- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
For an artist who has returned repeatedly to the subject of boundaries and borders in his songwriting, Alejandro Escovedo is blissfully oblivious to both when it comes to his varied musical approaches. On a night when the weather called for staying in, those who ventured out to the venerable Cat’s Cradle (my first trip) were rewarded with a cross-cultural dynamic that yielded an unleashed hybrid vigor. Touring in support of his album, The Crossing, with Italian band Don Antônio backing him, the show was a high wattage spectacle from the get-go.
The album, as Escovedo explained it to us mid-set, details the disillusionment that two teenage immigrant boys (one Mexican, one Italian) experience lighting out to L.A. from their adoptive home of Galveston, Texas, where they work at an Italian restaurant. Their only recompense ends up being the savior that is punk rock. Not the first souls to be saved, or destroyed for that matter, by rock and roll. The not so dissimilar arc that Escovedo’s 68 years have taken have planted him on terra firma with reason to celebrate.
First up was Don Antônio, a loose assemblage of musicians from the small Italian village of Modigliana. As affable leader Antônio Gramentieri explains it, Don Antônio is his name, the band’s name, and the name of their album. Whatever the case may be, from the opening notes of the six-piece ensemble it was apparent we were being transported across distance and time to a place where Ennio Morricone meets the Latin Playboys. With sax players, Franz Valtieri and the nattily attired Gianni Perinelli (dubbed the Marcello Mastroianni of the sax by Escovedo), holding down the left side of the stage, Gramentieri was free to roam. His lone guitar was fitted out with heavily scrolled metal fittings that made it look like it had been salvaged from the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and then wired for electricity. While their horn collection looked like it had been handed down through the generations, or a series of thrift shops perhaps, but they did their jobs in the hands of masters. Though the rhythm section and keyboard player looked a little more of modern vintage, the band’s sound was insistent but maintained an Old World sinuousness as they wove their spell.
On their first trip to the United States, in spite of supporting plenty of American touring bands in Europe, the band pulled heavily from their self-titled 2017 debut. Primarily an instrumental band, they charmed vocally as well on the few spots where they sang. The songs varied from the more bluesy ‘Mestizo’ to the traditional Italian waltz of the beautiful, yet tortured they told us, ‘Adelita’. The full-throated ‘Soukana’ had more of the spaghetti Western sound you might expect, but the band delighted the most on the Italian twist of ‘Baballo’. Drawing from the carefree sound back in the day from the likes of Edoardo Vianello with the band gamely “ba ba ba”ing along, Gramentieri also sprinkled in American surf and plenty of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ licks as drummer, Matteo Monti, put in perfect fills. A short but fully engaged set. All you could do during the break was try and imagine what Escovedo would sound like with these compadres running alongside him.
Don Antônio (the band) was summarily welcomed when they returned to the stage and started the ominous sounding start of ‘Andare’ that also opens The Crossing. It didn’t take long for sparks to fly, as Gramentieri took lead guitar duties and started fleshing out ‘Footsteps In The Shadows’ behind Alejandro Escovedo’s impassioned vocal. It’s probably been at least twenty years since I last saw Escovedo (which included some sets by his punk outfit Buick MacKane) and the strength of his voice swept those years away. By the end of the song, the two leaders were locked in. Gramentieri earlier said that Latin music was too “curvy” to deal with the sharp edges of rock, but there was no issue in melding the two together.
Escovedo played pretty close to the layout of the album but mixed in some appropriate choices from his past catalog. The gritty ‘Teenage Luggage’ which sounded a cross between cowpunk and ‘Sacramento and Polk’ was followed with a scorching ‘Castanets’. Escovedo switched to acoustic guitar for several songs including the garage-y ‘Outlaw For You’ that gave keyboard player, Nicola Peruch, his one-handed ’96 Tears’ organ moment. Quieter passages were provided by The Crossings’ ‘Something Blue’, but more on point was the decade-old ‘Sensitive Boys’. The irony of the line “sensitive boys, the world needs you now” was not lost in the current climate and sounded like a plea for much-needed mercy.
But the night was truly staged to celebrate the more musically unhinged side of Escovedo’s ever-shifting styles. The son of Mexican immigrants, he described ‘Fire and Fury’ as his most pointed song ever and let the song do the talking for him. The last song before the encore was a lively yet heartfelt ‘Always A Friend’. Introducing bass player, Denis Valentini as the one on stage with the best voice, Escovedo proved himself right as he and Valentini shared lines in the chorus looking at each other across the stage. This simple moment of two men singing back and forth about friendship, neither in their mother tongue, said more about the travesty of building walls than any speech could have.
With a few tricks up his sleeve, Escovedo started the encore with a tweaked out, fractured disco take of ‘Sally Was A Cop’ that fell somewhere in-between the Stone’s Some Girls and Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’ and was a blast to listen to. Don Antônio’s groove was particularly geared to this one. D Generation member Richard Bacchus took over Escovedo’s guitar part for The Stooge’s 'Search and Destroy' to allow Escovedo to put two hands around the mic and breathe life into the monster. Having the sax players in tow for the punk classic put me the closest I will ever be to side two of Fun House. Local legend, Mitch Easter, came on stage and seemed ecstatic to be there for takes of The Other Ones’ ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ and an Escovedo staple, ‘All The Young Dudes’ (in honor of the anniversary of Bowie’s death). It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a set that left a knowing smile between ringing ears. Escovedo embraces his own heritage, that of punk rock, that of a group of ragtag Italian village musicians, and that of the cold, huddled crowd that came into the Cat’s Cradle to hear him play on a wintry Saturday night. It felt like America to me.
All photos: Dan Kulpa