Clip: Greg Kot on Alejandro Escovedo's return
Escovedo saves his best for Cale-produced `The Boxing Mirror'
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published April 17, 2006
AUSTIN, Texas -- It was an unspoken dream for decades. As a teenager
in the '60s, Alejandro Escovedo had seen the Velvet Underground play
in California. A decade later, he moved virtually penniless to New
York to play music and to immerse himself in the same streets and
alleyways that birthed one of his favorite bands. There he met one of
the Velvets' founders, John Cale, a relationship that would blossom in
unexpected ways over the next four decades.
"I've basically been ripping off John Cale for years," Escovedo says
with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Now I've finally made an album with
him. That's something, isn't it?"
The same could be said for a 55-year-old artist who has just made the
best album of his life. His new, Cale-produced disc, "The Boxing
Mirror" (Back Porch), due out May 2, is a sprawling survey of all the
styles of music that have interested him: punk velocity, Latin
balladry, string-stoked chamber pop, howling guitar rock -- all done
with a Cale-honed cutting-edge twist that makes Escovedo sound more
commanding and contemporary than ever.
"Buddhism teaches you that you never listen to anything as if you
already know it," Escovedo says. "It doesn't matter if you've heard it
a million times. You always listen to it with open ears and a fresh
mind. That's the way I want to be about music. You can think you've
got the baddest band in the world, but there's always someone who's
going to teach you something, if you're open to it. If you start
patting yourself on the back, that's death. It's creative death. I
never want to feel that."
Escovedo is in a quietly upbeat mood as dusk descends on the porch
outside his hotel room. In a few hours he will unofficially close the
South by Southwest Music Conference, a week when Austin is the center
of the music universe. He'll perform across the street from the hotel
with his band at the tiny Continental Club, a dashing figure in black
who windmills his right arm across the guitar strings until the room
becomes one big scream. Out of the noise, he coaxes tenderness and
tart commentary from a small string section, while his songs muse
about a life that has been walking a tightrope for several years.
Only 18 months earlier, the great Texas singer, songwriter and
bandleader was dying. His long battle with hepatitis C was going
badly, and his body was shrinking away. He had been diagnosed with the
liver-eating virus in the mid-'90s but continued to tour, eventually
falling critically ill and collapsing in 2002 onstage in Arizona. He
fought back with Interferon treatments, but his body rebelled in 2004
and his immune system imploded. The music that had been his life was
an afterthought, the idea of ever playing his guitar again a cruel
Finally, a holistic approach to healing accomplished what the drugs
could not. Escovedo's mind and body slowly got better, and the music
began to seep back into his life.
"You're rolling along, and you just assume you can go another 20 years
doing this," says Escovedo of the years he continued to tour while
denying the reality of his medical condition. "Suddenly, somebody
takes the keys away, and you can't drive anymore. It's devastating."
The road back started with a 2004 tribute album, "Por Vida," in which
a legion of Escovedo's admirers recorded his songs to raise money for
the uninsured singer's medical treatment. One of those artists was
Cale, whose haunting interpretation of Escovedo's "She Doesn't Live
Here Anymore" at a benefit concert in Austin that same year left an
A year later, Escovedo approached him about producing his next album,
and Cale readily agreed. To Cale, Escovedo is one of the more unique
songwriters of the last few decades, a singer whose songs seethe with
quiet turmoil and unresolved questions.
"His songs are ghostly, they touch on things very gently," Cale says.
"There's something about Alejandro that I can't quite put my finger
on. He lives in a little corner of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and
there are people floating in and out of his life from the past."
Cale and Escovedo confronted many of those ghosts on "The Boxing
Mirror" and sent them flying in unexpected directions. The richly
atmospheric title song -- about the singer's father, who died last
year -- set their collaboration in motion. A poem written by
Escovedo's wife, Kim, and a few chords got the song rolling. The rest
Cale and Escovedo improvised into a complete, one-take performance
built on a martial snare beat.
"He was coming up with these images that were dramatic, cinematic,"
Cale says. "I had no idea it was about his father. It was wide open,
but the core of it was so strong it could support almost any kind of
treatment. That's a really good place for a songwriter to be. He can
survive no matter what's going on around him."
Escovedo has never rocked more fiercely than on "Sacramento & Polk," a
homage to his days with San Francisco punk progenitors the Nuns.
"Looking for Love" swings in the opposite direction, an unusually
direct pop melody by Escovedo's standards. "Take Your Place" suggests
a Prince song with the way it turns even guitar and strings into
percussion instruments. And "Dearhead on the Wall" hangs on an
unexpected hook: a scraping Susan Voelz violin riff.
Cale, whose viola brought an avant-garde drone to the Velvets, was
crucial in upping the ante on the string arrangements in particular on
"The Boxing Mirror."
"It wasn't easy for the string players to listen to the playbacks
because he wanted to mess with them big-time, doing things that went
against their music-school and classical training," Escovedo says.
"I didn't want it to be like teapots and cookies," Cale says with a
laugh. "On `The Ladder,' we had a great jazz-style player [Wade Short]
who had played with Dionne Warwick and done just about everything you
can do with an upright bass. Except play it with a bow. So, of course,
we had him play bass with a bow. The guy was breaking into a sweat
during his solo, he was trying so hard to focus. But that dry, nasally
sound he got fit right in."
Song for Mom
Cale's presence was validating for Escovedo, whose singing has gained
in expressiveness and power. He brings previously unheard nuance to
his performance of "Evita's Lullaby," written for his mother in the
wake of her husband's death.
"The only thing he really stated was that he didn't want me to sound
sick anymore," the singer says. "He wanted to hear that confidence in
my voice. It set me up to try things I had never tried before."
Escovedo keeps getting better at an age when most artists are on
cruise control. That's perhaps because he didn't write his first song
until he was 30. Ever since, those songs have helped Escovedo make
sense of his life.
"I'll have relatives who I haven't seen for a long time come to me,
and they'll know what I've been through by listening to the records,"
"I had a cousin tell me that one night she got a bottle of wine,
turned off every light in the house and listened to one record after
another. By the end of it, she said it was like she'd had a
conversation with me.
"The songs have spoken to people that I really couldn't speak to,
because some things were just too difficult for me to express. I've
said a lot of things in songs that I couldn't say to anyone."
Escovedo invokes Cale's old sparring partner in the Velvets, Lou Reed,
and his song "Street Hassle," to finish his point. "Like the song
says, some people never find a voice they can call their own, and
that's just bad luck. Well, I've been lucky. I found a voice."
Alejandro Escovedo String Quintet, 8 p.m. April 28 at Old Town School
of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. Sold out; 773-728-6000.
Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, 9 p.m. May 18; 10 p.m. May 19 at
Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave. $20; 773-404-9494.