By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Before playing a note, Alejandro Escovedo apologized for letting five years elapse since their last show in Kansas City. That show featured Escovedo’s True Believers band mate Jon Dee Graham, a string quartet and ended with Mott the Hoople covers around two a.m.
Saturday’s sold-out show at the Record Bar was a little more restrained in contrast, but no less potent. The strings were gone, and Graham was replaced by other True Believer, drummer Hector Munoz. He was part of a lean, four-piece band that knew how to wring maximum emotion from Escovedo’s songs. The 90-minute show also ended at a more respectable time – just 30 minutes into the next day – with a Rolling Stones cover.
Escovedo’s songwriting holds more facets than a jewel, encompassing classical, country, Mexican, punk and classic rock. He displayed several of those sides, especially on the gorgeous instrumental “Fort Worth Blues” and the south of the border flavored “Rosalie.” Mostly, though, the quartet modulated between two modes – full-throttle rock and poignant acoustic ballads. Songs like “This Bed Is Getting Crowded” and “Tender Heart” were too mature to be straight-up punk, but they weren’t far off. It was invigorating to watch the 49-year-old songwriter rip into his material with such raw passion.
Ten years ago, Escovedo played a benefit show at the City Market for Jim Strahm. A big influence on the Kansas City music scene, Strahm sold a lot of musicians their first instrument, booked them their first gigs or joined them onstage. Sadly, Strahm did not survive his bout with cancer – Saturday would have been his 50th birthday. Fittingly, Escovedo dedicated the show to his friend, which added extra juice to the opening song, “Always a Friend.”
While the electric numbers were delivered with a fury that barely allowed anyone, band or audience, to catch their breath, the ballads were given ample space to breath. An incredible reading of “Sister Lost Soul” was delivered at half its album tempo and felt almost like a prayer. It was followed by “Down in the Bowery” and a story about Escovedo’s 18-year-old son who once called his father’s music “old music for old people.” Built on the generations’ shared love of the Ramones, it included the line “I hope you live long enough to forget half the stuff that they taught you.”
Regardless of style or tempo, one element was consistent: the intricate, interplay between Escovedo’s rhythm guitar and David Pulkingham’s tasteful leads. Some of their best moments included the solo over the stomping bass-and-drums introduction to “Street Songs,” “Fort Worth Blue” and “Rosalie” and “Real as an Animal.”
“Castanets” was one of a handful of the night’s songs that wasn’t pulled from Escovedo’s two most recent releases. Banned from setlists for a while after Escovedo learned it was a favorite of former president George W. Bush, it had the crowd dancing and joining in on the infectious chorus of “I like it better when she walks away.”
After performing a new song, Escovedo closed the night sans guitar on a lengthy cover of “Beast of Burden.” With a trio of fans onstage providing backing vocals or percussion, Escovedo worked the crowd like, take your pick, an exuberant wedding singer or fevered rock and roll evangelist. By the end, everyone was converted.
Setlist: Always a Friend; This Bed Is Getting Crowded; Anchor; Street Songs; Tender Heart; Fort Worth Blue; Sister Lost Soul; Down in the Bowery; Rosalie; Chelsea Hotel ’78; Castanets; Real as an Animal. Encore: Sensitive Boys; Lucky Day (new song); Beast of Burden (Rolling Stones cover).