It was conceived as a musical road trip, but it turned out to be a roller coaster ride.
For five nights over the past two weekends, Symphony Center took listeners on a tour through the “United Sounds of America,” each concert exploring the music of a particular American city or region. The last two shows, on Friday and Saturday nights, crystallized the glorious highs and disappointing lows of the journey, which in any event proved well worth taking.
Great musicians aren’t necessarily gifted curators, yet singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo triumphed in both roles on Saturday evening, when he directed the most intelligently conceived program of the series, by far. For in celebrating music of “Austin,” Escovedo didn’t merely convene several of his favorite musicians and let them loose at the microphone (as some of the series’ other guest directors did).
Instead, Escovedo formed an ensemble of players who continuously traded places as soloists and accompanists, the musicians working as solos, duos, trios and other configurations that best suited the music at hand. Thanks to this decidedly democratic approach, the spotlight consistently fell on the song, not the singer.
Better still, Escovedo and friends built a bona fide program – with poetic narration – that traced the evolution of music in Austin for the past century, or so. The text, delivered by various artists, told of the far-flung populations that passed through the city over time, and of the saloons and street corners where their music took shape. Close your eyes, and you almost believed you were right there in the sweltering heat of Texas, voices raised in the night, dobro and country fiddle crying in the background.
From the concert’s opening moments – with the full ensemble singing “Let’s Talk About Jesus” – it was clear that Escovedo’s program was going to tell a story. The Bells of Joy recorded the piece in the early 1950s, and in invoking it, Escovedo pointed to the church roots of music in Austin.
But the program quickly pushed further afield, with the quaint country-dance rhythms of “The Austin Waltz” (sweetly sung by Rosie Flores and Butch Hancock); the haunting balladry of “The Alleys of Austin” (imploringly delivered by Escovedo); even the howls of Roky Erickson’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (snarled by the songwriter himself).
Along the way, Escovedo and the others told tales of Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Janis Joplin, and others who figure richly in Austin’s musical history. Clearly, with this program Escovedo created more than just a one-night concert: He has laid the groundwork for what should could be an ongoing series of shows on Austin’s musical evolution.
If Escovedo’s “Austin” concert soared, Marshall Crenshaw’s “Detroit” show on Friday night very nearly crashed and burned. True, Bettye LaVette’s set – with its super-charged, soul-aria readings of “Like a Rock” and “Let Me Down Easy” – helped redeem an otherwise garishly over-amplified concert. So did violinist Regina Carter and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, accomplished jazz improvisers who were badly marginalized in a concert that devoted too much time to the punk-rock posturing of Crenshaw and Wayne Kramer (famously of the MC5).
The musical limitations of this work became particularly apparent when keyboardist Amp Fiddler attempted to accompany the jazz musicians but barely moved the keys. Why didn’t Crenshaw engage a real jazz pianist?
The great city of Detroit deserved better.
By Howard Reich – Arts Critic, Chicago Tribune