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Clip: Greg Kot on Alejandro Escovedo's return

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  • Carl Z.
    Escovedo saves his best for Cale-produced `The
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 18 4:41 PM
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      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
      audience slack-jawed.

      Cale onboard

      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,"
      Escovedo says.

      "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.
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