To say that Alejandro Escovedo has had his share of challenges and grief would be an understatement. He fought a 20-year battle with hepatitis C. He barely survived a Category 4 hurricane – during his honeymoon no less – that left its mark on the man with a severe case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He experienced blackouts and odd behavior that filled Escovedo with self-doubt and left him wondering if he should continue to make music or just pack it in. He also lost several friends to cancer, including journalist and Austin music stalwart Margaret Moser, fellow musicians Jimmy LaFave and George Reiff and his former guitarist Joe Eddy Hines.
And yet, from misfortune good things can arise. Escovedo has been completely cured of his disease. He worked through his self-doubt to create one of the strongest albums of his career, “Burn Something Beautiful.” And now, drawing on his experience as a survivor and fed up with losing so many friends to the dreaded C-word, he is using his stature as an award-winning pioneering singer-songwriter and bandleader to bring awareness to the link between cancer and certain viruses such as HPV and hepatitis.
His annual birthday show at ACL-Live at the Moody Theater on Saturday, January 13, was both a raising of consciousness and a celebration of life and remembrance for the many friends and musicians who have succumbed to cancer. The show was the first of Escovedo’s 12-city “Think About the Link” Tour sponsored by Prevent Cancer Foundation that runs through February 9 in Houston, with stops in New York, Chicago, and Nashville.
The show is divided into two sets. Under the musical direction of legendary producer and member of the power-pop band the dBs, Chris Stamey, the first set featured a complete performance of Escovedo’s fifth studio album, 2001’s “A Man Under the Influence” – an album produced by Stamey. The album was heralded by Billboard as “the best studio performance Escovedo has ever delivered” and still holds its own today.
The performances were lush and full, given the full orchestral treatment with strings, percussion, horns and even a choir. From the opening notes of “Wave” to the last choral note of “About this Love” the audience was with him. The album itself has a nice balance of ballads, mid-tempo anthems, and rockers that made for a brilliant setlist. It was truly a treat to hear these songs with such a rich resonance that only added to their depth and beauty.
The band was amazing. But then again, this is Austin. Stamey, on keyboards, unassumingly directed the group from stage left. There was a three-piece string section consisting of cellist Brian Standefer, Ames Asbell on viola and violinist Warren Hood that enhanced each song with a beautiful bed of lushness. The rhythm section was tight, held true by Hector Munoz on drums and Tristan Boyd on all things percussive. Bassist Mike Luzecky spent the evening bouncing between the rhythm and the melody to drive each song forward while guitarist Mitch Easter and pedal steel player Eric Heywood added melodic interplay that elevated without overpowering. A horn section consisting of John Mills and Dave Young added punch and rhythm. Backup singers Karla Manzur and Gina Holton supported Escovedo’s passionate vocals, with each taking a featured spot on back-to-back duets.
There were many highlights, with the audience absorbing the mellower performance in rapturous silence while rocking out to the movers. Local songstress Patricia Vonne even graced the stage during “Castanets” with her fun and energetic dancing and castanet playing. The set closed with the beautiful “About this Love” which was complemented by a rich bed of choral beauty provided by Austin’s own Panoramic Voices.
After a short break, a PSA video played featuring Escovedo explaining the “Think About the Link” program. The evening’s host, KUTX radio personality Jody Denberg, was then joined by Escovedo as they talked further about the program, while hundreds of names of the musicians and artists lost to cancer scrolled on the screen behind them. It was a powerful reminder of the devastating reach of this horrible disease.
Whereas the first set was tight and orchestrated, the second set exhibited a more go-for-broke spirit and a general looseness that is pure rock and roll. Escovedo introduced the night’s first special guest, Richard Patrick, former guitarist of Nine Inch Nails and lead singer of the rock bands Filter and Army of Anyone, who performed two songs before bringing out his brother, actor Robert Patrick. Robert is best known for his role as T-1000 in Terminator 2 and currently on TV’s “Scorpion.”
It was two years ago at Escovedo’s Tribute to Leonard Cohen show when Robert first took the stage to recite poetry. This year he was ready to sing and turned in a surprising performance that was as full of passion as it was nervousness. At the end of his performance, he and his brother shared a hug that was full of triumphant relief and fun to see.
Craig Finn, frontman of the American indie rock band The Hold Steady, next took the stage for a raucous performance. His performance was a joy to watch, with his manic gestures and wide-eyed expressions adding a fun urgency to the songs. His performance of Warren Zevon’s “Mohammed’s Radio” was a winner, as photos of Zevon flashed on the screen behind him.
New York rocker Jesse Malin followed with a poignant rendition of a song he wrote for his mother, who succumbed to breast cancer while Malin was in his teens. The 2007 song, “Broken Radio” was recorded as a duet with Bruce Springsteen and Escovedo joined him to reprise Bruce’s parts while a large portrait of Malin’s mother was projected behind the stage.
He followed by exhorting the crowd to get on its feet for the last of three “radio” songs – The Ramone’s “Rock and Roll Radio.” It was a fun and celebratory song that had the entire theater on its feet as Malin left the stage and jumped out in the audience to share the experience.
Escovedo returned to lead the musicians through two numbers of his own, including the powerful “Sally is a Cop,” before wrapping up the evening with some more well-chosen covers: David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and the Bowie/Mott the Hoople hit “All the Young Dudes,” which had the entire audience singing along. The cast returned for an encore of Lou Reed’s “Rock ’n’ Roll,” while the image of Escovedo’s friend and guitarist Joe Eddy Hines was displayed on the screen behind.
It was a joyous and celebratory end to an evening that exemplifies the healing power of music.
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About the Prevent Cancer Foundation®
The Prevent Cancer Foundation® is one of the nation’s leading voluntary health organizations and the only U.S. nonprofit focused solely on cancer prevention and early detection. Founded in 1985, it has catapulted cancer prevention to prominence and fulfills its mission through research, education, outreach and advocacy across the country. For more information, please visit www.preventcancer.org.