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Alejandro Escovedo Gets a Little Help from His Friends

Aug. 29, 2017
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Photo credit: Nancy Rankin Escovedo

One would be hard-pressed to name many figures in the roots rock-Americana world who are more loved than Alejandro Escovedo. Not only was Escovedo named No Depression magazine’s Artist of the Decade in 1998, but in a sign of how much his musical peers respect him, they recorded a 2004 tribute album—Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo—to help him pay off the medical debt he accrued during a near-fatal bout with hepatitis-C. The album featured an array of artists, including Lucinda Williams, Son Volt, Ian Hunter, Steve Earle, The Jayhawks and Los Lonely Boys.

Nearly a decade and a half later, the San Antonio native is fully recovered, working as a spokesperson for the Prevent Cancer Foundation and touring behind his stellar 2016 outing, Burn Something Beautiful, on which the Minus Five served as his backing band. Produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey (of Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus Five), these baker’s dozen worth of songs strike a healthy balance of pop nuance and guitar-driven melodicism. Burn Something Beautiful resonates with the kind of feeling you’d expect from a glam-rock lover who is also a diehard Mott the Hoople fan who admitted to feeling star struck when Escovedo worked on his three prior solo albums with Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s old friend and producer.

When he’s not releasing squalling guitar riffs on songs like the drawling opener “Horizontal” or the echo-soaked thumper “Luna De Miel,” Escovedo is pouring his heart into singing about piles of broken hearts and missing friends amid the harmonies and slashing chords of “Heartbeat Smile,” or the uncertainty of a relationship in the aching Kelly Hogan duet “Suit of Lights.” The entire project was a welcome excuse to reconnect with McCaughey, whom Escovedo has known since the mid-1980s.

“I met Scott around 1985 or so. I was touring with Los Lobos; I was with the True Believers and we played a gig at the University of Washington that was the Young Fresh Fellows, True Believers and Los Lobos,” Escovedo recalls. “Afterwards, we went to the Edgewater Inn, which is the hotel where that song ‘Mud Shark’ from Frank Zappa’s album was written. We hung out all night and talked about Mott the Hoople. We struck up a friendship and a mutual admiration society for each other and Mott.”

Burn Something Beautiful “evolved from a tour I did with Peter [Buck] and Scott about three years ago,” said Escovedo, who now makes his home in Dallas. “We co-wrote all the songs on the record together, and they produced the album for me. We used all Portland, Ore., or Pacific Northwest musicians. I’ve known those people for a long, long time but never had the opportunity to go up there and make a record. It was wonderful to be embraced by them and become part of the Portland community for a short time.”

Having seen a lot during his 66 years, with much of the past four decades spent trying to survive as a working musician, Escovedo admits that the music industry is practically unrecognizable from what it was when he started out. Despite these changes, his role as an independent musician hasn’t changed as he remains on a continuous touring cycle that, over the next few months, figures to find him bouncing between different groups of back-up players for shows that will take him to Europe, the U.S. West Coast and his home state of Texas. “In a way, there doesn’t seem to be a music industry any more, not like it was,” he says. “It’s very different now. Everything has changed from budgets for records and tour support to publishing. Then there’s the sure fact that people don’t buy albums necessarily, they buy songs. It’s a different experience altogether.”

But, Escovedo says, “I don’t know that it affects people like us. It obviously does to a certain extent, but I think musicians that just go out there and play live, this is the way we live and see the whole process. It’s to go out and do it in front of people. Artists like me don’t get a lot of radio [play]. There’s only one way to deliver and that’s through live performance. The fact that there isn’t the kind of support there once was with labels hasn’t changed in that respect for us.”

Alejandro Escovedo will headline WMSE’s Eighth Annual Backyard BBQ, which takes place on Saturday, Sept. 2 from noon to 8 p.m. at the band shell in Bay View’s Humboldt Park. Diego’s Umbrella, Twin Brother, Whiskey of the Damned and the Koch-Marshall Trio are also on the bill.

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