Guys with guitars. Guys on stools. It either works or it doesn’t, depending on a simple but volatile combination of words, melody, and personal charisma. Tonight, two songwriters try their hands at the classic formula, ex-Miracle Legion frontman Mark Mulcahy straight up, and Alejandro Escovedo garnished with a lush palette of stringed instruments. Escovedo is the clear winner, but not, as you’d expect, because of his very talented band. Visibly frailer and thinner than last time I saw him, he still projects a force of personality, a warmth, a generous sense of humor…it’s the man, not the guitar, that tips the balance.
Mulcahy starts a modest and subdued set, plying his soft falsetto around “I Just Shot Myself in the Foot Again,” a song from his second solo album. It’s a funny title, but not an especially funny song—confessional, personal and nearly unadorned by metaphor. Then, perhaps sensing that the audience is mostly engaged in drinking and talking to one another, Mulcahy tries a bit of banter, introducing his next song with a story about Sung Yung Moon (the song itself is all about waiting for some sort of October apocalypse).
Mulcahy is occasionally affecting, with the high register pathos of “A World Away from This One” from the current album and the major-to-minor chord mood changes of “Don’t Talk Crazy,” but his war-returnee anthem feels oozily sentimental, and his lyrics rely heavily on easy one-syllable rhymes. But, if you listen to tone alone, you might be able to fool yourself into thinking that he sounds like the Mountain Goats without the intellectual heft or venom.
Mulcahy knows he’s not getting across, and, as he introduces his last (and best) song, “Billy Packo,” he says it’s about a gun, a .32: “Is there such a thing as a .32?” he asks peering out at the audience. It’s awfully quiet. “Not gun people?” he says finally. “That’s good. I’m the opening act.”
With this he launches into the weirdest, wildest, and hands-down most compelling part of his set. Slapping and slashing away at his acoustic, rocking back and forth on his stool, Mulcahy finally manages to get some dynamic variation into his songs. The song is a “Minnie the Moocher”-style rollick about love, crime, and despair with the blues-hard refrain, “Why do I have to stay here?/ Why does she have to go?,” and with the last chord Mulcahy himself leaves. It’s good enough that you can see why he saved it for last, but you still have to wonder, if he can do this, what’s he doing touting all those soft-boiled love-gone-wrong songs?
It’s only about 7:30 when Mulcahy heads offstage, and there’s not much inter-set lag. I’m not quite sure what the “string quartet” part of “Alejandro Escovedo String Quartet” means at the outset, but it becomes clear early on that this is fairly literal description. Escovedo is flanked by two cellists (Matt Fish and Brian Standefer), David Polkingham on plugged-in acoustic guitar, and Susan Voelz (Poi Dog Pondering) on violin. There is no bass and no drums, and everyone sits for the performance. Escovedo, now a couple of year’s past a collapse from Hepatitis C that nearly killed him, looks slighter and more frail than when I saw him play in the late ‘90s.
The band starts its set with a pure, lavish surge of strings, long, drawn-out bowings falling from the cellos and violin as Polkingham picks out a delicate baroque counterpoint. Escovedo sits out this introduction, soaking in the sound and stretching out his plucking fingers. Then, suddenly, everyone shifts to sharp, staccato plucking, and the man in the middle swings the mic around. Escovedo’s voice is a wonderful, supple element, mid-range in timbre, clear and strong, able to carry a great deal of feeling without resorting to tricks like grunts, sighs, or rasps. “Baby’s got new plans…,” he begins, and the audience, already hushed, sinks into the melody. The song starts slow—this is a night for rueful ballads and ruminative love songs—but picks up a bit of a swagger by the chorus. David Polkingham, unfortunately the only member of the band to be entirely invisible from where I sit (behind a post), gets a chance to stretch out mid-cut, and takes it in a searing blues-flavored solo.
Escovedo has some local ties: at one point, he explains that he and his wife had thought of moving to Northampton. “We still might,” he says, cracking that dazzling grin. “But I just bought a surf board, and I don’t know how that’s going to work out.” He dedicates “Five Hearts Breaking” to Ray Mason, a stalwart of the musical scene. He talks about how the song was written for Billy Sweet of Prince Albert and the Sheiks, a man who traveled with a mattress on the car roof when he toured and would simply throw it down under a tree when he wanted to sleep. The song, from Escovedo’s first album, Gravity, rocks pretty hard despite the fact that the chamber orchestration is obviously a guitar riff translated into slash-stop cello bowing.
Boxing Mirror, Escovedo’s last album, was produced by John Cale, and he segues into the cut from it by explaining that he’d always been a fan of the Velvet Underground alum, and that he had been particularly inspired by Cale’s use of strings on solo records like 1919. Tonight, surrounded by strings, he embarks on the darkest, most desolate song from The Boxing Mirror, lead-off cut “Arizona.” The translation from rock ballad to chamber ballad works pretty well, though it’s curious that Escovedo elected to travel without a bass player. No matter. The two cellos switch off, one pursuing a higher melodic line while the other cranks out the time-keeping quarter notes. Like many bass-less outfits, Escovedo’s band manages to conjure low-end when it needs to.
“Arizona” is all ache and longing. “Everybody Loves Me” from Bourbonitis, which follows, is dirtier, more blues-inflected, everyone putting a little more grit in their playing, making the violin wilder, the cello more abrasive. The song seems to stop three or four times, then, with a nod from Escovedo, picks up again. By the end, he is clearly playing with us; the clapping starts tentatively, and he signals his band to jump into another vamp. They’re having too much fun to stop.
At this point, Escovedo introduces the band, remembering being told about Polkingham, “this bad-assed white boy who plays like a Chicano,” before launching into two lovely, traditionally flavored songs from By the Hand of the Father. Polkingham does, indeed, play with an aching grace, not a bit of overstudied-ness or awkwardness betraying the fact that he did not grow up in Mexico.
Another cut from The Boxing Mirror (“Evita’s Lullaby”), another from Bourbonitis (“I Was Drunk”), and Escovedo has clearly begun to enjoy himself. He grins as he announces that he’s going to play Carnegie Hall soon, saying, “I’ve been walking around town telling everyone I meet that I’m going to play Carnegie Hall…they must think I’m a crazy man.” And, since Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter was to join him at that show, he sings two covers next, “I Wish I Was Your Mother” and “Irene Wilde”.
The main set closes to a mostly standing ovation, and, after only the briefest of breaks, the whole band comes back on. There’s a new song, so new it hasn’t been named yet, which Escovedo is writing with Chuck Prophet (his band is going to start recording again in February 2007), and a stirring rendition of “Notes on Air” (again from The Boxing Mirror). Here, on one of my favorite songs from the new album, I feel, for the first time, a pang of regret. The song has a wonderful pounding drum line between its verse fragments, a palpable source of excitement. The band does its best with hard, rhythmic bowing, and Susan Voelz’s wild, uncontainable violin almost fills the gap…but if there had been stars out that night, I would have wished for drums.
Still, for a concert where everyone was sitting the whole time, where strings replaced drums and bass, and plugged-in acoustic carried the weight of rock guitars, it was pretty exciting. Not every songwriter could pull off a “string quartet” version of their songs, but Escovedo is special… of course, if you’ve heard any of his music, you probably already knew that.