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.
Gypsy Tea Room
"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.
For example: A Man Under the Influence, his first studio album since 1996's With These Hands. A cast of North Carolina all-stars joins Escovedo on the disc, including former Whiskeytown residents Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, Superchunk's Mac McCaughan and Jon Wurster, Squirrel Nut Zipper Chris Phillips and ex-Let's Active front man Mitch Easter. In Escovedo's mind, however, the biggest assist came from Chris Stamey, who recorded the album at Modern Recording in Chapel Hill. Stamey had worked with Escovedo on the schizophrenic Bourbonitis Blues, 1999's disc of covers, a handful of new songs and a few reworked older ones, recorded mostly live. Escovedo hadn't recorded a studio album since 1996, and in Stamey, he knew he'd found the right man to help him break the drought, a break from recording he never intended to last as long as it did.
"It was due time, you know? Just been so long," Escovedo says. "I was just hoping to make a studio album. The pieces were in place. I'm glad we waited though, because we met Chris Stamey. He was on Bourbonitis Blues, which led to his production on this record, which I'm really happy with. We recorded that stuff, and I remember talking to Joe Eddy [Hines] and David [Perales] and Brian [Standefer]"--longtime members of Escovedo's band--"and saying, you know, 'I could make a record with this guy.' And they were all in agreement. He was a great guy, and he had a lot of the same musical references that I had, influences. He had been playing around the same time, in different bands, but at the same time, you know, in New York. We knew a lot of the same people. We had a lot in common even though we're very different. He was very sensitive to the songs, and he was very sensitive to the words and the vocals, which was something I was looking for."
Finding someone who could handle his words and vocals properly was important for Escovedo, because for all the cellos and pedal steel and orchestral percussion and everything else that provides the scenery for his song's road maps, his lyrics and the way he sings them are all that matters. His is a voice that breaks in the middle, is frayed at the edges, yet is still so pure. It's milk and honey served in a dirty shot glass, all morning after and night before, hushed because he's winding down, waking up. Escovedo has a voice that is, at once, immediately recognizable and almost unknown, a chart-topper singing to himself in his bedroom, away from prying eyes and ears.
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It's often (probably too often) said that great voices can sing the telephone book or dictionary entries or whatever, and it doesn't matter, that the words are irrelevant. The difference with Escovedo is that he could sing to you from the telephone book or the dictionary or his notebook full of lyrics, and you'd understand what he was singing about. You'd feel every word, whether he was ticking off a list of accounting firms in your area or the proper meaning of "corollary" or "Follow You Down," a song from A Man Under the Influence.
Of course, Escovedo's songs always mean something, whether he's singing about suicide and death or family and love or somewhere in between. Lately, he's been singing about his father, both on A Man Under the Influence and By the Hand of the Father, a multimedia stage production based on the lives of five men born in Mexico and what happens when they cross the border. In fact, the first two songs on A Man Under The Influence, "Wave" and "Rosalie," were developed through the play. "Wave," especially, sums up the immigrant experience poignantly and perfectly in one couplet: "The sun's not brighter here/It only shines on golden hair."
For Escovedo, By the Hand of the Father--which is still making its way around the country--disrupted his routine, in a good way. And it's made him think about putting his music in different places, outside of nightclubs and compact discs.
"It's a great exercise, in that you have to write for a specific theme," he says. "You're also put under deadlines. I meet them 90 percent of the time, but there are moments which I'm not fully prepared for. So you have to think on your toes quite a bit. It's great preparation, in that respect, and a great experience, very different. And I don't know about the theater, but I'd like to write for different situations, whether they be in theater or dance or the movies, you know, soundtracks. But we've had a really great, strong response every time we've performed it. I think it really affects people."