By Don McLeese
Special to the Austin American-Statesman
Wherever he was, Leonard Cohen’s ears must have been burning with pleasure Saturday night as Alejandro Escovedo and a stellar, varied supporting cast paid tribute to his influence, and to the spirit of romantic poetry in music, at ACL Live.
The Canadian bard surely would have loved the young girls’ choir, serenading sweetly, “Lover, lover, lover, come back to me,” as saxophonist Elias Haslanger channeled some Sonny Rollins calypso. Cohen might have scratched his head at some of the selection, which favored the obscure over the familiar. And his ears might have been ringing as well, when the relentless guitars of Mitch Watkins (one of many Austin musicians who have toured with Cohen) and Escovedo turned “Avalanche” into a raucous rocker.
Opening with the martial subversion of “Democracy,” Escovedo’s fourth annual birthday concert at the Moody (he turned 65 on Sunday) was best approached with an open mind and no expectations. Anyone hoping to hear his interpretive twists on Cohen staples such as “Suzanne,” “Tower of Song” or “Dance Me to the End of Love” might have been disappointed. Instead, the program titled “A Thousand Kisses Deep: The Leonard Cohen Influence” dug deep into the songbooks of both Cohen and Escovedo, illuminating the material of each through juxtaposition with the other.
Perhaps the most effective segue came when Escovedo followed former Cohen vocalist Julie Christensen’s rendition of “Anthem” (“there is a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in”) with his own “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” sounding like saloon-song Sinatra at his darkest.
Actor Robert Patrick and Christensen turned “Joan of Arc” into a dramatic duet, and he later performed a monologue in which Cohen’s (too) oft-recorded “Hallelujah” briefly offered almost subliminal instrumental backing. With the superb musicianship. lighting, sound and staging providing a safety net, it was an evening that took risks and challenged listeners to make connections, in an experience that won’t likely be repeated.
“What’s happening here in this room tonight is what I love about Austin, Texas,” said a beaming Escovedo. It is also what Austin loves about Alejandro.
Former American-Statesman critic and columnist Don McLeese has been writing about Alejandro Escovedo and Austin music since 1990. He now teaches journalism at the University of Iowa.