Alejandro Escovedo is one of America's best singer-songwriters. If he wasn't also one of the most unknown, his quietly magnificent performance last Friday at Zankel Hall, the intimate downstairs theater in New York's Carnegie Hall, would have qualified as a greatest-hits show. Escovedo went as far back as his first solo album, 1992's Gravity, for the soft, sad "Five Hearts Breaking." Then he stopped off at virtually every record he's made since, showing off the best of his emotionally blunt storytelling and the electricity in his melodies and choruses: "Way It Goes" from 1994's Thirteen Years; the delicate, stumbling waltz "I Was Drunk" on the 1999 collection Bourbonitis Blues; the plaintive devotion in "Rosalie" from Escovedo's theater work, By the Hand of the Father; the sublime trifecta of "Arizona," "Deer Head on the Wall" and "Evita's Lullaby," all from Escovedo's latest record, The Boxing Mirror, produced by John Cale.
Escovedo also found time in the encore to play a new song (co-written with guitarist Chuck Prophet) and two of his favorite covers with one of his favorite songwriters, Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople. The two exchanged verses and shared choruses in the ballad "Irene Wilde" from Hunter's 1976 solo album, All American Alien Boy, and "I Wish I Was Your Mother," the pledge of troth on 1973's Mott that has long been a feature of Escovedo's concerts. They started out singing as fan and idol but soon settled into a more equal warmth. Hunter performed on Broadway with Mott but, as far as I know, never at Carnegie Hall. This was Escovedo's debut in the building. It was a great first time for both.
This was ostensibly an unplugged show with classical overtones. Escovedo, playing acoustic guitar, was dressed for the occasion -- tie, vest and black velvet suit -- and he came armed with a chamber-strings quartet drawn from the classy pool of Austin, Texas-based players who have faithfully served him over the decades: violinist Susan Voelz, cellists Brian Standefer and Matt Fish and guitarist David Polkingham. They sawed and blended with such tenderness that one could practically hear the tearing and tears in "Five Hearts Breaking." In a dramatically extended arrangement of "Baby's Got New Plans," from Thirteen Years, the strings sighed in long, luxuriant breaths while Polkingham soloed with acid-flamenco flair.
But Escovedo -- who spoke about the serious illness a few years ago that forced him off the road for a time and to quit lifelong rock & roll excesses -- is still addicted to riff and rhythm, and he matched the grunting surge of the cellos in "Everybody Loves Me" and "Put You Down" with his own insistent strum and impassioned singing. He complained of how President Bush had ruined the pleasure of playing "Castanets" -- somehow the Los Lonely Boys' cover got on to Dubya's iPod. But then Escovedo and his strings took the song back with a punk-rock-cantina vengeance.
The evening's only (minor) disappointment: No "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Escovedo first arranged the Stooges song for strings, etc. with his early-Nineties big band, the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, and it has been a signature freak out in his live shows ever since. It would have been a gas to hear that in this setting.
But I'm patient. Because I'm sure Escovedo will be back. Next stop: the big room upstairs.