Saturday, May 05, 2007

Concert Review: Alejandro Escovedo and Drive-By Truckers, March 4, 2007, Lensic Theatre, Santa Fe, NM

I usually avoid Santa Fe at all costs, but a show featuring both Escovedo and the Truckers is something that I must attend.

I forgot about beautiful and intimate the Lensic is. It may not be the best venue for this kind of show because it is seated and these aren't bands to sit and watch. But it is a great theatre.

Anyway, Escovedo led off. I was led to believe that this entire show would be acoustic, as the Truckers set was. But no, Escovedo was fully electric. Like the other 2 times I've seen him, it was just amazing. Escovedo's songs are so beautiful and kick-ass at the same time. This is perhaps the only person in rock and roll who can do amazing covers of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "Beast of Burden" in the same show. For the most part, Escovedo's set consisted of his standard songs. He played "Castanets," "Rosalie," "I Was Drunk," "Everybody Loves Me," and several other standards. I do wish he'd play some of his more obscure tunes a bit more. The first time I saw him, he played a long show and pulled out tunes like "Crooked Frame," which was just great. Of course, when you only have an hour, it's hard to go too deep into the catalog. But even so, every song was just really well-played.

One thing that makes Escovedo so wonderful to see live is his great band. In particular, Brian Standefer on cello is a particular delight. Standefer, a native of Albuquerque, shows why the cello should be central to rock music. No instrument can provide as much atmosphere, while rocking hard at the same time. I wonder why cello isn't used more. I guess it's because you have to sit while playing it, which isn't very rock and roll. But it adds so much to the music. Escovedo was one of the first bands to feature the cello in the mid 90s, and not too many have picked up on it since. I've seen a couple of bands with cellos, usually opening acts that I can't remember, but I've never seen it used and thought that it shouldn't be there.

After an hour, Escovedo was over. Like every time I see Escovedo, I felt like my head had been blown off with awesomeness. And to think that the Truckers were coming up was kind of hard to wrap my mind around.

The Truckers are doing a different kind of tour this time. Called "The Dirt Underneath," they are playing acoustic shows which highlight the great songs they do and not so much the power chords that draw many of their fans to them. It was a little weird seeing the Truckers for the first time without Jason Isbell, who just left the band. Ultimately, him not being there didn't make that much of a difference in the overall quality of the show, but I sure would like to see songs like "Goddamn Lonely Love," "Sink Hole," "Outfit," and "Decoration Day" played acoustic. Plus, there was an empty chair next to Patterson Hood. That chair was for when the steel player, John Neff, moved to play regular guitar, but it seemed like an empty chair of mourning. Or that's how I felt about it.

On the other hand, the Truckers currently have keyboard legend Spooner Oldham playing with them. A stalwart of the Muscle Shoals sound, Oldham played on many legendary soul recordings in the 60s and moved on to record with Dylan, Neil Young, and many others. At times, it was clear that they were still working Oldham into the band and particularly on louder songs, his work got a bit lost. But on the quieter songs, he added an incredible amount of atmosphere to the music. It was an honor to see him play.

The acoustic thing worked pretty well. It particularly is great on Patterson Hood's songs. Hood's voice is a bit thin and in the electric show it's hard to hear the words over the loud music. That wasn't such an issue with acoustic, though even when they played loudly here, sometimes it was a bit hard to make out. I don't know that I'd want to see them play acoustic every time I saw them. Hell, I love the rockin' part of that band as much as anyone. But it was quite a treat last night.

While the Truckers played a lot of past songs, they also mixed in a ton of new ones. These sound good. I would guess they played 6-7 new songs and probably every one of them is better than most of the songs off the last album. It's hard to comment too much on new songs after hearing them once, but both Hood and Mike Cooley's new material seemed very good. Some of the songs are really intense, others kind of downers, but that's the band for you. Interestingly, they only played one song off A Blessing and a Curse, the last album. That was Cooley's "Gravity's Gone" which was clearly the album's best tune (though I think his "Space City" is an underrated gem). Perhaps they are looking at that work as kind of failure and are moving on from it. Incidentally, Escovedo may kind of be doing the same thing as he only played 2 songs from his last album, which also came in a bit below expectations.

As for the songs I knew, they played several you might expect--"Carl Perkins' Cadillac," "Women Without Whiskey," "The Sands of Iwo Jima." But they also pulled in a couple I did not expect, such as "Heathens" and "Sounds Better in the Song," These last two I never got into so much on the album, but they worked great in this acoustic set. The best was the end. When Cooley went with "Get On The Plane" during the encore, I thought that this was a great way to end the show. But then Hood followed with "Angels and Fuselage," the last song off their classic album Southern Rock Opera. It works great in the acoustic setting, it's a hell of a song, and was totally riveting live. That's a way to end a show.

I don't really know how I could see a better night of music. I suppose Isbell being there or the show being electric might have been better. Really the only way to improve though would have been to add Dave Alvin to the bill and make it an all-day affair.