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REVIEW: ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO, THORNBURY THEATRE


ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO with Tim Rogers. Thornbury Theatre March 12, 2019.

Review: Greg Phillips. Photos: Jason Rosewarne

After an illustrious recording and performing career spanning five decades, Texas-based alt-country rock legend Alejandro Escovedo has finally made it to Australia for the first time. Coming off a celebrated weekend at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, ably assisted by You Am I’s Tim Rogers, last night it was Melbourne’s turn to have our hearts melted by Alejandro’s wonderful life stories and compelling songs.

Escovedo is a master storyteller. His tales stem from true events and are delivered with authority, poignancy and quite often with a cheeky grin. Opening tonight’s set at The Thornbury Theatre with a five minute long monologue leading into the song San Antonio Rain, Alejandro told of his family’s move from San Antonio Texas to California. Presented to the kids as a vacation, the young Alejandro wasn’t to know until much later that they’d never return to their home to collect their belongings. He hilariously recounted the “13 kids in a sedan, with some in the trunk, some on the hood and some running behind the car, trying to keep up … and a few we lost outside of Phoenix, Arizona.” It’s no surprise that many other heavyweight songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and Townes Van Zandt have been known to be major Escovedo fans.

Such was the impact of Alejandro’s spellbinding storytelling, that it was 20 minutes into the show before a second song was performed, yet at all times holding the audience in the palm of his hand. With “Five Hearts Breaking”, he recalled romantic notions of what America used to be, when musicians played for beer and food only but were grateful all the same. With songs from his current album The Crossing, he explored themes of immigration and the barriers facing migrants in a harsh political landscape globally.

An Alejandro Escovdeo concert is not only a journey through the troubadour’s own colourful career but also a history in contemporary music itself. Brought up on a mix of Mexican, country and big band music that his parents enjoyed, Alejandro’s influences grew to take in punk, garage and glam rock, all of which have infiltrated his own music at various stages of his work. One of his earlier bands, Rank & File tried to merge George Jones with The Clash, he tells us. His song Chelsea Hotel ’78 which was performed late in the set described life at New York’s notorious Chelsea Hotel, where Sid and Nancy were neighbours to Alejandro and The New York Dolls were regulars too.

Normally performing with a band, the economic hurdles of an Australian tour decreed that Alejandro would perform this time in duo mode. Sideman Tim Rogers provided much vocal character to Escovedo’s sensitive songs and was also responsible for the electric guitar atmospherics, which are an integral part of this music. Although the set was plagued by many on stage gremlins including wrong capo tuning, broken guitar strings and at one point, loss of Tim’s guitar sound altogether, it seemed to matter little to the audience who were caught up in the amiable, community spirit of the night.

As they have done each night throughout this Australian tour, Alejandro and Tim stepped into the middle of the audience to perform a few songs unplugged to great effect. A powerful acoustic version of the Mott The Hoople song I Wish I Was Your Mother held the audience in complete silence. A rendition of the beautiful Rosalie, a song about a couple who were separated for seven years, yet stayed in touch by writing letters to each other daily, left many in the crowd wiping back tears.

Swallows of San Juan, a song about Alejandro’s days as a young surfer in Huntington Beach pretending to be Hawaiian rather than Mexican to prevent him from being beaten up by jocks, took the concert into overtime. Leaving us in the same manner he welcomed us, it ended with a tale attached to a song. He recalled a friend phoning him up one day and asking if he had read the New York Times that morning. Featured in the paper that day was President George W Bush’s top ten iPod playlist, which happened to include Escovedo’s song ‘Castanets (I like it better when she walks away)’. “That wasn’t cool,” Alejandro told us. “I didn’t know what to do, so I retired the song until he was out of office.” Kicking into the rollicking party-piece with gusto, Escovedo and Rogers brought the audience to their feet in celebration of one of the most engaging and enjoyable shows seen at The Thornbury Theatre. Judging by the audience reaction and Alejandro’s smile, I doubt that it will be long before we see him back in Australia.