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Concert Review: Alejandro Escovedo At Continental Club, Austin, TX

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It's Thursday night, at the Continental Club, and the air-conditioning is struggling to keep up with the hot June night and the constant stream of people through the door, coming in hours early to get a spot for Alejandro Escovedo's midnight show. It is the first night of a multiple-day CD release party celebrating the release of Real Animal.

I find a cool spot, under a ceiling fan. My cell phone seems to be vibrating. No text, no call? When I pick up my vodka tonic I realize everything in the room is vibrating in response to the sound pulsing from the stage.

Dustin Welch and the House Band are rocking, straight up rock and roll with a southern accent. There are seven people on stage: drums, bass, guitar, guitar, guitar…and violin. The variety and range, including the stunning Celtic sounds of the wartime ballad "Green Badge," make me know that I'll be going out specifically to see this band again soon. Watching Tricia Keefer, I wonder if there is an official award category for "best rock violin."

After Dustin's set, there is another sound check, and the stage is carefully prepped with set lists, clean towels, and lots of water. Out back, The show is infused with a welcome home vibe as friends greet old friends in the audience and in the band.

When everything is in order, club owner Steve Wertheimer takes the stage to introduce the band. He is also celebrating clearing one of the hurdles in achieving Historical Landmark status for the fifty-year-old club.  Alejandro Ecsovedo has been a significant part of that history, playing on this stage for at least twenty-five of those years.

The band takes the stage, formally dressed in black jackets. Cello and violin take stage left, bass and guitar on stage right, drums in back. Front and center, Alejandro looks fabulous in a pinstripe suit and pointed patent leather shoes. He takes the microphone, and quietly starts …

"Some people say the world's a strange and evil place
And all the shadows fall across your face
Because the world's a strange and evil place
Then others say because the sun shines every day
That we should live life come what may
Because the sun shines every day

… and the band attacks. The cello and violin build to a frenzied pace. The song is familiar from the Austin radio waves, but I've never heard it like this. The applause has barely reached a crescendo when the band launches into their second song, the radio-friendly "Always a Friend" from the current album.

The audience response is huge, and the temperature in the room rises ten degrees due to the energy of the applause. The jackets come off, and everyone takes a long cool drink of water. David Pulkingham (guitar) pulls his blond hair up off his neck and grins at his band mates, Josh Gravelin (bass) and Hector Muñoz (drums). They are exuberant.

The band brings the energy down a notch for the plaintive ballad "Sister Lost Soul," a song about the friends who haven't lived to tell the tale.

With "Chelsea Hotel '78," he has our complete attention as he clearly and intimately paints a picture of living the punk rock dream and nightmare. The band layers and alternates the chorus: "and it makes no sense" … "and it makes perfect sense" to a hypnotic end. It is more than good rock and roll; it is good theater.

As the opening bars of each song play, people cheer as if that was the song they've been waiting to hear. Perhaps they recognize tunes off the album, two days after the release. More likely they've heard them before, here at the Continental Club. Alejandro had a four-month Tuesday night residency with fellow musician David Garza while he "learned these songs."

But the Continental Club is not the only crucible which forged this band. They played Carnegie Hall too, as a string quartet. Brian Standefer (cello) and Susan Voelz  (violin) have contributed to Alejandro's albums and tours for over ten years. Watching Susan in her elegant black dress, red boots stomping the distortion pedal, I become certain we should lobby for a new Grammy category for "Best Rock Violin."

In the middle, Alejandro is the conductor the band, subtly giving five people cues and blending the strings and hard-driving guitar rock into a cohesive whole. His cues to the audience are not so subtle. After the ballads and stories in the middle of the set, he brings the mood back to rocking, hard. He exhorts us to release our inner animal as they start up "Real as an Animal". The audience is a sea of waving arms, then closes with another radio favorite with a strong guitar hook, "Castanets."

The audience demands more, and the band returns for a three song encore. Alejandro's rock star charisma is at an all-time high. They play an arena-worthy cover of "All the Young Dudes," where he reaches out to the audience. He invites a friend from the audience, Gordie Johnson to take his guitar during "Beast of Burden," freeing him to flirt and tease the audience without a care in the world. He even makes a rock-star exit, leaving the stage after the vocals are over and leaving Gordie and David to trade guitar licks until we are all satisfied.

You don’t have to travel to Austin to share the experience of this great show; the tour supporting Real Animal, has fifteen July dates taking him to Chicago, Toronto, New York, Asheville, Atlanta, New Orleans and points in between.

Hearing the songs live made it easier for me to hear the nuances of the cello and the violin on the album. The rich full sounds of the strings and powerful guitar work fill the room, and the band’s joy in their work is infectious. If you cannot catch a live show, they will perform a show scheduled for broadcast August 8th, 2008, on David Letterman.

You can find the complete setlist by going to Rolling Stone's website. You'll also find video by going here.

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About Tamara Dwyer