Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
I was still recovering from a Bootsy Collins hangover, and I mean that in the best possible sense, but also anticipating the return of Alejandro Escovedo & the Sensitive Boys to The Egg’s Swyer Theater. It had been the better part of two years since their last visit, and there was a new album, “Big Station,” and two new Sensitive Boys.
Chris Searles replaced long-time Alejandro sidekick Hector Munoz on drums, while Billy White replaced David Pulkingham on guitar. The latter change was somewhat of a shock, since Pulkingham played guitar, added keyboards and sang background vocals on the new release… and he always seemed to be the perfect complement for Alejandro on stage. Bobby Daniel, the sole returning Sensitive Boy, was once again supplying the bottom on bass. For long-time fans – and most in attendance seemed to fit that category – the evening would be about how the new band and new material worked. “Big Station,” to a somewhat lesser degree than its two most recent predecessors “Real Animal” and “Street Songs of Love,” brings out more of the punky, garage and glam sides of Alejandro than some of his earlier solo work.
Chris Searles’ drumming anchored the band equally well on both the rockers and the ballads, beginning with the evening’s opener “Sally Was a Cop.” This song is the most overtly political on the album, but it seemed like an odd choice for a show opener. It describes the chaos and horror that the drug war has brought to Mexico, and a little reflection is in order when the song ends, but that was hard to do when the band immediately busted into the loud, rocking “Anchor,” with Alejandro making a quick changeover to electric, followed by an equally loud and glammy “Party People.” Both songs were well played and fun, but they seemed to bury arguably the best song on the new album.
The middle of the set was generally played with less volume and focused more on the vocals and consequently the lyrics. I love Alejandro the rocker, but it is Alejandro the poet who makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and applaud. Standouts included “Can’t Make Me Run,” “Bottom of the World” (with a clean, concise, well-picked solo by White) and “Sensitive Boys” (a song about struggling young bands that was dedicated to the evening’s openers, Ghost Wolves). Two of the other songs performed in this part of the set, “San Antonio Rain” and “Down in the Bowery,” are about family roots and relationships. Alejandro provided some poignant family background for the former and hilarious commentary on his somewhat contentious relationship with his son in the latter. “I’d buy you a smile in a minute, but would you wear it?” captures a frustrated father who is just trying to let his son know that he is in his corner.
What do you follow a bowery song with? How about Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” with Alejandro barking his vocals into a Green Bullet microphone, while the band played at breakneck speed behind him before eventually sliding almost seamlessly into one of the highlights of “Real Animal” and the evening’s performance, “Chelsea Hotel ’78.” The audience provided the chorus, chanting “It makes no sense” and “It makes perfect sense,” while Alejandro threw down some serious guitar licks. The whammy bars got a good workout all night, but particularly on this one.
The show could have ended at this point for me. I would have loved to have heard another hour of Alejandro, but just not the closing songs he chose. “Castanets” seems to be a set fixture now, and maybe I am just getting a little tired of it considering all the great songs that he’s written. The playing was fine and the audience loved it, but other than the covers, it was the only song performed that did not come from the last three albums. “Beast of Burden” was the encore as it was two years ago, and I am asking Alejandro to retire it from his set, and choose something from another inspiring source or better yet from one of his first three solo albums.
So did the new material and band members work? Was the show good? An unqualified yes to both parts of the question. I will be front and center for Alejandro’s next return to Nippertown.
Ghost Wolves – a duo featuring guitarist Carley Wolf and drummer Jonathan Konya – opened the evening with a roar both from the stage and, by set’s end, from the audience, too. Their sound, comprised of bits and pieces of punk, thrash, and rockabilly, was driven by the tom-tom drumming of Konya with fuzz-drenched guitar by Wolf. The two were totally locked in, anticipating each other’s every move, and they played so well with such obvious delight that it was impossible not to get on board. Highlights included the punky surf driven “Snake and Jake Shake” and the rockabillyish “Gonna Live.” They are not to be missed.
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Alejandro Escovedo meditated — loudly — about an America waking up to its current nightmare at The Egg on Friday, opening up with the bitter ‘Sally Was a Cop’ about a wounded thug of a nation that can’t afford police but kills strangers thousands of miles away. Not everything on his new ‘Big Station’ album or Friday’s show, largely based on it, was so fiercely angry. But all of it was that strong: rock ’n’ roll from a large, loud, impassioned heart. Introducing ‘Bottom of the World’ from the new album, he said it represented a sort of punk rock Rip Van Winkle experience, of a lifelong hard worker recognizing that a life lived according to the rules might not earn the rest he craved. However, some epiphanies were gentler, sweeter. ‘San Antonio Rain’ recalled his family’s ‘long vacation’ — 45 years — from Texas to California and spoke of displacement and belonging in tender terms. Sometimes songs commented on each other: the ‘Don’t give up on love’ refrain of the new ‘Can’t Make Me Run’ answering the bitter suspicion of ‘This Bed is Getting Crowded’ with its cry ‘This ain’t love.’”
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO & THE SENSITIVE BOYS SET LIST
Sally Was a Cop
Man of the World
This Bed Is Getting Crowded
Can’t Make Me Run
Bottom of the World
San Antonio Rain
Down in the Bowery
I Wanna Be Your Dog > Chelsea Hotel ’78
Beast of Burden (with the Ghost Wolves)