I go to hear a lot of new music, rarified and esoteric. Great stuff, but it's not rock 'n' roll. And sometimes, high-volume blazing guitars and poetic lyrics – well, they just fix everything damaged inside. When Alejandro Escovedo took the stage at the Carrboro ArtsCenter on December 2, opening with "Heartbeat Smile" from his new recording Burn Something Beautiful, I knew I'd make it through another night. By the time the show wrapped up, I felt I could make it through the next several years on the memory of this compound of love, generosity, virtuosity and sonic bliss.
Escovedo, now 65, is at this point a reigning master of alt-country post-punk rocking singer-songwriter musicianship with a strong Texas accent. Yes, he's hard to categorize. I was originally drawn to his work many years ago by the amazing emotional honesty of his songs, in which the lyrics, the sounds, and beats are meshed very tightly, each more fully expressing the other. His guitar playing, both acoustic and electric, is powerful, whether at the lovely or ferocious end of the spectrum. But like most great musicians, he is at his very best playing with others. For this tour, he's playing with a band composed of a young bassist and a drummer from Texas, Escovedo's home state, and an extraordinary electric guitarist from New York, Jason Victor. The jams between Victor and Escovedo escalated to the point just before chaos, and when those boys got to working the whammy bars, coaxing their instruments into prolonged cosmic wailing and moaning, the effect on the audience was one of cathartic release.
Catharsis, shared, is one of the primary social purposes of art, particularly performing art, so in that respect, this concert was an unqualified success. But we weren't merely purified by guitars, we were filled up with Escovedo's sincere flow of love and gratitude and vivid attachment to this crazy life. Of course, he's a showman, and superb one, but nobody can fake openness to an audience sitting so close in such a small venue. To stand up on a small stage and reveal oneself must be considered an heroic act, because it strengthens those around him when the revealer shows us a kind heart and his songs mark paths through dark forests we all traverse alone.
After quite a long set, which included fine older songs like "Castanets," "Sister Lost Soul," and "Down in the Bowery" (I think everybody cried), as well as the new work, Escovedo and the band returned for an encore – an homage to the late Leonard Cohen - with a dirge-like version of Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep." The instruments rang clear, but Escovedo muffled his voice by singing into a microphone close-cupped in both hands. It was eerie, as if he were singing to be heard across that last chasm, into what may or may not be the great void. Altogether, this was a magnificent concert.
Escovedo was preceded by a short set by Durham singer-songwriter Brett Harris. It was just a taste of Harris' music, but it was intriguing. His voice was warm, with a range of interesting textures that make much out of relatively simple lyrics. He started off with some delicate picking-strumming (on a handsome, new-looking Taylor guitar), but built in intensity. Although he lives in Durham, he tours a great deal. Look for his occasional appearances at Motorco or the Pinhook in Durham.