Nothing about Alejandro Escovedo's late-blooming career track has been smooth, easy or particularly rewarding. Even his current crisis was foretold eight years ago: that's when the Austin-based singer-songwriter was first diagnosed with hepatitis C, a viral infection that can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.
Escovedo has a tumultuous, multi-band resume stretching back to the late '70s. Yet he emerged as an American original only with the release of his first solo album, 1992's "Gravity," which showcased his distinctive meld of chamber-music strings, folk-rock rhythms, Velvet Underground rock and Tex-Mex traditions.
Five more albums followed, but Escovedo never developed into either a big seller or a big draw. He did become a critical favorite. No Depression magazine named him "The Artist of the Decade" for the '90s. But Escovedo was forced to maintain a grueling touring schedule of small nightclubs -- which nonetheless seemed to be the natural setting for the emotional intimacy of his songs. Unfortunately, Escovedo didn't take good care of himself, even continuing to drink (definitely not recommended for those with hepatitis C). On April 27, 2003, he collapsed during a performance in Tempe, Ariz., and was hospitalized with internal bleeding. A long and debilitating recovery forced Escovedo to retire from touring -- a major loss of income for a father of seven who, according to his manager, has seldom made more than $30,000 a year. For much of the '90s, Escovedo had supplemented his income with a day job as the rock expert at Austin's Waterloo Records store. Health insurance proved unattainable.
Fortunately, Escovedo, now 53, is so well thought of by his peers that two dozen benefits for him were held throughout the country. And the goodwill built up over years of touring and tirelessly energizing the Austin music scene were further rewarded when 31 artists -- friends, fans, family and former band mates -- signed on for "Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo." Among those contributing to what necessarily became a double CD: Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Calexico, Los Lonely Boys, the Jayhawks, Son Volt, Charlie Sexton and Cowboy Junkies. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Alejandro Escovedo Medical & Living Expense Fund, with another portion helping spearhead an assistance program for other musicians afflicted with Hepatitis C.
Escovedo didn't start playing guitar until he was 24 or writing until he was 30. In the first instance, he may have been resisting family tradition. Escovedo's father (who died recently at 97) played in mariachi bands, and a passion for percussion seemed the dominant musical gene in the rest of the family: Alejandro's older brothers, Pete and Coke Escovedo, played with Santana and Malo, respectively, and cousin Sheila E. with Prince. When Alejandro first picked up a guitar, it was for a college film project. That led to the formation of San Francisco punk band the Nuns, whose pinnacle was opening for the Sex Pistols in their legendary final concert in 1978 at the Winterland.
In the early '80s, Escovedo relocated to Austin and co-founded the pioneering cowpunk quartet Rank and File but did no writing for the group. Later in the decade, Alejandro and another brother, Javier Escovedo, joined with Jon Dee Graham to form the more rock-focused True Believers. They cut two albums, the second of which wasn't released until 1994 -- seven years after the group had broken up.
Catharsis for Escovedo came in 1991, when he found himself emotionally shattered by the dissolution of his 13-year marriage and then the suicide of his estranged wife. Escovedo's first two solo albums, "Gravity" and "Thirteen Years," both dedicated to her, were mournful song cycles that unflinchingly chronicled his sorrow and anguish. They marked a creative, as well as a personal, watershed for Escovedo.
Which may explain why 13 of the 31 songs on "Por Vida" come from those two albums, including Earle's passionate take on "Gravity's" opening track, "Paradise," which asks: "Did you get your invitation? / There's gonna be a public hanging / And the bodies will swing side by side / And it's just I and I. " Other standouts include John Cale's desperate eulogy "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore," the Jayhawks' Byrds-like "Last to Know," Caitlin Cary's weary "By Eleven" and Graham's forceful boogie reading of "Helpless."
Some of the best interpretations of the early songs are the most spare and emotionally stark: Jon Langford and Sally Timms's thumb piano-accompanied blues/waltz, "Broken Bottle," the offhand, busker-style harmonies of M. Ward, Vic Chesnutt and Howe Gelb on "Way It Goes" and Ruben Ramos's pocket-orchestra elegy, "Thirteen Years."
Given Escovedo's background and his penchant for mixing things up in performance, the set's harder-rocking numbers are bracing, from new band-of-the-moment Los Lonely Boys' rollicking romp through "Castanets" and former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter's gritty, shambolic take on "One More Time," to the Minus 5's appropriately bleary plaint "I Was Drunk" and Charlie Musselwhite and Charlie Sexton's swamp-boogie reading of "Everybody Loves Me." Javier Escovedo's take on the True Believers' "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over" is solid, but "Gravity" by the Dragons, a garage-rock band featuring Escovedo's youngest brother, Mario, never lifts off. And Sheila E. and Pete Escovedo's earnest vocals on "The Ballad of the Sun and the Moon" suggest why they are primarily percussionists.
The album's most moving track is also family-inspired: Bob Neuwirth collaborates with Willie Nelson's harmonica virtuoso, Mickey Raphael, on the beautiful "Rosalie," in which Escovedo recast love letters exchanged between his father and his mother back home in Mexico as whispered declarations of enduring love despite seven years of agonizing separation. A miniature, and a masterpiece.
Tres Chicas' "Rhapsody" and the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra's "Velvet Guitar" both underscore Escovedo's passion for music. On the latter, the singer muses "my hands are turning numb, but I still gotta strum my velvet guitar." Literally: Escovedo himself performs "Break This Time," a chugging rocker recorded in April 2003, just before his collapse.
In March of this year, Escovedo continued a long tradition by closing Austin's annual South by Southwest music conference with a two-hour show at the Continental Club, the first time he'd performed in almost a year. Escovedo might not be able to tour again, but in the meantime his friends are doing their part to keep his exquisite songs in circulation.