Clip: Alejandro Escovedo
Texas troubadour facing the music
January 30, 2005
MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
Nearly four years ago, Alejandro Escovedo celebrated the release of his
album, "The Man Under the Influence," with a four-night, multi-club event
in Chicago. On April 25, 2001, the Texas singer-songwriter began the series
of sold-out shows with an intimate performance at the Hideout. In a room
lit only by dozens of candles, he solidified his status as a Chicago
favorite and one of the more creative artists to come out of Austin.
Escovedo continued to ride this wave of creativity and critical success
until 2003, when, during that same week in April, writing, recording and
touring were put on hold when he collapsed after a performance in Phoenix.
Rushed to a local hospital, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver
caused by hepatitis C.
The past 20 months have been a test for Escovedo. For the first time since
he picked up a guitar and joined a rock 'n' roll band, the accomplished
Texas troubadour faced life without the music that has been a large part of
his complex existence for three decades. From that day forward, everything
changed for the soft-spoken singer-songwriter, who says he looks at life
"If that hadn't happened to me, I'd be on the same trip," said Escovedo, in
a phone interview from his home outside San Antonio. "But everything was
taken away. I had a chance to finally look at what I had accomplished and
where I was going and what was possible if I survived this whole thing."
Escovedo embarked on an intense treatment, a caustic combination of
interferon and ribavirin, which "really messes you up." He stopped taking
the drugs about six months ago and, in recent months, has performed once a
month in or around Austin, including Willie Nelson's tsunami benefit.
While Escovedo may be ready to perform on a limited basis, he admits he's
not sure about touring. He's testing the waters with three shows next
weekend in Chicago, his only scheduled performances outside Texas.
Unfortunately for his legions of die-hard fans, the performances, one at
FitzGerald's and two at the Old Town School of Folk Music, quickly sold out.
Chicago has long been Escovedo's second home. He has recorded for the
locally based roots label Bloodshot Records and has built a solid fan base
performing at a variety of clubs over the past decade. He is among a group
of singer-songwriters (Billy Joe Shaver, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore,
Slaid Cleaves) who have blazed a well-worn trail between Austin and Chicago.
"I think he appreciates what Chicago has to offer," said Bill FitzGerald,
who has booked Escovedo into his Berwyn roadhouse many times. "He knows
audiences here are sophisticated. When he plays a club, he creates these
singular, intimate moments, and I think that's what gets to people."
Nan Warshaw, co-founder of Bloodshot, agrees: "Alejandro's live shows are
always so intense. The songs are beautiful and dark and the shows are
incredibly dynamic -- from sweet, intimate orchestral pieces to all-out
gritty punk rock. Once you experience them, you become a fan forever."
'Music was everywhere'
Over the years, Escovedo, 54, gained notice for his work with a number of
punk and roots-rock bands. When he finally went solo in the early '90s, he
forged an eclectic musical style, from hard-core rock to cello-enhanced
quartet to thoughtful musical theater ("By the Hands of the Father"). At
moments, it seemed he was making up for lost time.
Escovedo, the seventh of 12 children in a musical family, didn't pick up a
guitar until he was 24. His father sang in mariachi and swing bands; six of
his brothers had varied success on the Latin jazz and rock scenes. When
Escovedo was 8, the family relocated to Southern California. Music wasn't
on his mind then; he wanted to be a baseball player.
But music was everywhere in his life, and eventually Escovedo took notice.
"I was very lucky," he said. "My formative years were spent in California
when the '60s hit, and all this great music was everywhere. I had a
wonderful music education that I wouldn't trade for anything. I had my
brothers to turn me on to things like jazz and Latin music, and from my
father I learned about Mexican music and country music."
The trail to Escovedo's success stretched through a legendary series of
bands. The first, the Nuns, was a scrappy quartet that became a driving
force on the West Coast punk scene. "We knew the music had to be something
angry and loud because that was the whole purpose of us being a band," said
On a tour of the East Coast with the Nuns, Escovedo left the band when he
became enamored with the Manhattan art-rock scene. It was a heady time for
the young artist, who was meeting people like Andy Warhol, Brian Eno, John
Cale and David Johansen. For a short while, he played in a band with the
singer Judy Nylon, until he got a call from Chip Kinman, formerly of the
Dils, who, along with his brother Tony, was interested in starting a new
band. Escovedo signed on and the cowpunk group Rank and File was born.
A cross-country tour with a stop in Texas reacquainted him with the town
that would become his new musical home: "We went through Austin and that's
how I got back in touch with my Texas roots," said Escovedo. "Austin was
beautiful because you'd go to someone's house for a party and there was
always a guitar and someone would hand it to you. Well, I wasn't used to
that because in punk rock there weren't sing-alongs. Suddenly, I was naked
with only an acoustic guitar; I didn't have the amp and the feedback to
hide behind. I pretty much just had to sing the song, and that was my
education into songwriting."
As time went on, Rank and File's focus increasingly turned to the Kinman
brothers, sidelining Escovedo's songwriting. He faced an emotional hurdle
when he decided to leave the band, which was gaining notice alongside bands
like the Blasters and the Long Ryders.
But Escovedo already had his eye on another prize. Hooking up with his
brother Javier, he started the True Believers, arguably the best rock band
ever born out of the eclectic mix of music found in Austin and the one that
would gain him national notice. The band's self-titled 1985 album received
rave reviews, but after EMI refused to release a second disc, the band
folded in 1988, but not before many memorable nights of rock 'n' roll.
If you had told Nuns-era Escovedo that one day he would have a cello, viola
and tuba in his band, he would have thought you loco. But that's exactly
what happened when he finally embarked on a solo career that resulted in a
series of sophisticated albums that incorporated small-string arrangements
into a roots-rock context. He called the band the Alejandro Escovedo
But Escovedo admits he was "scared to death" about embarking on a solo
"I remember playing a benefit where I was on the verge of running out when
they announced me and I had to get up there," Escovedo said with a soft
laugh. "But then shortly after that, I met Chris Knight and J.D. Foster and
we started the orchestra, which changed the direction of my songwriting."
Suddenly, Escovedo had a lot of freedom. He took songs and put them in
completely different formats with horns, strings and percussion. The
orchestra was a sprawling collective, often featuring Austin's musical
elite sitting in. "I had all these wonderful musicians who loved playing
and it just grew into this beautiful thing," said Escovedo. "Before it was
all about the lifestyle. Now the music was the turn-on. It's been a
wonderful musical journey."
'One day at a time'
As a solo artist, Escovedo, has made 10 albums, the high point being No. 9,
"A Man Under the Influence." He still refers to his band as the orchestra
but it's not as quirky, now more of a sturdy rock band with a touch of
strings. Members for the Chicago shows are Jon Dee Graham (guitar), Brian
Standefer (cello), Susan Voelz (violin), Hector Munoz (drums), Andrew
Duplantis (bass) and Bruce Salmon (keyboards).
During his treatment and recovery period, Escovedo had little interest in
songwriting. However, along with his fourth wife Kim Christoff, he did
manage to create the soundtrack for the indie film "Robbing Peter" and to
write a song for the soundtrack of "The Manchurian Candidate" remake. Now
he's working on new material, some of which he hopes to perform in Chicago.
Fans were stunned by Escovedo's sudden absence from the musical picture,
but they did not forget. Like many musicians, Escovedo had no health
insurance, and benefit concerts were held around the country, including two
in Chicago organized by Bloodshot Records. And "Por Vida," a CD featuring
Escovedo's music sung by many new and old friends, also generated funds.
These were gestures that Escovedo says he will never forget: "It really
isn't even about money. It's about how much people care, and that in itself
is a great, great, great benefit."
Asked about the future, Escovedo pauses and admits he has no sure answer to
"Writing and performing have been a part of my life for so many years and
I've missed them dearly," he said. "But now it's one day at a time, one gig
at a time. And we'll see what happens after that."
THE EVOLUTION OF ESCOVEDO
Few fans can claim to have seen Alejandro Escovedo in all his incarnations.
Here the singer-songwriter comments on the bands that sustained him over
The Nuns: "We just wanted to make noise and told club owners that we had
this huge following when we really hadn't even played a real gig. So we
handed out tickets to all the interesting characters in North Beach [San
Francisco] and our audience became all the strippers, the transvestites,
all the free poets and artists. But to be honest, the Nuns were a pretty
horrible band. I don't think I would be alive if I had stayed with it for
much longer. But that band did get me started."
Rank and The True Believers: "It was like playing with Mott the Hoople, the
New York Dolls and the Band all at once. It was fun and debauched rock 'n'
roll, and a hell of a band on most nights. Those were great times. But we
wore ourselves out touring."
The Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra: "That was a revolving door, more like a
workshop. We'd put the word out about a gig and whoever was around would
show up. Sometimes there would be five people, sometimes 15, but always a
weird array of instruments, and we'd just improvise. It was quite a sight.
I developed the best music of my career with this group."
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO ORCHESTRA
When: 10 p.m. Friday; 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 6
Where: Friday, Fitzgerald's, 6615 W. Roosevelt, Berwyn; Feb. 5-6, Old Town
School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Tickets: Sold out at both venues
Phone: (708) 788-2118 and (773) 728-6000