Alejandro Escovedo wasn't actually onstage when the key line from his concert-presentation of "The Crossing" emerged: "The border crossed me, I didn't cross it!" Voiced from a pre-recorded track for dramatic effect as the Italian band Don Antonio played behind it, that line from the song "Rio Navidad" sums up the substance and emotion that Escovedo and bandleader Antonio Gramentieri expressed on "The Crossing," one of last year's most fascinating albums.
At the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, Escovedo and Don Antonio played the full album live, in sequence, with a handful of guest musicians who also appear on the record. Since 2013, Escovedo has played a big show around the time of his Jan. 10 birthday every year, with themes ranging from career-overview to the history of Austin music to his experience in a Baja California hurricane. Previous shows had been at ACL Live; the move to the Paramount this year seemed a better fit for the concert's draw.
It took a little while for the drama and scope of "The Crossing" to fully set in on Saturday. Escovedo helped flesh out the album's story of two immigrants from Mexico and Italy through short narratives between songs, along the way introducing guest guitarists James Williamson (of the Stooges), John Perry (of the Only Ones) and Austin's Johnny Moeller (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) for spotlights on several songs.
As always with Escovedo's music, the sounds walked a tightrope between exquisite orchestral beauty and glorious punk-rock noise. Don Antonio, whose ace multicultural musicianship suggests they're something like the Los Lobos of Italy, were perfect for striking that balance. They stood out with particular grace on "Cherry Blossom Rain," which found the band's dual saxophonists, Francesco Valtieri and Gianni Perinelli, weaving a mystical melodic spell with the concert's two string players.
Things really kicked into high gear on the next number, "Sonica U.S.A.," thanks to MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who turned 70 last year but still commands attention with the kinetic energy of a performer less than half that age. Shortly therafter, the show hit its peak with the great Austin troubadour Joe Ely, who emerged for a duet performance with Escovedo on Ely's "Silver City," the lone cover song on "The Crossing."
The two native Texans created magic as they traded verses, and Escovedo's reverence for Ely's influence on his own music was clear. Later, when Ely returned after intermission to perform the Flatlanders' pointed "no need for a wall" song "Borderless Love" solo acoustic, Escovedo found the right words: "That's the Austin, Texas, I love so much, right there."
Ely's song wasn't the first direct hit on the present presidential immigration agenda these artists clearly oppose. Near the end of the first set, Escovedo kicked into full-band rage with "Fury and Fire," a two-minute salvo that directly followed and audio clips and projected images of Donald Trump. Guitars crashed and wailed as Escovedo pushed back with full force: "Call us rapists, go and build a bigger wall/ We’re gonna tear it down, we’re gonna tear it down."
Behind them as Escovedo and Don Antonio delivered "Fury and Fire" onstage, one of the projected images connected the dots to the Italian band's own anti-immigrant national history: a picture of Mussolini in full military dress. In the album's gorgeous yet bittersweet title track, which closed the main set, Escovedo reminded that we're writing all these stories again in the here and now: "We all become history when we make the crossing."