AND DAMN, HE CAN ROCK Alejandro Escovedo

“If the music is going
well I can get through anything,” says the Austin auteur. With a fiery new album in
stores, the music’s going quite well, thank you.

 

BY ROB PATTERSON

 

Just what the hell is it going to take? That’s the longtime
pressing question nearly two decades into the solo career of Alejandro
Escovedo, at least for those of us who have been really listening and wowed
time and again for most if not all of the last two decades. Will his new album,
Street Songs of Love, released last
week on Fantasy/Concord, be the one to finally at least lift him to a level of
popularity that approaches what his musical merits?

 

Look up “critical darling” in the Dictionary of Rock and
you’ll see Escovedo’s picture. His career has come to all but define the term
for the modern age, especially its conundrum of the disparity between the
deserved high praise for truly exceptional creative achievement and his rather
low general public profile.

 

This writer is hardly the first one to ponder the issue. Rolling Stone‘s David
Fricke already asked it a number of years ago: “What does it
take to make this man a star?”

 

“You know… I have no idea what it would take,” Escovedo
says. “Let’s face it, there aren’t many 59-year-old pop stars.”

 

On this spring morning in Austin, Escovedo is nonetheless
garbed like a rock’n’roll dandy when we meet at 11 AM on the trendy South
Congress Avenue strip: tight pants that look as if they were painted onto his
lanky frame, a stylish vest buttoned tight, porkpie hat topping it all off. The
look fits, as he has lived the rock life as fully as anyone since his musical
career began with The Nuns in the mid 1970s. And even before then as a teenaged
fan who bought into the dream as a faithful front-row follower of bands like
The Faces and Mott The Hoople.

 

To review some major points on the Escovedo timeline, after
The Nuns and time spent as the guitarist in country punk pioneers Rank and
File, in the mid 1980s he started the aptly named True Believers, his Austin
group that aimed to become an American über-rock
band with a frontline of three singer/writers/guitarists: Alejandro, his
brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham. They started out hopefully with a Rounder
Records indie deal that got bumped up to a major label alliance with EMI. Then
on the verge of the release of a second album that captured the band’s
sprawling live power not heard on their first, EMI dropped them. The band
eventually sputtered to an end.

 

Following time writing new songs during which Escovedo also
humbly worked at Austin’s Waterloo Records, he debuted on his own in 1992 with Gravity – a stunning work of musical and
lyrical literacy that marked him as his own quantity with a stylistic breadth
and power of vision that sparked an ongoing trail of stellar reviews from the
very first one (which this writer happened to pen) that continues apace today.
If superlatives could be deposited in the bank, he’d at least be a wealthy man.

 

Then there was his near-fatal health crisis from the effects
of Hepatitis C in 2002. It sparked an outpouring of fan contributions and
benefits by his musical peers and admirers to help the uninsured Escovedo cover
his medical bills and support his family, as did the two-CD tribute album Por Vida featuring artists like Lucinda
Williams, Ian Hunter, Jayhawks, John Cale, Son Volt, Los Lonely Boys, Steve
Earle and Calexico. It all raised consciousness of Escovedo’s merits far enough
to help him win a major label deal with EMI’s Back Porch imprint.

 

Cale produced The
Boxing Mirror
in 2006. Then in 2008, the high-powered Bruce Springsteen
management team of Jon Landau and Barbara Carr stepped in to handle Escovedo as
he readied Real Animal for release.
The collection of autobiographical songs was the fruit of a new songwriting collaboration
with Chuck Prophet, and produced by Tony Visconti, whose work with David Bowie
and T. Rex were essential building blocks of Escovedo’s musical outlook. His
new managers pulled out a few big Jersey guns
to help tout it: The Boss performing its single “Always A Friend” live and
consigliere Miami Steve Van Zandt (a/k/a Little Steven) giving Escovedo major
play on his Sirius satellite radio Underground Garage channel.

 

This time out Springsteen trades verses with Escovedo on the
next to last cut of Street Songs.
Bruce is one of two guest artists on the disc that serve as flagpole signifiers
of what’s up on this release. Like Springsteen, Escovedo is a dedicated
lifelong rocker of the highest order and best intentions. As with The Boss
before Born To Run, he’s a treasure
that deserves a wider hearing and rewards for his talent and labors.

 

Will that ever come? Who knows? But as the two sing on the
song’s chorus: “You gotta have faith.”

 

***

 

On Real Animal,
Escovedo sang/shouted in the opening line of its most smoking track: “All I
ever wanted is a four-piece band!” Street
Songs of Love
is the record that fulfills that wish with an all but nuclear
wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

 

He has played with a panorama of band configurations over
the past 18 years or so. Most often it was a core guitars/bass/drum unit
augmented by cello, violin and keyboards. He’s toured with a string quartet and
in Austin in
the 1990s would gather his Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra with horns, strings and
additional percussion to fully flesh out all the musical dimensions of his
melodic gifts.

 

Street Songs distills his band down to a molten core: longtime and ever more brilliant
drummer Hector Munoz, magical discovery and secret weapon David Pulkingham on
guitar, and new bassist Bobby Daniel. On the album and live (augmented by
back-up singers), the combo Escovedo calls The Sensitive Boys simply rocks like
God’s own favorite band.

 

“It’s mean, it’s swaggering. It rocks hard. It’s down to the
essentials again: guitars, bass and drums, which is the intention in making
this record,” Escovedo explains.

 

Visconti had “been pushing me to make more rock records,” he
adds. “Real Animal was a rock album
because he pushed that direction. It fit where we were going stylistically.”

 

And Street Songs bristles with such immediacy because everything was tested live and perfected
before the tape rolled. Escovedo and crew did a nearly two-month-long weekly
residency at Austin’s
Continental Club late last year to work in the material. “T Bone Burnett told
me something a long time ago when I was in The True Believers and we were just
starting. I had heard Peter Case’s Blue
Guitar
record and I was just, wow, this is fuckin’ great. So I called Peter
and said, I wanna make a record like this. And then I called T Bone and he gave
me the most wonderful bit of advice: We weren’t ready to make a record. Go out
and play for a year and make all the mistakes that you’re going to make on the
road. And then come back and we’ll make a record. Of course I didn’t listen to
his advice,” Escovedo notes with a rueful yet chuckling tinge.

 

The residency allowed him to “present new songs and develop
them with the audience, with the band, with the singers. And then we took off
and got in the van almost the following day [after the final Continental gig] –
I think we had two days – and went on a three week tour that led us from Austin directly to the
door of the studio,” he explains. “We played in Louisville on a Saturday night, we had Sunday
off, Monday we were recording. Everything just lined up perfectly.”

 

And once it was time to track, the music barreled out
quickly and powerfully. “We were really tracking like crazy fast,” says
Escovedo. “We were doing four songs a day, some of them, just because we had
played them for so long and we were ready, and we were so excited about the
material. And we were really excited about the four of us just there with Tony.
It was real intimate, it was very supportive. I played guitar a lot on this
one. I didn’t play on the last one. I think it worked out to our advantage.

 

“It was just a feeling I’ve always had about making
records,” Escovedo says of the approach. “And we’re a live band, man. That’s
what we’re about. I think we make great studio records. But we’re not a band
that stays home. We’re on the road constantly.” That’s also how Escovedo has
made his living as well as cultivated his small yet devoted – and steadily
growing – following. And if any record matches the conversion experience of a
sizzling Escovedo show, it’s Street Songs
of Love
.

 

“I think Real Animal is where we finally got the rock and the strings together. I’ve done that for a
long time, and I think for the kind of material I was writing and what I was
saying in the songs, the strings were essential. And now I just wanna just
party in a way, I just want to have a good time. And nothing makes me feel
better than to play electric guitar… loud.”

 

And he’s found the perfect guitar foil in David Pulkingham,
a lifelong player whose primary past experience was acoustic, from classical to
ethnic. He’d only played electric jazz six-string before Escovedo hired him for
his string quartet tour. But in just a few years as a rock player, Pulkingham
has become a fierce, sharp and wise lead guitar savant whose work is as much
the star of the album as the singer and his songs.

 

“He’s just a natural guitar player,” Escovedo raves. “The
thing about rock’n’roll is that it doesn’t require a lot of the intelligence,
or even the technical ability. So I had to dumb him down. But the beauty of it
is that he was a willing participant. So with all that ability, all that
talent, all that technique, what came out is beyond what I imagined. He’s not
only a secret weapon but an essential part of the whole thing for me, as far as
even songwriting is concerned too. I value him greatly. We’re great friends
too. He’s a rarity amongst guitar players. [That is, no ego trip.] And he’s a
wonderful human being.”

 

Then there’s Munoz, Escovedo’s brother of the road for years
whose deep grooves and pugilist punch are as musical as they are rhythmic.
“He’s a monster on this record, he’s so good live.” The addition of Daniels on
bass brings it all to nuclear fission. “He’s everything I’ve ever wanted to
find in a bass player – the missing link,” Escovedo enthuses.

 

And with the rocking combo of his dreams, it all comes easy.
“I kind of like draw the map, and send David out with the troops and away we
go.”

 

***

 

As the album’s title announces, Street Songs… is about love in its myriad forms at the primal place
where the rubber of emotion meets the road of life. “Originally I didn’t want
to have any idea of what the album was going to be about,” Escovedo explains.
“I wanted no context, no framework at all. All I wanted was to write songs that
were anonymous, transparent, but rocking – just an album of songs that were
great rock songs.

 

After all, Real Animal was suffused with his personal history. “I wanted to get away from that. But as
in all things in life, you can never escape your catalog or your life. So it
became about what I was going through at the time,” he notes.

 

But broach that subject and Escovedo grows hesitant. “I
really don’t want to talk about it,” he insists with a quiet finality. “Not
everything has to be divulged to everyone. I learned that the hard way. And I’m
not proud of it. When people read things in the media it just cheapens it, and
it’s a sensitive situation. The full story is very complicated.”

 

Suffice to say that his third marriage, this time to poet
Kim Christoff, is over. In the little city that talks big time behind backs –
one of the sad strains infecting the Austin scene that makes it less than the
musical paradise it claims to be – forked tongues have long wagged with an
acidic venom over the local hero’s love life. There was the suicide of his
first wife Bobbie some 20 years ago to which Escovedo applied wisdom and
healing on his second solo album, Thirteen
Years
. Relations with long-divorced next wife, visual artist and sometimes
rocker Dana Smith, remain strained.

 

Sure, Escovedo would rightly prefer that such matters those
of us in Austin
can’t help but know remain personal business, as none of us have walked his in
shoes or those of the women who have loved him. And as he readily if not too
proudly admits, “The lifestyle is very hard on relationships. What I do for a
living is not conducive to a long-term relationship of any kind. Even with my
musicians it’s hard to keep them going.” Yet it all provides a context that
makes the album even more bracing and downright affirmative for any of us who
have known romance that’s gone terribly and sadly wrong.

 

And Street Songs
is anything but a work of heartache. Rather, it’s the big beat of a heart that
doesn’t merely gotta have faith but
burns with the passion of… well, a true believer. And Escovedo remains a
devotee of love. “Absolutely,” he stresses. I’m very clear, focused, infused
with a sense of love. I love my life. I love my children. I love what I’ve done
in the past and will do in the future.”

 

“I’m in love with love, and it broke me in two,” he sings,
on the album’s strutting opening track, “Anchor.” On the pummeling punkish cut
that follows, “Silver Cloud,” he is “the hungry man” who “needs your love” and
is “a fool for your love.” Later on, he declares, “All I want is to fall apart
with you.” Instead of giving in to love’s struggles and travails, Escovedo
remains assertive, heartening and hopeful, framed by the wisdom that comes with
a life fully lived and the lessons as a result heeded.

 

And also aware of the complications and complexities we all
bring to our loving relationships, which he captures with chilling results on
“This Bed Is Getting Crowded.” He explains how it’s “kind of a lover’s ghost
song about the history and the ghosts we bring to bed. If you think that they
don’t exist you’re crazy.”

 

He does admit that Christoff left him while he was on a
retreat by himself in Mexico.
“I was there for a month last August. I wanted to get away. I worked real hard on Real Animal, over a lot of time, a
lot of ground. I needed a break. No better way to cleanse yourself of… just the
fuckin’ scars, you know, let the scars heal than jump into the Pacific Ocean. It’s gorgeous down there.”

 

Prophet visited for a few days to get started on their next
series of collaborations. “When Chuck and I get together it’s pretty electric.
You’ve got to wear some safety gear,” Escovedo notes.

 

And to then return to another failed relationship “was
difficult, and it was very….” He pauses. “It was easy to write the songs. I
gotta tell ya that. For different reasons. There was a sense of liberation in a
way. And yet there was a lot of melancholy in a way. It was a real fertile
ground for songwriting.”

 

“These songs on this record are about love and so many
shades of love and so many different capacities of love,” he continues. “‘Down
on the Bowery’ is about a father and son – it’s for my son Paris. The fact that Ian Hunter sings it with
me gives it another even kind of generational thing. It sounds like he’s
singing it to me and I’m singing it to my son.”

 

And Hunter is like a rock’n’roll father to Escovedo. “That’s
what I was thinking. When I hear him sing I think of all the times I’ve
listened to his songs and all I’ve learned in his songs – the wisdom and
clarity. The point is that it was the voice of my past, and now I’m passing
what I learned from those songs and what I learned from Ian back on to my son.
Just telling him to be a freak if he wants to be a freak, to be whoever he
wants to be. Encourage him to be outside the norm of society.”

 

Hunter’s presence is the other guest signifier on the disc.
He and Springsteen both represent Escovedo’s artistic aims as well as the
notion that a rocker can mature yet not abandon the crunch’n’punch of
rock’n’roll that was the siren’s call when young and full of piss and vinegar.

 

Springsteen’s manager Landau declared in his prior days as a
music critic the oft-quoted line: “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is
Bruce Springsteen.” Street Songs… is the
album that makes this longtime music journalist, just a few years younger than
Escovedo, believe that genuine rock’n’roll still has a future at a time when
the style is at its lowest ebb since it first went large in the year of my
birth, 1954.

 

Hunter represents the template for Street Songs of Love. Both in music and content, Mott the Hoople –
a band whose inspiration has echoed throughout Escovedo’s career – suffuses the
disc in spirit and attitude.

 

It’s an inspiration that harkens to Escovedo’s True
Believers days. “What we loved the most about Mott was the ability to rock, and
then those ballads were so beautiful: ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother’ or “The Ballad
of Mott’ or ‘Saturday Gigs,’ great songs like that. His lyrics were so good,
and the stories he told you were in such a personal focused way. I love that
combination of the literary and rock. Real rock, not like….” Escovedo pauses.
“I think a lot of songwriters try to rock and they aren’t rockers.”

 

And Street Songs is the album that declares in no uncertain terms: Escovedo may be one of the
finest songwriters with a guitar and pen over the last two decades (and named
in the 1990s “Artist of the Decade” by No
Depression
a few years before the era was even over). And damn, he can
rock.

 

**

 

The question we opened with still remains as Street Songs of Love evokes another pile
of praise from reviewers. “In another, less fragmented pop era, this would be
the album of thoughtful but radio-ready love songs to finally get Mr. Escovedo
the big national audience he deserves,” notes New York Times critic Jon Pareles. “Could it happen now?”

 

“I think if any album will give us a larger audience, this
one could,” says Escovedo. Even though his solo career epitomizes the title of
a song he wrote about The True Believers, “More Miles Than Money,” stardom and
success are moot points as far as he’s concerned. Even if some lucre would
indeed be appreciated. “I wouldn’t mind. I have a lot of kids to support,” says
the father of seven.

 

On the other hand, “Does it matter at this point?” he asks
with full rhetorical oomph. “I’m making really great records I think. I love my
band. I think what we’re doing is still viable, still fresh. We’ve still got
more records in us. The ideas aren’t drying up. The possibilities are endless
as long as I stay healthy, which I am. I see myself doing this for quite
awhile. I’ve been doing it for quite awhile.”

 

And the well still boasts considerable reserves. “David and
I could make a record together. I could make an instrumental record with the
band. We could make the dance-y rock’n’roll record that I want to make,” he
posits.

 

“It’s funny now how my life has taken such a change,”
Escovedo ruminates on how, since Real
Animal
, he went from having a wife and young daughter and living in a Texas countryside refuge
to, for now, hanging his hat in a hotel. “But a lot of it’s coming together.
Things are passing my way that are bringing me closer. I feel like it is. It
feels like everything’s falling into place.

 

“That’s always been such a difficult thing for me in life.
I’ve always felt like a lot of us are really displaced sometimes, like
everything is a misstep. Almost but not quite there. And wanting it to be so
badly,” he confesses.

 

Throughout it all, one love has never let him down:
rock’n’roll. “It’s everything,” he concludes. “If the music is going well I can
get through anything.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Marina
Chavez]

 

 

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