The local freekly had an interview with Escort in their last week’s issue and in it I was shocked to see that the band opened for CeeLo Green at the Orange Peel last year! Now, I carefully scan the Orange Peel calendar. I remember seeing the CeeLo Green show and maybe at the time the support had not been announced. I am hoping that was the case at any rate! I never gloss over the support acts. In fact, I usually pay undue attention to them, since I have bought tickets for opening acts more than once! So Escort had already followed up on their triumphant appearance in 2014. It’s just that I was not aware. Ouch. Well, hopefully this show would make up for it.
I left work at five last Friday, having already changed to my civvies for the LEAF Downtown; a two day free festival held in the city’s Pack Square Park. Thousands of people jammed the place shoulder to shoulder for the first years’ show with Bootsy Collins. I wanted to get there as far ahead of the 6:45-7:55 show slot as possible, but I work 25 miles from Downtown. A lane closure had compromised the interstate, so I had to take the “back way” to Asheville. I basically drove to my home and then went to downtown Asheville. I snagged a parking space about a half mile away from the festivities, and hoofed it there.
I arrived about 6:10 and was carrying a rain jacket, since showers and thunderstorms were predicted by NOAA. Good thing too, since as I watched Escort and the crew set up for their show, the weather was getting more and more foreboding. The tech crew called the three minute warning and then the slight drizzle turned into a downpour. With rain at this level, the outdoor bandshell would be compromised. I didn’t want to ever see anyone electrocuted; especially a member of a band I love this much! So the tarps went up at 6:45 and we waited.
Escort were also different. The band were slimmed down to a svelte four piece hyperminimal configuration. I get it. This was a mid-summer festival gig one-off and Escort were a seven piece when I saw them for the Moogfest show. That was down from their 17-piece crowning glory, that I’m guessing only gets trotted out for local gigs when the stars are in alignment. I’m sure LEAF had to stretch their dollars and somewhere along the line, four members were what the budget allowed. So this time out, co-founder Dan Balis was MIA. Second guitarist Mark Tewarson was here tonight, and crucially, he doubled on bongo percussion. Every member except the Ben Herson on drums was pulling double duty to get the songs across. Vocalist Adeline Michéle was already established as one of the few vocalists/bassist outside of the prog arena [that sounds kind of redundant] and this left Mr. Cho on synths and yet more timbale and cowbell percussion.
They were leaning heavily on Ableton Live [or a reasonable equivalent] for this show. The sequenced synths and backing vocals would be from computer this time. They were probably doubling the synths from a DAW the last time, too. The two things I found myself missing, were the presence of a conga playing percussionist. That had really made their sound pop the last time, and more importantly, the duo of backing vocalists. The demure figures and shapes they threw the last time really made the vibe approach the cherished Ze/Kid Creole ideal. They also served to contrast with and amlify the tough elegance of Ms. Michéle. Tonight would be more focused on dancing. Primarily since there was room for it! I had gotten the new album last week and was primed to hear the latest from Escort.
They took to the stage with “A Bright New Life” from their debut but they gave the bulk of their set to the newer material. While their debut album was a careful revitalization of classic disco sound, the new one also featured a half-step back to the house music that founders Balis and Cho were making before hooking up at Vassar to form Escort. “Body Talk” showed the full flower of this approach with a dazzling, diamond-cut precision that disco alone, back in its heyday, could only hope to achieve.
“If You Say So” offered yet another hybrid with insouciant early 80s pop/R+B cross-pollinated with what I can only call yacht rock. It’s the furthest point from their orthodox disco origins that the band have strayed, and it succeeds better than it had any right to, but I would not look forward to a day to a whole of an Escort album crafted of such stuff. Speaking of orthodox disco, it can’t be bettered by any song other that their calling card, “Starlight” from their debut. It embodies the apex of 1978-1979 disco tropes more than anything else that I could name. The synth-squiggle hook from Mr. Cho can’t be bettered.
Sister Disco has a Brother Funk, and a song I was positively waiting for this time was the pre-release single “Barbarians;” a highlight of the last show I had seen, back when it was the new song. The chanted hooks were powerful with this one and I was waiting to add to the chorus when they played it. Mr. Herson’s mighty beats on this one were the stuff of legend.
One of the delights of the new album I was looking forward to the most was their brilliant synthpop cover of St. Vincent’s Actor Out of Work.” I had never heard the original song but this one quickly wormed its way into my brain with its synth hooks, and more importantly, it’s somewhat abstract lyrics that really pull me in, Post-Punk style! That way of putting out lyrics that evade and intrigue was really a hallmark of the Post-Punk style, and most of my favorite lyrics are made of such arch juxtapositions. Maybe I need to check out St. Vincent? At any rate, this was probably the new song I was most looking forward to hearing and they did not disappoint.
After the span of eight or so songs, Ms. Michéle announced their last number and sure enough; it was 7:50. In spite of the rain delay, they were ending on schedule, so their set list was shorn of at least half a dozen numbers that we did not hear this damp evening. Damp from the rain, to be sure, but also damp from the perspiration of dancing for close to an hour in a city square. By this time I was not the only one dancing and the square had returned to having some sort of audience; perhaps close to the numbers that were there before the rain. For their last number, I was pleasantly shocked that they trotted out their killer Dillinger cover of “Cocaine Blues,” since this was definitely a “family friendly” event with face painting, and children. Too bad for the kids. I was all too happy to sing along with the hook that Dillinger had cribbed from The People’s Choice 1975 jam “Do It Any Way You Wanna.” Special thanks to Fred for helping my ailing memory here.
With that, the band ended on a dime at 7:55. The Friday night headliner at LEAF Downtown would get their full set… but at what cost? At the end of the night this had been a highly compromised Escort experience. They lost a good 40% of their playing time and set. They were a minimal configuration of four people, who leaned on automation to flesh out their sound. The rain drove away all but the hardiest individuals before it even started. I really wish I had known about the CeeLo Green show in 2016. I gather that the band were at least the seven-strong configuration I saw earlier, and to be honest, this band belong inside of a room, where their dazzling energy can barely be contained. While, I assuredly enjoyed the room to bust a move the entire show [unlike last time], the sheer excitement was pounded out of me by the solid half hour of pouring rain. This was not the food for the soul that their Moogfest show was. This was more of a snack. A tasty one, for certain, but I still await the Orange Peel headlining gig that this band were made to deliver. Escort have made three trips to my city. The groundwork has hopefully been laid for most triumphant return of Escort in their fullest possible form in a club, where god intended disco to live.
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