My favorite radio station in the world is Milwaukee Public Radio WUWM, and liking WUWM on Facebook paid off nicely when I won one of their concert ticket contests to see Alejandro Escovedo at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom this past Thursday night.
On the way up, my mom phoned me and asked the usual question: “Who?” I told her he’s a friend of Bruce Springsteen’s, and he sings songs about love.
He also said he’s minding his health. Back in 2003, Alejandro fell critically ill with Hepatitis-C and had no medical insurance. That’s when friends like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Jennifer Warnes, Los Lonely Boys, Charlie Sexton, Ian Hunter, Sheila E., Son Volt, Charlie Musselwhite, M.Ward, the Jayhawks and others put together one of the finest tribute albums of all time, Por Vida: A Tribute To The Songs Of Alejandro Escovedo, to help pay his medical bills.
Milwaukee’s historic Turner Hall Ballroom is an ample old barn right across the street from the Bradley Center, home of the Milwaukee Bucks. This is not Chicago: Parking in several nearby lots goes for just $5.
Turner Hall Ballroom dates from the late 1800s, with warped old wooden stairs leading to the second-floor showplace. General admission seating is at candlelit cabaret tables in the front half, folding chairs in the back half. We sat in the front row of those, and the sound was less than ideal — a bit muddy and boomy, making lyrics and staccato notes difficult to pick out.
The show started promptly at 9 p.m., kind of late for a Thursday night, with the Wooldridge Brothers opening. A great warmup for Alejandro, the six-piece band played a 40-minute set, building nicely to some rocking numbers at the end, bringing the crowd to its feet with Brian Wooldridge’s Telecaster incisions that can rip like Bruce Springsteen and ripple like Dick Dale.
The crowd was primarily white college kids in their fifties, wearing jeans and casual fashions with gray ponytails and wrinkles, and watching carefully for that step on the way to the restroom lest they fall and break a hip. At one point in his show, Alejandro mentioned that his 18-year-old son says he plays “old man’s music … old music for old people,” and we all chuckled uncomfortably at the youngster’s nerve.
Speaking of nerve, nothing makes me more crotchety than the way so many people carry on conversations during music shows. They get loud and in each other’s faces so their chitchat about the family or the office can be heard above whatever band is so rude as to be performing on that stage in this concert hall. Why not just go to some lounge?
Unfurling onstage amid low drone and feedback, Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys (guitarist David Pulkingham, bassist Bobby Daniel, and drummer Hector Munoz) exploded to life with four driving songs from their latest album, Street Songs Of Love: “This Bed Is Getting Crowded,” “Anchor,” “Tender Heart,” and “Street Songs” — plus an unrecorded new song called “Lucky Day.”
After pausing to say hello and introduce the band, things slowed down for the mournful instrumental “Fort Worth Blue,” dedicated to Crazy Heart songwriter Stephen Bruton, who produced Escovedo’s first three albums. Following this was “Down in the Bowery,” written with Chuck Prophet in Baja — and with all seven of Escovedo’s Ramones-loving children in mind.
The next two acoustic Tex-Mex tunes, the instrumental “What Is” and the achingly romantic “Rosalie,” came from By the Hand of the Father, the theatrical work inspired by the life of Escovedo’s 97-year-old dad and other Mexican-American fathers.
A highlight of any Alejandro show is “I Was Drunk,” from his 1999 Bourbonitis Blues, a song which combines the elements of love, passion, and fury that make him such a surprising performer. He plays music ranging from the tenderest Mexican ballads to very hard and angry punk rock, and it all works because you feel the true heart behind it all.
A dubious but amusing story about his early days in a hapless punk band touring the South in a borrowed van with a duct-taped drive shaft and playing for cranberry juice and vodka introduced the touchingly wistful “Last to Know.”
Following this was the Gun Club’s “Sex Beat,” slowed down even more than Alejandro’s recorded cover version on Bourbonitis Blues into an extended blue, trancelike dirge of slapback echo, lonesome harmonica, guitar feedback, and the staggering, drunken beat of Hector Munoz pounding behind it all. As Amy noted, that guy has an incredible touch on those drums.
Rather than morphing into Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” (which did seem possible for a moment), a throwback vibrato effect introduced “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” a sprawling, arena-punk hangover co-written with Chuck Prophet about the legendary Chelsea Hotel where Escovedo lived in 1978 and 1979.
Closing the show were”Castanets,” a pop country singalong that Escovedo had embargoed after it appeared on President George W. Bush’s iPod playlist (albeit as the Los Lonely Boys cover on Por Vida), and the rocker “Real As An Animal” from 2008’s Real Animal album.
For encores, Escovedo did his customary Mick Jagger impression on the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” (the same encore he did at Summerfest in 2008), coaxing Pulkingham through a variety of guitar style impressions during the song, and the band concluded with an a cappella singalong on “Always A Friend.”
The range of material Escovedo performs is astonishing, and besides his unique and compelling voice as a songwriter, he’s also a passionate performer with both genuine warmth and real fire.
This current tour, on the road for about a year now, is just about over. However, on tonight’s episode of Austin City Limits, Alejandro Escovedo splits the hour with Trombone Shorty, so there’s a chance to see him on TV at least. Milwaukee’s Channel 10 will air ACL tonight at 10 p.m.