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Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, November 12, 2004, Music

Por Vida All-Star Tribute Concert

Paramount Theatre, Nov. 4

Wrapping at the four-hour mark, half-past midnight on a half (marquee) moon Thursday, the all-star Alejandro Escovedo tribute concert played out, more of less, just as its primary organizer Heinz Geissler had hoped. "Like The Last Waltz," Escovedo's manager said last month at the Austin icon's triumphant return to local stages after a two-year layoff due to hepatitis C. "Not literally, of course," Geissler quickly corrected himself. Of course not – perish the thought – but the Band's last hurrah at the Fillmore in 1976 proved an apt analogy nonetheless. True, the Por Vida guest celebrants weren't quite as Mount Rushmore as the Band's (Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Van Morrison), but then those fellows probably never experienced Escovedo's marching guitar army, the True Believers. Or Rank & File, the Nuns, and most importantly, Escovedo's solo act of musical self-immolation. If they had, said stone faces might have moved mountains like Velvet Underground founder John Cale opening this night with a trio of commandments that made Nick Cave sound like Alvin Chipmunk. Opener "Look Horizon" sounded Carnegie Hall, regal, Cale's clanging piano pushing his bottomless voice. He and his backing trio's take on Escovedo's heavy "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" chased it, prior to the first set's blinding highlight. "We've got four more years," announced Cale, "and this song's good advice." With that, he summoned "Fear" ("a man's best friend") as if Tuesday's electoral tragedy was 9/11 all over again. Electrifying. The evening's emcee, Bob Neuwirth, who later provided the second best moment of the evening – an exploratory reading of Escovedo's lovely "Rosalie" – varnished the scattered audience's smiles afterward with droll, set-changing banter. The String Quartet backed the glowing guest of honor on a song, one of only three numbers Escovedo performed on all night, then strung up his "Crooked Frame" with wily instrumentalism. Ruben Ramos, backed by the show's music director/glue, Charlie Sexton, gave the same tremulous interpretation of "13 Years" as that on the Por Vida disc, followed by a pair of Latin ballads with his own band that brought the rooster cries from the Paramount's rafters. Los Lonely Boys' slow, thick chug through Escovedo's "Castanets" shook out better than on disc, Henry Garza's midsong atmospherics all too brief, while their own "Heaven" had the audience down front on their feet. Calexico's Por Vida tune, "Wave," plus their Sergio Leone-like "Crystal Frontier," blinked off the intermission, after which proceedings moved swifter with acts on for two songs then gone. Like Sexton, Davíd Garza's musical support throughout the evening, on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, was subtle but invaluable. Nick Tremulis' buoyant Calypso through Escovedo's KGSR smash "Velvet Guitar" gave way to Butch Hancock ("Everybody Loves Me"), Jon Dee Graham ("Helpless"), and Tres Chicas ("By Eleven," "Rhapsody"), all of whom provided strong, and in the case of the Flatlander (Townes Van Zandt's "No Place to Fall"), inspired lead-in to rock & roll scholar, author, and Patti Smith axe-grinder Lenny Kaye, whose street hustle on Escovedo's "Sacramento & Polk" ripped into "Sister Ray" territory. A song he wrote on the plane ride down, "Stuff You Leave Behind," romped like a Woodstock era campfire classic. That left Escovedo's niece, Sheila E. (her father Pete Escovedo was a no-show), and her Keith Moon finale on "Ballad of the Sun and Moon," graced by her "favorite uncle." Said patriarch demonstrated that favor by polishing off the evening with a six-guitar plow (Sexton, Graham, Tremulis, Garza, Kaye) through his own Por Vida capper, "Break This Time." By that point, the only thing broken about this marathon tribute was the spell of Alejandro Escovedo's compositional life force at curtain's close.

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