By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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Usually at this time, people are too drunk to pay attention or too exhausted to care. It's well after 1 a.m. in Austin, and the annual South by Southwest music festival is staggering to the finish line, limping along with a full belly and glazed, red eyes. Four days of free Shiner and afternoon barbecues and several hundred bands have exacted their toll on the freeloaders from across the country and the locals trying hard to pretend it's all business as usual. For the first time all week, everyone in Austin has decided what will be the Next Big Thing: sleep.
Everyone, that is, except for the fans huddling together beneath the tent outside Waterloo Brewing Company. For them, sleep hasn't entered the picture, unless that happens to be the title of the next song Alejandro Escovedo is going to play. Standing in front of a band so big it practically spills over the sides of the Waterloo stage, and sporting dapper threads, Escovedo is debuting his latest album, A Man Under the Influence, demanding and commanding everyone's eyes and ears and hearts and souls with his smooth, rough voice. He may be preaching to the choir, but that doesn't mean he's saving his best sermon. He implores the crowd to sing along to the chorus of one song: "I like her better when she walks away," he growls, and the audience follows his lead.
Each song is better than the last, capably filling the role of the best song he's ever written. Maybe that's not true, and maybe it's just the liquor or the lateness of the hour filling in the blanks, but everyone standing under that tent is convinced. It's hard not to be, even if you weren't right there, right then. Removed from its live setting, A Man Under the Influence may be even better: Escovedo's country orchestra surrounds his songs with so much useful beauty, it's hard to listen to the album in one sitting; if the melodies don't get to you, the words will. Which is exactly what Escovedo was hoping for.
"It captures what I do as a songwriter probably more profoundly than any other record," he says now, from a hotel room in Lexington, Kentucky. "It helped a lot to have made those three or four albums, five, six albums, whatever it was, prior to this one, in that I knew exactly what I wanted from each album. What part of my songwriting experience I wanted to concentrate on. So I knew I wanted a record that was somewhere between [earlier albums] Thirteen Years and Bourbonitis Blues. And of course I knew I wanted the songs to be stronger than they had been. I think I accomplished it."
Escovedo's previous experience in the studio wasn't all that led him to the songs on A Man Under the Influence. Music, no matter what kind, was always important in the Escovedo house. It swirled around Alejandro Escovedo growing up, whether it was the Mexican music and jazz standards his father listened to and sometimes sang, the big band jazz and swing his mother preferred or the Latin jazz his older brothers, Pete and Coke, performed. As long as he can remember, Alejandro had his own records, too, rock-and-roll 45s his parents bought for him as soon as he was old enough to decide for himself.
He didn't think of making his own records or writing his own songs or following Pete and Coke's lead until he'd been away from home for almost a decade, living on his own in San Francisco. Escovedo didn't pick up a guitar until he was 24 years old, and even then, he didn't think he'd be playing it for long. At the time, the guitar was little more than a prop: "I was making a movie about the world's worst band," he recalls. "And since we didn't know how to play, we became that band. And that band became the Nuns."
The Nuns led to Rank and File, which led to the True Believers, which led to a solo career, and now, more than two decades later, Escovedo's relationship with his guitar has changed completely. It's a crutch, a diary, a friend. "My hands are turning numb," he sings on "Velvet Guitar," a song from his latest and perhaps greatest solo album. "But I still gotta strum/My velvet guitar/And I don't care how long/Might write a sad one/But who's gonna sing them this time."
By now, however, Escovedo's dependence on his guitar and the songs he writes with it isn't unexpected. Since he began recording albums under his own name with 1992's Gravity, Escovedo has always said more than most with a six-string in his hands. His songs are beyond confessional, occasionally approaching uncomfortable. Gravity was recorded in the wake of his wife Bobbie's 1991 suicide, which happened shortly after the birth of his second daughter. He followed one desperate, doleful record with another: 1994's Thirteen Years--the length of his marriage to Bobbie--moved from open wounds to fresh scars.
What is unexpected is that he didn't start making his own music until he was halfway through his 20s. Or maybe it's not. "Things have always come at the right time," he says.