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  • Carl Zimring
    Texas troubadour facing the music January 30, 2005 MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
    Message 1 of 2 , Jan 30, 2005
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      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
      differently now.

      "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
      Escovedo, laughing.

      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
      Orchestra.

      But Escovedo admits he was "scared to death" about embarking on a solo
      career.

      "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
      the question.

      "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 years:

      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
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