Midway through introducing the dozen-plus musicians onstage with him near the end of the first set Saturday at ACL Live, Alejandro Escovedo asked the crowd to forgive him if he was stumbling through it a little bit. “I just had a birthday and I’m really old,” said the well-traveled singer-songwriter and bandleader, who turned 67 on Wednesday.
Age is a relative term, and Escovedo seems in some respects younger than he was many years ago. Now free of hepatitis C after two decades with the disease thanks to a recently developed treatment, the longtime Austinite who moved to Dallas two years ago is expressing his gratitude for his health partly by calling attention to those who have not been so fortunate. On Saturday, he turned his annual ACL Live big-band concert into both a memorial for fallen friends and an awareness-raising moment for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
“Think About the Link” is the name of Escovedo’s upcoming tour, for which Saturday’s show was the kickoff. Designed to help those with certain viruses (including hepatitis C) understand the link between those conditions and cancer risk, it’s a cause dear to Escovedo largely because of friends he has lost, including his former guitarist Joe Eddy Hines, who died last year.
Between sets, a public service announcement featuring Escovedo aired on the venue’s video screen, and when he returned from the set break, Escovedo talked more about the foundation’s efforts with KUTX DJ Jody Denberg, the night’s emcee. With slides occasionally projected on the screen of Hines and others lost to cancer (including Austin music community fixtures Jimmy LaFave, George Reiff and Margaret Moser), the message was never far from anyone’s mind.
But the music was its own unique journey, as is always the case with these special shows Escovedo puts together at the city’s showcase downtown venue. The first set featured musical director Chris Stamey leading the way through an in-sequence performance of “A Man Under the Influence,” the 2001 record Stamey produced for Escovedo. It’s among the finest of the dozen or so albums Escovedo has made in his quarter-century solo career, and it was well-suited to such a formal presentation.
At stage left, the three-piece string section of violinist Warren Hood, violist Ames Asbell and cellist Brian Standefer continuously brought out the melodic beauty of songs such as “Across the River” and “Follow You Down,” with Stamey on keyboards beside them. Across the stage, guitarists Mitch Easter and Eric Heywood, the latter largely on pedal steel, provided muscle and brilliant solos to some of the album’s more rocking numbers, including “Velvet Guitar” and the longtime crowd favorite “Castanets,” which featured local musician and dancer Patricia Vonne adding exotic theatrical flair to the music.
In the back, drummer Hector Munoz anchored a rhythm crew that included bassist Mike Luzecky and percussionist Tristan Boyd. Horn players John Mills and Dave Young added brass embellishments to many songs, with members of the local Panoramic Voices choir joining in on the album-closing “About this Love.” Throughout, backing singers Karla Manzur and Gina Holton provided support up front, each stepping out for a featured vocal on “Wedding Day” and “Follow You Down,” respectively.
Compared to the tightly woven suite of that 11-song sequence, the second set was a bit of a mish-mash, though with some high points. Actor Robert Patrick and his brother Richard Patrick (of the band Filter) played two songs before the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and New York mainstay Jesse Malin followed with a couple of numbers each. Part of the focus in this second set was covers of tunes by musicians who have died of cancer, and so we got Finn’s tender take on the Warren Zevon gem “Mohammed’s Radio” plus Malin’s roof-raising romp through the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?”
Escovedo returned to lead the cast through five more songs. His own “Tugboat,” written for and dedicated to the Velvet Underground’s Sterling Morrison, and a run at David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” led up to Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” a perfect everyone-sing-along closer. The encore of Lou Reed’s “Rock ’n’ Roll,” though well-suited to passing back-and-forth between Escovedo, Malin and Finn, ultimately felt superfluous. A more lasting final moment was the sight of Escovedo at center stage amidst the massive cast, embracing Hines’ three daughters as a photo of their father loomed large on the screen behind them.