IN CONCERT: TEXAN COMEBACK KING – Alejandro Escovedo back in Santa Barbara after a fight for his life
JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
Texas wonder Alejandro Escovedo has played in town many occasions during the years, passing through with his unique blend of country-folk-punk-glam. Dipping further in history, 20-plus years ago, he shook the walls of the defunct club Baudelaire’s with his punk-country band Rank & File.
But when Mr. Escovedo brought a six-piece band to the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, marking his third appearance in the Sings Like Hell series, a special aura of renewal was the show. This was his first local show following a 2003 brush with bad health brought on by hepatitis C, which took him way out of commission for a couple of years. His latest album, last year’s “The Boxing Mirror,” was a comeback album on more than one level.
At 56 and artistically strong as ever, Mr. Escovedo is back from the brink and he comes out to rock and soothe, by turns. The band is built to suit his different sides, blending standard rock rhythm sections and a violin and cello.
Among his cult hero peers, Mr. Escovedo has aged and evolved with an uncommon gracefulness. He may not have scored hits or much commercial firepower, but he has scored with consistent respect from critics during his 15-year career as a solo artist.
History — personal and pop-cultural — is threaded through his song set. Sensitive, post-folky colors showed up in a sweet ode to his mother in “Evita’s Lullaby,” from “The Boxing Mirror.” But when he strapped on an electric guitar, Mr. Escovedo became a punk-era long-haul artist, something like fellow punker John Doe, who also has performed in the Sings Like Hell series. In the middle of the rocking “Put You Down,” Mr. Escovedo executed a few Pete Townshend-style windmill strums for good archetypal rock guitarist measure.
Also performed was a deceptively simple new song, slated for a soon-to-be-recorded album, called “Pretty Boys.” Written about early ’80s indie rockers, such as Green on Red and the Replacements, the song could be viewed as an update of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” written by one of Mr. Escovedo’s heroes, Ian Hunter. His “Deer Head on the Wall” is another tune straddling the punk, Hoople and Velvet Undergound-sound worlds.
Mr. Escovedo’s “Castanets” comes with an odd badge of honor. When the singer discovered the song was on President George Bush’s iPod, he embargoed the song from his live shows for a spell. But the feisty ditty was one of the more energetic moments in Saturday’s show. Touchè , Mr. Escovedo, and touchè , Mr. President, for good taste.
For an encore, Mr. Escovedo and three musicians played without the benefit of the sound system. Going old school in that unplugged way was also the exit strategy of the evening’s impressive opening act, A.J. Roach. Mr. Roach had a band with a fiddle in the mix, along with acoustic bass, mandolin and the leader’s mixture of guitar and American gothic banjo.
With a love for minor modes and the addition of his own licks to traditions such as the “old Appalachian murder ballad,” Mr. Roach sounds vintage and modern, all at once. He sings of “very brief and very failed” relationships, waxes semi-sentimental on a song for his father, “Sears & Roebuck Suit” and performed the strangely fascinating “Chemicals,” with the salient recurring line “whiskey’s my shepherd, I shall not want.”
All told, Saturday was an eventful, all-American night at the Lobero.