Alejandro Escovedo and Church on Monday make magic at ACL Live

Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra with Church on Monday at ACL Live. / Photo by Peter Blackstock
Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra with Church on Monday at ACL Live. / Photo by Peter Blackstock

It was in the middle of Alejandro Escovedo’s second set Saturday at ACL Live that the hammer dropped. Segueing out of “Bury Me,” a well-chosen dramatic number from his first record, Escovedo began breathing into the microphone in a manner that simulated heavy gusts of wind. His bandmates answered with swirling swells of noise on strings, horns, keys and drums, their glorious cacophony made visual by crackles of lightning that flashed down from the theater’s overhead spots and strobes.

Escovedo had promised that his third annual concert at downtown’s showcase live music venue would address the harrowing hurricane experience he and his wife endured last September on their honeymoon in Mexico. Caught in the middle of Odile, a category 4 storm, they made it through a long night and spent several more days in and around the coastal town of El Pescadero before finally flying home to Austin.

Escovedo’s distillation of the event into a seven-minute musical maelstrom was the high point of a concert that found Austin’s most adventurous bandleader boldly reaching toward new visions for both the future and the past of his artistry. The hurricane piece may well be a work-in-progress — Escovedo has talked about making a full album or perhaps theater work about it — but he also found ways to make older material sound new again in this ambitious and memorable evening.

Much of that was thanks to Church on Monday, one of the most accomplished jazz ensembles Austin has ever had. Saxophonis Elias Haslanger, guitarist Jake Langley, organist James Polk, bassist Daniel Durham and drummer Scott Laningham infused tunues such as “Wave,” “Mountain of Mud” and “Sometimes” with new rhythms and fresh dynamics, even as they took care not to rechannel the heart of Escovedo’s works.

Best of all was the way they interacted with Escovedo’s expanded cast at stage right. His longtime violinist Susan Voelz and cellist Brian Standefer teamed with singers Karla Manzur, Emily Hello, Betty Soo and Grace Park — all four sporting platinum-blonde wigs that visualized their unified presence — on mesmerizing melodic flights that intertwined with the textures Church on Monday provided at stage left.

Often, Escovedo’s “Orchestra” (as they were dubbed for the evening, harkening back to his early solo career) and Haslanger’s Church on Monday artfully handed the reins back and forth, with magic blooming in the transitions on standouts such as “The Way It Goes,” perhaps the most successful reinvention of the night. At times, most prominently on “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” near the end of the first set, the connection between Voelz and Haslanger was transcendent, as violin and saxophone combined to create washes of sound that almost rendered the instruments indistinguishable from one another amid the harmonic beauty.

The risk of such progressive endeavors is that not everything will work. A sturdier rhythm to “Sister Lost Soul” couldn’t quite match the graceful fluidity of the original version, and Escovedo’s attempts to engage the audience in an extended “Can’t Make Me Run” didn’t quite jell partly because the music wasn’t anthemic enough for call-and-response. Still, the rare misses were well worth it for revelations such as the meditative Sterling Morrison tribute “Tugboat,” which floated on the currents of string sweetness and Haslanger’s eloquent saxophone solo into a mythic river of dreams.

Author: Peter Blackstock

Music writer for the Austin American-Statesman and austin360.com. Twitter: @Blackstock360

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