To say that it’s been a long, strange trip for Alejandro Escovedo would be understating things to a wild degree. After meandering into the first wave of West Coast punk rock as a film student outsider, the Texas native went through a number of mutations, gradually establishing himself as one of the leading lights on the Americana/roots-rock scene.
Escovedo has long known, however, that man cannot live by twang alone — a belief he underscored at this perf by his String Quintet, a cello-led combo that manages to reconcile the finer points of Kurt Weill and Townes Van Zandt without giving off a whit of mad-scientist vibe.
The 90-minute set was dominated by a challenging emotional tone — especially when Escovedo turned to songs from his soon-to-be-released Back Porch album “The Boxing Mirror,” which consists largely of material written in the wake of his near-fatal bout with hepatitis C. Thanks to an uncommonly sharp wit and a refreshing lack of self-pity, Escovedo avoided presenting mere diary entries, instead bringing listeners along on his quest to transform pain into beauty.
Given the lack of rhythm section and emphasis on strings, the set had a surprising amount of punch, particularly on the spellbinding redemption allegory “Arizona.” That song and the new disc’s eerie title track — a prayer of sorts for the souls of long-forgotten pugilists — played to Escovedo’s strengths, namely an emotively parched vocal delivery and stiletto-sharp guitar style.
More than anything else, however, the fiftysomething singer-songwriter held sway by dint of his sheer presence — a wizened, yet not hardened manner straight out of a film noir. The lines on his face, not to mention the veracity of his tales, however, confirm that Escovedo is less an actor than he is a spiritual conduit capable of transfixing and cleansing through his work.