At the bottom of the world, looking up
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, July 27, 2012
There are many reasons for visiting Austin during the South by Southwest Music Conference, but one of the best is the rare chance to see the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. It’s only once a year that the hometown hero supplements his regular rock-and-roll band with enough strings, horns, keys and singers to swell the Tex-Mex, cosmic-cowboy, glam-rock and punk-rock elements in his music to majestic proportions. It’s a show that makes obvious the often overlooked virtues of this underrated rock-and-roller.
This year the orchestra played a free show on March 16 from a temporary stage in the northwest corner of the parking lot for Jo’s Coffee and the San Jose Hotel. The sloping asphalt was filled with show-biz pros and local families, and the headliner took the stage backed by guitar, bass, drums, keys, cello, violin, trumpet, two saxophones and two female singers. The skinny singer-guitarist was dressed in a shiny copper jacket, black shirt and several short scarves that ended in pleated fans across his chest.
Escovedo, who performs at the Birchmere on Sunday, devoted much of the March 16 set to songs from his new album, “Big Station,” released in June. The song that made the biggest impact on first listen was “Bottom of the World,” a rough-hewn rocker with a refrain that invited singing along: “You can’t call home from the bottom of the world.” It’s a commentary on the world from the perspective of neighborhoods where the bohemian and the poor are pushed together, not unlike Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
“Are there similarities to ‘Desolation Row’? Absolutely,” Escovedo agrees. “The ‘bottom of the world’ is both a physical and psychic place. It’s a place where you land after you’ve been beat up and tossed to the wolves; it’s a place that gives you a kind of enlightenment that maybe people who are more sheltered don’t have. I’ve always tried to write records that were emotionally naked, but now with ‘Big Station,’ there’s hope in these songs that things are going to get better. I’m saying, ‘This is what I’ve gone through, but I’m blessed to be here.’ ”
The new studio album -- like its predecessors “Real Animal” in 2008 and “Street Songs of Love” in 2010 -- was co-written by Escovedo and Chuck Prophet and produced by Tony Visconti. Prophet, a solo artist who once was part of the Americana-garage-rock band Green on Red, specializes in the odd blend of roots-rock and art-rock that Escovedo favors. Visconti has produced landmark albums for David Bowie, T. Rex and Iggy Pop -- all crucial influences for Escovedo. This trilogy of recordings has lifted Escovedo from cult stardom and a near-fatal bout with hepatitis onto the lower rungs of the Billboard charts for the first time.
“During that illness, I had a lot of time to reflect on everything,” Escovedo says, “and one thing that made me feel better was the memory of all the bands I’d been in -- all the camaraderie and crazy times. After ‘The Boxing Mirror,’ which was such a downer of a record, I wanted to do something looser, more of a romp. So I set out to tell the story of my life in bands, starting with the Nuns.” Those songs became the album “Real Animal.”
“What Chuck brought was, he was a really good songwriter who’d had very similar experiences,” Escovedo adds. “He’d also grown up in Southern California and had been in a lot of bands. He knew the territory, and when you’re writing songs that’s very important. Tony is like a master chef; we do all the prep work, and once we get in there to make the record, he shapes it.”
For “Big Station,” Escovedo wanted to write songs that could serve equally well as descriptions of an individual, a relationship or the world at large. “Bottom of the World,” for example, could refer to a depressed loner, a broken-hearted lover or a marginalized community. In similar fashion, “Common Mistake,” a brittle, Bowie-ish dance number, could be pointing out the mistakes made by a single person, a couple or society as a whole.
Another of the album’s songs, “San Antonio Rain,” seems to describe the severe drought that has afflicted Texas in recent years. “The rain ain’t gonna come,” Escovedo laments over a lazy country-rock lope. But it soon becomes clear that the drought is as psychological as it is meteorological, and that it could be ended by a lover or a friend as easily as a thunderstorm.
“Yes, it’s about the drought,” the singer concedes, “but it’s also about the realization that you can’t numb yourself during emotional crises. It’s about a longing for different places and different feelings. It’s about a relationship that seems abandoned. We tried that song in different tempos, and we both felt this country feel worked best.”
All of these songs, whether the surface is Americana, punk-rock or Brit-glam, carry a current of Mexican music. Escovedo’s parents were born in Mexico and immigrated to California (a story he told in the stage musical “By the Hand of the Father”). His half brothers were Pete and Coke Escovedo, percussionists in Santana, and Pete’s daughter is Sheila E. That background can be heard on the new album in the hints of Tex-Mex melody, in the trumpet and violin fills, and in the lyric references to drug wars in Tecate and immigration restrictions in California.
The influence is inescapable on “Sabor a Mi” (“A Taste of Me”), an old Mexican ballad made famous by Luis Miguel, Los Panchos and Yoshiro Hiroishi. Escovedo sings it in Spanish in an arrangement of ghostly echo and seemingly faraway voices.
“When I think of that song, I think of the Los Panchos version, which was a huge hit,” Escovedo says. “Every Chicano family had that record in the ’60s. I lost my older brother Bobby within the last year. He was the family curator; he kept all the information about my dad, where we came from and the Indian tribes we came from. He used to sit around with my dad and sing this song. So I wanted to record it for him.”
When Escovedo comes to the Birchmere, he will be leading a quartet that includes drummer Chris Searles, bassist Bobby Daniel and new guitarist Billy White (replacing the album’s David Pulkingham, who has gone on to a solo career). This compact band will hint at the mariachi conjunto, the jazz combo, the hillbilly group and the British rock band suggested at moments on the new album. But back in March, the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra made all of those implicit flavors explicit, made all of those hidden ensembles visible onstage. The parking-lot show was a window that opened on all of the riches that are always present, but often hidden, within Escovedo’s music.