It’s almost impossible to nail down what Alejandro Escovedo will do next. From his first appearance on “Austin City Limits” in 1983 as a guitarist with cowpunk band Rank and File, to his next one nearly 20 years later performing a musical-theater folk tale centered on Mexican-American themes, to subsequent solo episodes featuring chamber-rock lineups from his Austin heyday, he’s been a constant chameleon.
The Northwest-centric band he brought with him for the program’s Season 42 finale on Wednesday at ACL Live marked yet another fresh turn. Performing all but one of the 13 songs on Escovedo’s new album “Burn Something Beautiful,” plus three favorites from his back catalog, this all-star crew caromed and careened through 80 minutes of punk-and-glam-fueled rock ‘n’ roll that treated beauty and damage as two sides of the same coin.
Lending star power to the evening was R.E.M.’s co-founding guitarist Peter Buck, who co-produced “Burn Something Beautiful” with longtime R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey. But it was McCaughey, primarily playing bass on this night, who brought along the show’s secret weapon: Lead guitarist Kurt Bloch, McCaughey’s longtime bandmate in Northwest rockers Young Fresh Fellows as well as an original member of the Fastbacks, which Escovedo called “one of my favorite punk rock bands of all time” when he introduced the cast.
Backup singers Kelly Hogan, most often seen with Neko Case and the Decemberists, and Karla Manzur, the lone holdover from Escovedo’s last ACL appearance six years ago, also played significant tone-setting roles, as did drummer John Moen, another Decemberists mainstay. But it was Bloch who consistently delivered exactly what the moment called for, from a mind-bogglingly creative wall-of-sound crush on the appropriately titled “Johnny Volume,” to a melodic but lightning-quick arpeggio on the pop tune “Farewell to the Good Times,” to an opening wail on “Castanets” that breathed fiery new life into the 15-year-old crowd favorite.
Overheard in the lobby after the show was a sentiment that must have been on many attendees’ minds: “I kept waiting for Peter Buck to let loose, but that guy stole the show, whoever he was.”
Other highlights included “Beauty of Your Smile,” a cool Lou Reed-style rocker that found McCaughey and Bloch pogoing in unison at stage right while Hogan and Manzur coolly chanted and handclapped across the way; “Sensitive Boys,” a softer-touch number that Bloch nevertheless spiked appropriately when Escovedo slyly turned his way after singing the lyric “turn your amps up loud”; and “Beauty and the Buzz,” which Escovedo prefaced with a heartfelt remembrance of the late Austinites and Small Faces bandmates Ronnie Lane and Ian McLagan. (The band revisited the song at the end of the night to fix minor feedback that marred the first take.)
After closing the main set with a full slam on the blasting album opener “Horizontal,” again driven to the wall by a glorious Bloch solo, Escovedo offered up a brilliant encore. First came “Thought I’d Let You Know,” a deeply moody number that closes the album on a quiet note but seemed hard to re-create onstage. The answer: McCaughey moved to piano, gradually breaking down beautifully melancholy keyboard runs into avant-jazz shards, all while a chorus of 13 girls and young women sweetly intoned the song’s haunting refrain: “We’re not alone/ We are all alone.” As all the instruments faded away and those voices brought the song to an a cappella close, the entire theater fell silent. “That’s the future of ‘Austin City Limits,’ right there,” Escovedo said proudly as the choir basked in rapturous applause at the end.
One last hurrah came with the obligatory “Always a Friend,” a co-write with Chuck Prophet that has become Escovedo’s signature song. Remembering the night he sang it with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Houston eight years ago, Escovedo noted the fact that Springsteen will be in Austin on Wednesday for a book event at BookPeople. But he dedicated the tune, tellingly, to Wimberley musician Savannah Welch, who lost a leg in an accident a few weeks ago. “I love you so much, I really do,” he said at the end, addressing not only Welch but everyone in his former hometown. “Please remember that, all right?”
1. Heartbeat Smile
2. Sunday Morning Feeling
3. I Don’t Want to Play Guitar Anymore
4. Beauty of Your Smile
6. Suit of Lights
7. Sensitive Boys
8. Farewell to the Good Times
9. Beauty and the Buzz
10. Shave the Cat
11. Johnny Volume
12. Luna de Miel
14. Thought I’d Let You Know
15. Always a Friend
16. Beauty and the Buzz re-take