The Federal Underground is one of those unique intimate venues that, when you see a show there, you feel a little a part of a secret tribe. It has an old-school underground industrial feel with Edison lamps at the end of steel girders as chandeliers, and an exposed staircase with metal grilles below the banisters. There’s a SHINING-style blood-red hallway backstage that leads to a speakeasy deep in the basement. The band green room, poorly hidden from the audience, is INSIDE a vault with a 10-foot diameter door that must weight several tons. It’s in this environment that hundred fifty or so indie fans and South Bay and OC punks gathered for Alejandro Escovedo and Jesse Malin’s Long Beach leg of their ongoing tour.
My wife always says about art and artists, “They are not ‘like’ anything; they are themselves!” I continue to disagree. Escovedo is like a Latin Nick Cave and he hates comparisons with Tom Petty. What if I like both (and I do)? His lyrics are piercing and incisive, his styles span genres from roots to country to punk to rockabilly, and like Nick Cave, he’s a tortured soul who wants to share his pain. But as far out on the edge he goes, there’s an accessibility to his performance and music that’s…well, like Tom Petty. So there.
Jesse Malin’s an iconoclastic performer who’s played solo, with punk and rock bands, and just about everybody else. He’s famous for performing tribute shows featuring Lou Reed and most recently, The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup. Here, he stuck to his own compositions with a keyboard accompanist. Tunes included “All the Way from Moscow,” and the punky “Black Haired Girl.”
The audience is as much a part of these shows as these performers. There’s a communion between them that drives the show. Malin in particular, whose confessional patter between tunes drives the likewise confessional nature of his performance. At one point he told a long story about how his mom essentially caught him playing guitar at some VERY early age (he fronted a hardcore band at age 12 that couldn’t get one booking because he couldn’t recruit a drinking audience).
Escovedo’s set interspersed classics from his repertoire but featured numerous cuts from his first new album in four years, Burn Something Beautiful. He was joined for the set by Aaron McClendon on bass; Sean Peters Austin drums and Jason Victor on guitar.
His second tune “Horizontal” had hints of Tom Petty in it (!), singing “I wanna go where you go and that’s all right.” He went on to the urgent and energetic “Sunday Morning Feeling” then offered up two audience favorites; the first, “Castanets,” featuring a 50’s roots rock guitar and punkabilly beat with the clap/sing along refrain, “I like her better when she walks away.”
He introduced “Sally Was a Cop,” saying “This song goes out to Donald Trump.” This was a long, loping arrangement with a martial, almost Irish beat underneath the screaming guitar work. It features his favorite vocal toy, a big metal police dispatcher’s microphone. There’s a terrific audience video of the whole nine-minute song here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LVH1dYAziw. He then brought things downtempo with “Suit of Lights.
Though Escovedo has one song called “I Don’t Want to Play Guitar Anymore,” his performance certainly belied that sentiment, because his axe, emblazoned with a picture of Joe Strummer, was put through its paces on rhythm and lead, on power chords and piercing melodies. At one point in “Johnny Volume,” he leads a chugging messy psychedelic guitar program. He swished his hands across the strings and dissolved it into fuzz–a ten minute jam with numerous crescendos, even windmilling at times.
“Burnt a hole in my jeans/I want to be your man/I want to be everything I promised you.” Across his set, Escovedo’s deeply cynical but hopeful lyrics paint a picture of a self acknowledging, flawed man who yearns for acceptance and redemption. He combines David Lynch’s dark vision invoking the memory of his late brother and the hope of true believers on “Sensitive Boys.”
He performed his first encore, “Chinese Rocks,” with Jesse Malin back on stage and rather than describe it, I’ll simply point you to the second remarkable bootleg video of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiFPTLOH3Hs. He wrapped up the set with Leonard Cohen cover “Boogie Street,” lending his guitar to Malin’s accompanist and brought the audience down a funky boulevard of broken dreams and a thousand kisses.
Photos by Paul Neuman here: