Reflections On An Artist: Alejandro Escovedo

Alejandro Escovedo

My first glimpse into the musical soul of Alejandro Escovedo was in 1986 or so when I caught the True Believers at Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, OH, but it wasn’t until later that I became a true believer myself—passionate in my conviction that Alejandro Escovedo is one of the finest songwriters on the planet.

I’m not alone with that sentiment. Alejandro was chosen as artist of the decade by No Depression magazine in 1998–no mean accomplishment. But it seemed one well deserved as Al emerged onto the Americana scene fully-formed in 1992 with his first solo record, Gravity, produced by (the recently-deceased) Stephen Bruton. The opening stanza to the first song on the album laid down a marker for what was to come:

“Did you get your invitation / There’s gonna be a public hanging / And the bodies will swing side by side / And it’s just I and I”

Al’s apparent maturity in the early 90’s was due to the fact he’d been at it for some time. In the 70’s there was the San Francisco-based first-wave punk band The Nuns, who had the distinction of opening for the Sex Pistols’ last concert at the Winterland. The cow-punk outfit Rank ‘n File followed, which led to the Austin-based True Believers, which included Al’s brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham.

That’s a lot of club shows and dingy hotel rooms, lots of late nights and the attendant trappings (and traps) of being a rock ‘n roll “star:”

A certain soulful weariness cuts through in the chorus to “The Last To Know,” one of Al’s signature songs that first came out on Gravity:

“More miles than money / Look at our lives and it’s so funny / More miles than money / We fall in love and it’s never funny / We’re the last, the very last to know.”

More Miles Than Money is the also title of a live album Alejandro released on the Bloodshot label in 1998, and it’s this album that I highly recommend to anyone new to his music. Alejandro incorporated orchestral instruments like cello and violin in his arrangements early on, and for years closed out the Austin Music Awards on the last night of SXSW with the 13-piece Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra.

Personally, I find the cello one of the sexiest instruments in the musical canon, along with the oboe and, of course, the electric guitar. There’s something about the tone that grabs me, draws me in deep. The use of cello and violin in a rock format are now much more common (see Cloud Cult, for example), but Al was one of the first. The arrangements are soulful and edgy, not prissy or overly refined; more rock, less classical, leading to a unique and distinct voice…as David Fricke of Rolling Stone noted, “Alejandro Escovedo is his own genre.”

It’s a sound with many variants: Tejano balladry and Tex-Mex roots rock in keeping with Alejandro’s ethnic heritage, the glam and fashion consciousness of Ian Hunter and David Bowie, the dirty urgent edge of the Stooges and The Clash, the moody atmospherics of the Velvets, the classic rock riffs of the Stones and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Not that every record sounds the same. His most recent release, Real Animal, is much more straight-ahead rock ‘n roll, which is perhaps the reason it’s garnered, for the first time in Al’s career, significant airplay. The songs were co-written with Chuck Prophet, another relatively unheralded artist who I also regard as a songwriting genius. I remember the time the Al and Chuck did a show together three years ago at High Noon and debuted the songs, some of which were untitled at the time.

Alejandro has collaborated with other critically-acclaimed yet commercially under-the-radar artists like Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos–see their one-off side-project with Michael Hall called The Setters. And I believe Al toured with Peter Case and Freedy Johnston about ten years ago, a show I would have loved to have seen.

If you can tell a man by the company he keeps, the fact that artists like Stephen Bruton, Chuck Prophet, Peter Case and Walter Salas-Humara are part of Al’s musical family speaks volumes about him. This became more evident six years ago with the release of Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, a fundraising effort to help Al deal with the medical bills incurred by a near-fatal bout with Hepatitis C.  Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, John Cale, The Jayhawks, Son Volt, Howe Gelb, Calexico, Chris Stamey, M. Ward & the dearly-departed Vic Chesnutt are among the luminaries who played tribute.  Even the Boss is a fan, so much so that Al now is managed by Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau.

Not sure if that means more money than miles, that Al’s oeuvre is soon to get the wide recognition it so richly deserves. While art like Al’s is often too good for this world, it would be a sight if the masses finally woke up to what they were missing and joined the ranks of true believers like those who will be at his show this Monday at High Noon. Perhaps then Al could reap abundantly that which he has sown so faithfully all these years.

– Tag Evers

Alejandro will be at The High Noon Saloon this Monday (3.29).  Tickets are still available here.

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One Response

  1. […] no secret I’m a big fan of Alejandro Escovedo. I’ve written about Alejandro before here on this very blog. I never tire from listening to Al’s music, and his albums are always within my reach. Right […]

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