Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo (Or Music)
The first time I saw Alejandro Escovedo play, I hated him. Well, not him per se: the band he was playing with, The Nuns. There was something patently awful about a band fronted by the son of a local wealthy Mormon businessman singing a song called "Degenerate Jew," even if it was the punk era in San Francisco. But on the few occasions I had to endure them, Al made no impression on me.
Some years later, I was living in Austin, Texas, and another West Coast punk band, The Dils, blew into town, having morphed into Rank & File. And there was that guitarist again, doing a great job. That band eventually blew up, and Chip and Tony Kinman, who'd started it, left town, but the guitarist stayed, and boy, was everyone glad he did. He put together a band with Jon Dee Graham, one of the hottest guitarists in town, brought his brother in to anchor another guitar slot, and named them The True Believers. A lot of different threads came together in the Troobs: country and hard rock and punk and singer-songwriter stuff, so no wonder they had such a large and devoted audience. They were one of the few bands from that particular Austin scene that got a major record deal, with EMI, through a short-lived connection with Rounder. They also toured all over the country, inspiring loads of musicians.
The True Believers blew up, too, but they'd left Alejandro Escovedo a permanent legacy: he was now confident about his songwriting. You could see him around Austin performing under his own name, as the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, which meant Al and whomever he could convince to get up onstage with himone indelible memory is of the punk-rock producer Spot channeling his homeboy Eric Dolphy on clarinet during a performance of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog"and as the zany, hard-rocking Buick McKane.
Even more threads came into the Alejandro Escovedo Experience now: his up-front love for Mott the Hoople and John Cale, the T. Rex name of his "other band," the echoes of darker songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and even Leonard Cohen in some of his solo work. But the thing is, you'd have to actually think about this before it became evident. The man was just too much himself to wear these influences on his sleeve.
In some ways, of course, this just screams "cult artist." Austinites are fond of walking out after a show by one of the local sensations, shaking their heads and going, "Why don't more people know about this?" The thing is, more people did know about Al, but his just isn't the stuff of which teen fantasies are made, and, thus, it isn't the stuff of platinum records.
And, in fact, the pleasures of discovering the vast and varied world of Alejandro Escovedo are adult pleasures. If you like his stuff, you've probably been around a while. You've probably loved and lost, maybe had kids, quite likely had a wild spell a while back there that you look back on with a combination of amusement and horror, and you've learned to celebrate the quotidian pleasures when they present themselves. Which is not to say that Al's is a geezer audience: I'm positive that there are thoughtful younger people who listen to himeven in the midst of their own wild spellsand aspire to attain for themselves the insight and wisdom they hear in his songs.
That's why this two-disc tribute album that's just come out, Por Vida, is such a pleasure. And just typing those words are a novelty for me: There's little I dislike more than tribute records, those collages of wildly incongruous elements fighting each other and making sequential listening impossible. The only thing worse than a tribute record, I'd say, is a two-volume one. But then, how many tribute records have the whole Escovedo catalog to draw from? That, though, is what makes this one not only listenable, but, as I said, a pleasure.
What's really great about it is that some of the best tracks come from the most unexpected places. I mean, you'd expect Los Lonely Boys' version of "Castanets" to be good, and you'd be right. But John Cale's reading of "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" infuses the song with just enough electronic oddities to give it a pleasant twist. I don't think I've ever heard a Jayhawks record I've liked, but their elegiac reading here of "Last to Know" is compulsively listenable. Lenny Kaye's astonishing "Sacramento & Polk" is the best record Lou Reed hasn't made in the last 35 years, and I mean that as a compliment. And Ian Hunter is clearly having lots of fun as he belts out "One More Time." You get the distinct feeling no one had to twist his arm to get him to do it.
Of course, you get that message from this whole album: people who represent all of the threads of Al's influences, as well as all the people he's influenced, were more than eager to repay him for what he'd given them. Even beyond the obvious fact of the record raising funds for his medical treatment (Escovedo is living with Hepatitis C), you just intuit that this was an event waiting to happen on any pretext whatever. All of the usual suspects join with some surprise guests, and Al himself adds a new song, "Break This Time," as the cherry on top of the cake.
Hmmm, that makes it sound like a birthday party. Well it is, because what's a birthday party but a celebration of life? And what a life to celebrate!
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