Guts Spilling Out

Alejandro Escovedo's visceral style bleeds for you.

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Here is a fellow who has his hands full, literally and figuratively. "Yeah, I have time to talk," says Austin-based singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. "I'm holding a baby right now, but I can talk while I'm holding her."

The baby is Juanita, Escovedo's five-month-old daughter. She's another of the many new things in Escovedo's life at the moment. While most parents like to take time off from their jobs following an addition to the family, Escovedo seems to be revving things up. He completed an album, Bourbonitis Blues, his fourth studio effort, which joins Gravity, Thirteen Years, With These Hands, and the live More Miles Than Money.

Last month Escovedo did his yearly stint at Austin's now massive South by Southwest music festival. He is also writing a theater production and will spend two months touring. His April 29 show at Wilbert's will be a songwriter's invasion of Cleveland from both north and south, as highly regarded Canadian artist Fred Eaglesmith will share the bill with Escovedo.

"It was strange how the album came about," Escovedo says of Bourbonitis Blues. "We were in Chicago for two shows at Fitzgerald's with Flaco Jimenez. Bloodshot Records [Escovedo's Chicago-based Americana and insurgent country label] wanted me to contribute a song for a compilation album to mark the label's fifth anniversary, so they sent a mobile recording unit to Fitzgerald's.

"We figured, as long as we were doing it, we would make an EP out of it. When it was said and done, we had recorded seven songs. When we listened to the tape on the drive back to Austin, we just loved it. That's when we decided we could add a couple more songs and do a whole album."

Bourbonitis Blues contains nine songs, four of which were recorded with the mobile unit at Fitzgerald's. Two more were done back in Austin, and three others were recorded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Only five of the songs were Escovedo compositions, as he and the band covered tunes by some of his diverse influences--country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, '70s glitter standard-bearers Lou Reed and Ian Hunter, Reed's avant-garde Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, and J.L. Pierce of the Los Angeles experimental punk group Gun Club. Typical of Escovedo's let-it-all-hang-out style is the spare, confessional "I Was Drunk," the best of the album's originals. As far as a lyrical punch, the man hits as hard as ever.

Some who are familiar with Escovedo's music, but not his past, might find it odd that he would pay homage to artists like Reed, Cale, and Hunter. But Escovedo, 49, has been a member of a few bands with sounds far different from the sparse and emotion-wrenching style of his solo albums. He was in the punk group the Nuns in the 1970s, the cowpunk Rank & File and True Believers, and the harder-rocking Buick MacKane. Even on his own he has covered Reed's "Street Hassle" and the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The Nuns, in fact, made a bit of rock and roll history in 1979 when they opened for the Sex Pistols in San Francisco, the last stop of the English band's legendarily disastrous American tour.

But it's Escovedo on his own who has gathered the critical raves that have made him one of the darlings--if not the darling--of the rich Austin music scene. Despite a lack of headway on the sales charts, Escovedo has a following bordering on messianic. That can make an artist a little ill at ease. Take, for example, No Depression magazine's naming Escovedo Artist of the Decade.

"Well, it's part embarrassment and part honor," he says. "Obviously, I'm happy they think that of me, but it's a weird thing to say about anybody. It's also caused an awful lot of ribbing from my fellow artists. But I would rather be named Artist of the Decade than Hack of the Decade."

Escovedo's style, which has endeared him to his faithful fans, is simply to write lyrics that hold nothing back. Escovedo spills his emotional guts for all the world to see. You don't have to be Bill Clinton to feel Escovedo's pain. Those lyrics, although intensely personal, are still not out of reach of the average listener. Escovedo manages to walk a tightrope--writing about situations so common to most people, yet without too much self-pity, and doing it on a higher plane on which the better songwriters exist. His play, on the other hand, is on a far more personal level. It draws upon his Mexican-American upbringing and the experiences of being in an immigrant family.

"It's called By the Hand of the Father," Escovedo says. "It centers around a group of young men living at the turn of the century. They have all come to Texas from Mexico, looking for a better life and having a hard time finding it. They want to become Americans, but their hearts are still in Mexico. It's almost an opera."

"Yes, it's giving me an opportunity to write new music, within a central theme."

Composer, playwright, band leader, touring musician, dad. Maybe he should be Multimedia Artist of the Decade.

Alejandro Escovedo, with Fred Eaglesmith. 10 p.m., Thursday, April 29, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 West Ninth Street, Warehouse District, $8 ($10 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

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