that sonic assault, the band explodes into The Stooges “Search & Destroy” with Chrome (of course) taking front and center on guitar. Escovedo is reveling in the moment, three guitars churning away and the drummer bashing the skins, it was a performance I will not soon forget.

So where do you go from there? Escovedo takes it down a notch with “Always a Friend” with keys and sax interplaying throughout. As the song progresses everyone gets a turn to stretch out and showcase their talents. It was fun and funky before the song segued into a reggae tinged version of “Tracks of My Tears” which is one of my top ten songs of all time (please bear in mind my top ten has hundreds of songs and the top ten is relative given the day, time, temp, etc.). Escovedo sounded right at home before the song again veered and went into Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” which eventually closes the set.

Walking off stage for a few seconds the band returns and Escovedo is presented with a cake for his 68th birthday and sung “Happy Birthday” in Italian, which is the only way I want to hear it sung from now on. For the encore we get the Joe Ely penned “Silver City” which was sparse and melodic. Before the last note rings out Escovedo is off on a tear with “Another Girl, Another Planet” which I thought was a Mighty Lemon Drops song but after a little research found it to be from English band The Other Ones. I always loved TMLD version so I was thrilled to hear Escovedo, Don Antonio & Cheetah Chrome beat it to a pulp! Coming down off of that temporary high I was just standing there wondering what else he was going to pull out of his hat. Remarking that the band hasn’t played this song they go into Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” again with Cheetah Chrome whaling along on guitar. For a band that didn’t know the song they did a tremendous job, so tremendous I’m not sure Escovedo wasn’t pulling our collective leg a little. And then there is Ecovedo, center stage grinning, and pouring his all into the vocal performance. It was big, it was bombastic and it was over all too soon. Finishing with a wave the band walked off to rapturous applause.

I knew that Alejandro Escovedo would be magnificent but I had no idea how magical it would be. Six Italians and one Mexican-American alt-country punk all star made two hours go by in a blink of an eye.   I was beyond ecstatic to have been in attendance but all the while was irritated that it had taken me this long to see Escovedo with a full band. The new record is a masterpiece and the light it shines on the immigrant experience offers a unique take on an experience that many of us are clueless about. Take my advice, spend the money, grab a flight, catch a train, and get a ticket to make sure you see Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio while they are on tour this winter. Moments like this do not come around often and you want to make sure you can say “I saw them when…”.

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