Although they did indeed spin some good yarns between songs, the “storyteller” format promised for Saturday night’s Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo duo performance at the Dakota was actually fulfilled more in the songs themselves.
The pair of Texas-giant songwriting vets – joined by violinist Susan Voelz (Poi Dog Pondering, John Mellencamp) – focused on some of their more narrative compositions in their 100-minute joint set, often tying their selected tunes into the other one’s material thematically. When the Panhandle-reared Ely played his Dust Bowl-inspired transient homage “Homeland Refugee,” for instance, Escovedo followed it with “Wave,” a song about his late father crossing the border from Mexico to Texas at age 12. And when Escovedo played his oceans-apart love-letters song “Rosalie,” Ely responded with “Where Is My Love?,” a back-and-forth romantic duet he recorded with Linda Rondstadt.
Each delivered a song that referenced oil pumpjacks (Ely’s “Cold Black Hammer,” Escovedo’s “Swallows of San Juan”). Each touched on rain and drought, a big topic of late in Texas (“San Antonio Rain” by Escovedo, “Highway Is My Home” by Ely). And each eventually paid tribute to the Texas songwriters who inspired them. Ely delivered a soul-raising version of Billie Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” to end the show pre-encore. Earlier, Escovedo mentioned a pair of Austin’s many unsung, troubled bards, Jubal Clark and Rich Minus, to introduce “Bottom of the World” -- adding less-than-flattering comments about how even most locals wouldn’t recognize those names nowadays in the city that still champions itself as the Live Music Capitol of the World.
“The government used music to bring people and money to town, and then they tore down all the clubs and made it too expensive for musicians to live there,” said Escovedo, who moved to Austin in 1980 (“The night Reagan was elected,” he remembered, to hisses).
For longtime fans, the dueling performance was a nice change of pace. Both singers passed on playing many of their most standard tunes to fit the formula. Voelz helped tie them together musically and added elegant dramatic flair to the deepest of the tunes, especially those by Escovedo. He played “Five Hearts Breaking” right near the start as if to let folks know this wasn’t going to be a yuck-yuck, lighthearted kind of songwriter pairing. More musical interaction between the two stars would have been nice – they mostly just sat and watched the other sing -- but otherwise no complaints. Here's the set list:
San Antonio Rain (Escovedo) / All Just to Get to You (Ely) / Five Hearts Breaking (Escovedo) / Cold Black Hammer (Ely) / Homeland Refugee (Ely) / Wave (Escovedo) / Ranches and Rivers (Ely) / Rosalie (Escovedo) / Where Is My Love? (Ely) / Bottom of the World (Escovedo) / The Highway Is My Home (Ely) / Sabor a Mí (Escovedo) / Live Forever (Ely; a Billy Joe Shaver song) ENCORE: Blowin’ Down That Old Dusty Road (both; by Woody Guthrie)