Alejandro Escovedo and his string quintet at the Java
Paris, June 6, 2007
Alejandro Escovedo is a rock and roll fan, the kind that believes that rock and roll is big enough to encompass any kind of music one loves and is inspired by. Over the course of a 90-minute concert in Paris on June 6, he cited the Velvet Underground (who clearly hold the place of honor in his personal Pantheon), the Stooges, Mott the Hoople, the Buffalo Springfield, the New York Dolls, the Rascals and the Sir Douglas Quintet. For good measure, in a preshow interview, he added Texas songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore as well as composers Bartok and Satie to the mix of references that explain his music.
The show took place at the Java in eastern Paris, an old dance hall that is used by local concert promoter Karel Beer. Beer, too, is a music lover and puts on mostly acoustic shows by musicians that otherwise would not find a venue in the French capital – songwriting legends like Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, rock veterans like Richard Thompson or Robyn Hitchcock, and new talents like Tift Merritt.
Escovedo fits into this category, with his 30-plus years of playing rock and roll and an acoustic band for the show. He started out in an early San Francisco punk group, the Nuns, and has played in roots-rock bands like Rank and File and the True Believers as well as his glam-punk outfit Buick MacKane. Accompanying him were the other four members of the Alejandro Escovedo String Quintet, cellists Brian Standefer and Matt Fish, violinist Susan Voelz and guitarist David Polkingham.
Despite Escovedo’s references to Bartok or Satie as inspiration for the strings, their main contribution to his sound in the quintet formation is more rhythm and power rather than harmony. And there is little VU-style freaked-out dissonance, think more of the repeating figures on Lou Reed’s Street Hassle, which Escovedo himself says was his inspiration for working with strings, along with Paris 1919 by John Cale, who produced Boxing Mirror, Escovedo’s most recent album.
Another of Escovedo’s descriptions may be a more apt one: Crazy Horse with a chamber quartet. On the songs that rock hardest, the two cellos, the violin and Escovedo’s guitar hammer riffs while Polkingham solos, and no one misses the drums and electricity.
As well as songs from Boxing Mirror and from his back catalog, Escovedo performed a few new songs that will likely be on his next album. After the concert, he headed to the South of France to begin pre-production work with Glyn Johns, who is slated to produce the record in Los Angeles in September.
“I’ve been working with Chuck Prophet writing songs to go on this album,” said Escovedo. “I’ve also been working with Chip Taylor and Gordie Johnson from a band called Grady in Austin, and I’ll be writing with Ian Hunter [Mott the Hoople], too. We’re writing a bunch of songs, we’ve already got about 15, 16 songs, maybe 17. I’m hoping to go with more than 20 songs on the album.”
The new album will be “a rock record with strings again” and recount Escovedo’s music experiences using the framework of the places he has called home. “I wanted to write an album about all the different places I’ve lived in, starting from San Antonio in 1951. I moved to Southern California in the late 50s, early 60s. I then moved to Hollywood in the early 70s, and followed bands like Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, David Bowie. The Stooges lived there when I lived there; I used to listen to them rehearse every day.
“Then I moved to San Francisco, where I started to play. I was 24 years old and I wanted to be a filmmaker. I wanted to make a movie about the worst band in the world. Since we couldn’t play, we became that band. That band was the Nuns.
“That took me to New York City. I lived in the Chelsea Hotel when Sid and Nancy lived there and that whole thing went down. So I write about that and my New York experience, and then going back to Texas and really learning about songwriting through Townes, Joe Ely and Butch, Jimmie Dale, and all of the great songwriters that were there. Lucinda [Williams] was still busking on the street.
“It’s kind of a home movie, but a musical home movie, of my life up to now. It’s about the music that captured my attention and supported me in so many ways, like music does for all of us.”
The importance of the music to the man is clear, and the desire to share it with his listeners is palpable. So when he asked for the houselights to be brought up and took his musicians out into the audience to play songs by two of his heroes – Ian Hunter’s Mott-era “I Wish I Was Your Mother” and the Velvet’s “Pale Blue Eyes” – it seemed not at all like a stage move but like the most natural thing in the world.
Perry Leopard is a freelance writer and editor and plays music in the bars of Paris.
[Update: Perry let us know that — ten years later — someone posted a clip from this show on YouTube! -ed. 10/19/2017]
Via Karel Beer.