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Balancing Act

Alejandro Escovedo teeters between rock and restraint

When Alejandro Escovedo speaks, it's in a near whisper. He begins his sentences slowly maybe two or three times before finding the right words to lead him where he wants to go. As often as not, the Austin singer/songwriter finishes those sentences with an inconclusive "so ..." or a fading "and ...," as if there's so much more behind what he's just said that's it's hardly worth going into.

There is more. As you're likely to notice, this week's music section has a running Sex Pistols theme, in honor of a band hardly anyone got a chance to see the first time around. Escovedo, though, didn't just see the Pistols, he opened for them. In January 1978, when they played their final show (or so everyone thought) in San Francisco, the opening act was the Nuns, Escovedo's first band.

"It was pandemonium," remembers Escovedo. "It wasn't very musical, but it was interesting. Sid [Vicious] came over to our house and hung out with us. They were barely speaking to each other; in fact, most of them weren't speaking to each other. So I never would have thought that they would have [reunited]. It's really disappointing, because I thought they were the perfect example of what a true crash-and-burn rock band ought to be."

Escovedo took the long road, through the punk Nuns, the early cow-punk of Rank & File and the guitar storm of True Believers -- three bands critics like to call seminal, and Escovedo calls "near hits, or near misses, whatever." Each group approached "success" but never quite made it over the hump of its own expectations. Escovedo's been referred to as a survivor for his longevity, and a 1996 Rolling Stone headline tagged him a legend for his travails. But according to Escovedo, it was all just rock and roll to him until the True Believers' gravy train jumped the rails. That last one hurt.

"It didn't really affect me until the True Believers. The Nuns were my very first band, I was just learning to play guitar and I'd never entertained the idea of being a musician before," Escovedo says. "I was enjoying this fluke, almost, in that we had become successful. It was really a joke. And then with Rank & File, I took it a little more seriously, but only because [the rest of the group] did, and that band didn't turn out to be what we had hoped it would be -- or what I had hoped it would be.

"The True Believers was the first time that I really put in a lot of effort and sweat blood, and it meant a whole lot to me. That was my first real heartache. That almost did me in, really, as far as music was concerned. I just put so much into it, and after that band had broken up [in 1987], I was incredibly disappointed and wasn't even sure if I was gonna play again."

But the breakup of the True Believers was hardly Escovedo's last heartache. Since the Believers lost faith, Escovedo has assembled an extended family of Austin musicians and friends, releasing three CDs as a solo artist: 1992's Gravity, '93's Thirteen Years and the new With These Hands. All have earned Escovedo an increasing sense of awe among critics, an enduring respect from a small legion of fans and -- commercially, at least -- not a whole hell of a lot else. But if, as Escovedo says, he hasn't quite "found that kind of success that people really value, or deem successful," he's created what will likely be his most lasting work in those three releases.

If there's a central event that dominates Escovedo's more recent career, it's this: after a 13-year relationship that spanned the course of his wilder days, Escovedo's second wife, Bobbi Levie, took her life in 1991, shortly after the birth of the couple's second daughter. That's the kind of full-bore emotional trauma that can destroy a strong man. To come face to face -- or even phone to phone -- with someone who's been through that trial and can still speak of art and love inspires the kind of awe generally reserved for the protagonists of Greek tragedy and people who survive airplane crashes.

It's that heartache that lent gravitas to Gravity, which Escovedo describes now as "an album about grief and pain." Thirteen Years was "about surviving all those sorts of emotions and problems and situations." And With These Hands, he admits, is the completion of the cycle. I won't say closure, and Escovedo doesn't either, but you get the drift.

"In a way, they kind of do work as a trilogy," Escovedo says. "I definitely wanted to go into this album making it different from the last two. I just wanted it to be a bit lighter, kind of stay away from such a personal bent on everything. I'm not so sure that I succeeded in that."

He didn't -- not really. But you can hear the struggle to break into something new, or something old -- something different, anyhow, in the songs. It's inherent in the disc's tension between squalling guitar feedback and string arrangements -- an idiosyncratic balance Escovedo has been able to strike on all three CDs with the help of producer/guitarist Stephen Bruton and the sit-down stylings of the band of Austin regulars Escovedo calls "the Orchestra."

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