Star-struck in Austin: Meeting my musical hero
Maria’s Taco Express sits on a busy expressway in south Austin, Texas, snuggled in between car yards and furniture stores. Just next door is a muffin van that promises low-fat, no-worry, health-heaven eating. But Maria’s is not just a fabulous place to have tacos, breakfast time, lunchtime or late night-dining time. It’s also a meeting place of musicians and music tragics. They love the tacos, they love the margaritas (rocks, no salt) and they love the music that appears in what in Australia would be a beer garden. Here, I reckon it’s a taco garden.
Maria’s really rocks during those last days of March when Austin hosts the greatest rock idol festival in the world, the South by South West Music Conference. This is four official days during which about 1800 registered artists (and that number again in free, off-the-books gigs) play music, all of the day and all of the night.
I was in Maria’s on Saturday, March 21 this year because my favourite musician anywhere, anytime was there, kicking back with his family, introducing his little brother’s band and then, early in the evening, playing the best rock music you can hear on the planet these days…
Alejandro Escovedo is a singer-songwriter-band leader-guitarist and rock idol. And during that afternoon at Maria’s I met him and have a photo to show for it - with not just him but another member of Austin music royalty, Will Sexton, guitarist and little brother of Charlie who has played with everyone from Jimmy Barnes to Bob Dylan.
I’d seen Alejandro the night before at a little free side festival that goes with SXSW (or “South By” as it’s known by regulars) and is held in a car park next to Jo’s coffee shop and near the San Jose Motel. Alejandro was playing with a 15 piece orchestra, including not just his regular violin and cello players but a horn section and back up singers.
A short note about Alejandro. He started out in punk - his band the Nuns opened for the Sex Pistols at their last ever concert in San Francisco - and then moved in the 1980s to what would soon be known as alt-country with Rank and File and the True Believers.
But his real genius is on display in his nine solo albums, culminating in last year’s Real Animal, the best musical history disc in a generation and probably the album of the decade. In that car park he made heaven land on earth. Singing songs from the new record as well as some of the best covers only a true fan would select and honour - think Mott the Hoople’s The Golden Age of Rock and Roll, Doug Sahm’s Too Little Too Late and the Rolling Stone’s too often forgotten masterpiece, Sway - Alejandro was beyond magic.
It was the first time he’d played with his “orchestra” since 1999 and it was a transcendental performance. When he played his love song Rosalie, built around his own electric guitar and the spell-binding acoustic work from his sidekick David Pulkingham, it was one of those life changing, take-me-now moments. The full power of the orchestra, the strength and beauty of the song and the sheer elegance of Alejandro’s vocal put it not next to but above anything my ears have heard before.
So, in goose bump rich awe, I went to Maria’s and watched Alejandro introduce his little brother, lovingly and with mountains of rock star generosity. Mario played solid, inventive rock (adding a cute yarn about how his brother came and saw him and told him to lose the acoustic guitar and get a Fender) and Alejandro sat at the back taking photos.
The musicians at Maria’s buzzed around, talking to Alejandro and swapping yarns about the music in Austin. I was over on the other side of the Taco garden and saw Alejandro chatting with a group of people. Camera in my hand, I shuffled through the crowd and walked up to a musician I regard as equal with Neil Young and Bob Dylan when it comes to recording modern life. “Hi, my name’s Dennis. I’m from Australia and I’ve loved your music for years,’’ I stammered. “Great you could come,” said Alejandro, as if Brisbane was somewhere near Dallas.
We chatted for a while about the orchestra show from the night before and I asked if it would be okay to have a photo taken. Alejandro asked his personal photographer to take a shot with my camera and just as that was about to happen, my new good mate called over a bearded guy with a guitar.
Alejandro said he was Will Sexton. I didn’t hear anything. I was star struck and when people later asked me who the other guy was, I said I thought it was “Will Lomax”, not even realising I was channelling Arthur Miller.
But I had my photo and then sat back to listen to one of the greatest rock band’s back up the greatest rock signer.
As Molly Meldrum used to say when times were simpler: do yourself a favour and check out his Real Animal CD. It’s as good as it gets. And he’s a friend of mine.
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