Since coping with a near-fatal bout of hepatitis C, Alejandro Escovedo returned to the studio late last year to put out his first non-live album in four years, The Boxing Mirror, and to the road—just not with the same fast pace or recklessness as days past.
Getting new music out, though, both on record and on tour, was imperative.
"I don't know if it was cathartic or therapeutic, really, because what I went through was such a strange experience for me that I knew writing a song wasn't going to make me healthier or feel better," Escovedo told me back in April, just weeks before the album's release. "[But] it was such a significant event that I had to write about it—in a way that wasn't self-pitying. I didn't want to seem morose, I didn't want to seem bitter. I just wanted to tell the story [of] the things that I went through and what I felt coming out of it."
While his song and album of the same name, More Miles Than Money, once seemed to sum up his career, Escovedo is back for posterity. The Boxing Mirror is also his first album of new material since he was hospitalized in 2003; in anticipation of its release, he toured in clusters, often hitting up Dallas and Austin.
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Escovedo's December 16 performance at Dallas' Bend Studio will be his third at the venue, a yoga studio by day, in a little more than a year. At one of his past acoustic quintet shows at Bend, as part of its Intimate Evenings series, Escovedo made the comment that "we're born everywhere" while introducing his accompanists on strings (violin and cellos) and classical guitar. More recently, he has laughed at his heavy utterance.
"That's just some kind of metaphysical jive I throw in," Escovedo now suggests. "But we travel so much all over the world, it's nice to kind of think of it like that." Jive or not, it is a sentiment that can be heard in his music, which owes to influences as diverse as the Stones, the Stooges and composer Béla Bartók.
After all, as a fledgling film school graduate in the '70s, the young Escovedo cut his teeth in West Coast punk outfit the Nuns. He split the next decade between cowpunk pioneers Rank and File and then Chicano rockers the True Believers. Since then, he has molded a style which cannot be pinned down more specifically than as a kind of string-laden Southwestern folk, with Tex-Mex, punk and folk-country roots.
"I feel like, not to sound corny, we are definitely born everywhere, everyday, in every moment," Escovedo explains. "And so, musically, I think that that applies to us because if there is a philosophical bent to the group, it's that we are always learning and we try to stay open to every possibility that exists within our abilities and even beyond that."
This manifests itself in his need to keep his music fresh. In addition to his acoustic quintet (often augmented by electric bass, drums and keys), there is also his hard rock side group, Buick MacKane, and the string-, electric- and horn-filled orchestra. (The orchestra should be back in the near future, as Escovedo plans to tape a concert for DVD release and will opt for a bigger, fuller group.) These different incarnations will often "road-test a song for how durable it is and how good it actually is," Escovedo says. "If it can sustain all those different mutations, I think it's a good song."
After all, Escovedo still writes around an acoustic guitar and, upon going solo, often had nothing other than his six-string to back him during his early days in Austin. But this talent was actually gleaned from his days in film school, Escovedo says. His education in film translates perfectly into the medium of music, showing him "the need to tell a story, to paint pictures that are concise yet vivid, and to write sparingly, kind of minimalist."
Escovedo still has plenty of stories to tell, and the upcoming Bend show will feature the consummate storyteller in transition. Having had a successful return to the studio and the stage this year, he is currently writing songs with recent tourmate, Chuck Prophet.
While Escovedo has had the chance to play with some of his favorites, from touring with Los Lobos in the '80s to working with Velvet Underground hero John Cale on The Boxing Mirror, and has been covered by countless others, this form of collaboration is a new venture for the songwriter.
"I'm a guy who takes sometimes a year or two between records, [and] it takes me a long time to write these things, but this time I have to get started right away," Escovedo says. "And I just feel like I need a real jumpstart, so I asked my friend Chuck Prophet to come and write some tunes. I'm kinda coming up with this concept where I want the record to be a fun rock 'n' roll record, so I decided to write not so much about myself but [about] characters based on people I've known throughout my life."
While headed in a new direction, Escovedo hasn't abandoned some of his most poignant work. Earlier this year, his play By the Hand of the Father was revived for audiences at University of Texas at Austin and in the border town of Brownsville.
"I think I get a lot more out of it [now]," Escovedo says. "I didn't realize how much I actually missed this performance, but especially in these times when immigration is such an important question and people are demonstrating all over the country in vast numbers, I wish that people knew about this play. In a way it almost seems like the play was ahead of its time, [as] it addresses all the questions that we deal with now."
The staging in Brownsville made for the first time Escovedo and co. had ever performed down there. "So many of the stories [in the play] come from that area," Escovedo says. "The really cool thing is that we played to 1,000 kids during the day—we had a matinee—and they totally got everything about the story and they dug it. We played that night to the public, to the parents and their children, [and] the story really just kind of resonated there. That was one of my favorite shows that we've ever had."
So it will be interesting to see what transpires during his upcoming Bend concert. Escovedo admits readily that the venue's warmth and intimacy are conducive to a great performance. He says he likes "the sound of that room, the vibes of that room—and it's a result of who runs it and the people who welcome you when you walk through that door."
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