TVD Live: Joe Ely & Alejandro Escovedo at City Winery, 8/21

Song swapping may be the best way for a couple of esteemed singer/ songwriters to tour. Rather than one opening for the other, sitting on stage together and taking turns playing songs allows the evening to unfold in unexpected ways. One performer is inspired by a line in the other’s song and brings out one with a similar theme; the other, inspired by some intricate finger picking he’s witnessing, tries his own.

That’s how it went for a show by Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo Tuesday at the tony new City Winery outlet in the Ivy City district of Washington, DC. Accomplished writers and performers each with deep roots in not only the Austin scene, but connections with punk’s beginnings, the two took advantage of decades of songs and experience to trade off all night. Each had the best seat in the house for the other’s performance and sat rapt and respectful to listen.

Oddly, there were only the slightest collaborations emerging. Ely provided a solo for Escovedo’s “Broken Bottle”; they combined on a version of Ely’s “Silver City” that Escovedo recorded for his upcoming album The Crossing, due out September 14, and combined forces once more for a version of Woody Guthrie’s “Goin’ Down That Dusty Road” (a song also known as “Lonesome Road Blues” that is often cited as “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” though it never includes those precise words).

More often they were students and deep listeners of the other’s music and, in the case of the DC, show, their respective family histories. Escovedo, 67, began with a song about his family’s travels to California from Texas and Mexico. Ely, 71, followed with his own song of other weary travels between the Golden and Lone Star State, “Homeland Refugee,” a Dust Bowl rumination with the striking line “We’re all just migrants on this earth / Returning to the dust where we came.”

Escovedo, struck by the universality of that line, returned with his own “Wave,” about his grandfather’s youthful trip across the border by train, filled with its own disillusion. (“The sun shines brighter there / And everyone’s got golden hair” it begins, only to realize “The sun is not brighter here / It only shines on golden hair”).

Each had a couple of staples they included. For Ely, it was the indelible Flatlanders tune “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” and “All Just to Get to You.” For Escovedo, “Wasn’t I Always a Friend to You” in the encore and the lovely “Rosalie.”

Ely noted that it would have been Joe Strummer’s 66th birthday and recounted some of the times he had with The Clash, meeting them in London, showing them around Texas (where they wanted to see every town mentioned in Marty Robbins’ songs, from Laredo to El Paso). He also told of the New York recording session where Ely was enlisted to shout the Spanish translation of “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” (“Worst translation ever,” Ely recalled).

Besides Ely being from Lubbock, The Clash had another connection to the hometown of Buddy Holly: It was where Sonny Curtis, who was one of the Crickets, wrote the song the English band famously covered, “I Fought the Law.” Ely tried the song, first made into a hit by the Bobby Fuller Four, but abandoned it after the first verse for another rockin’ song he sang in those days, “I Had My Hopes Up High,” which is also on his new The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle album, released just last week.

For his part, Escovedo recalled his own part in early punk, going back to his days in the Nuns, the San Francisco band that opened the final Sex Pistols performance at Winterland. When someone clapped at mention of the band, he said, “If you’re clapping for the Nuns, you never heard the Nuns,” a band whose legacy he clearly disavows. Nonetheless he set the scene of those days in his “The Beauty of Your Smile. As for translation attempts, Escovedo had it down, with his cover of “Sabor a Mi,” a 1958 bolero by Mexican singer Álvaro Carillo, sung entirely in Spanish.

It was the kind of night that could have gone on and on; an insight into what a late night motel room might be between two accomplished singers with a shared history and knowing hundreds of songs. But it did not go on long. After a succinct 90 minutes the two stood, waved, and left the stage.

San Antonio Rain
Homeland Refugee
Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown
By Eleven
All Just to Get to You
Broken Bottle
Bamboo Shade
I Had My Hopes Up High
The Beauty of Your Smile
Silver City
Sabor a Mi
Going’ Down that Dusty Road

Wasn’t I Always a Friend to You
Cool Rockin’ Loretta


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