Rallying Round Al

Houston pitches in to help an ailing Austinite; also: Dennis Kucinich hits the hip-hop hustings

When you think about musician-playwright Alejandro Escovedo, you start thinking about religious icons. It's easy to imagine his image painted on tin and hung on the walls of a shrine -- Santo Alejandro, the patron saint of Austin cool.

When the San Antonio-born Escovedo arrived back in Texas in 1981, after spending his childhood and teen years in California, the soul of Texas music was never the same. Escovedo -- much as Jason and the Scorchers did in the Southeast -- reinvigorated the indigenous country scene by sandblasting it with punk energy, and kept on experimenting from there.

He helped move Austin from its old position as a cosmic cowboy/blues town to whatever combination of rock, alt-country, punk and other stuff it is today. That Austin's music scene is pretty much undefinable now owes a lot to Escovedo, who in the words of Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke "is his own genre," and Austin's spirit is now Escovedo's spirit.

"He is one of the people that represents the ceiling of artistry for Texas music," adds Cactus Music and Video general manager Quinn Bishop. "He never has had any kind of marketing plan or anything -- he just made great records."

"He kinda defined the whole alternative country thing," says longtime fan and music industry pro Greg Ellis. "He moved here, he wasn't from here, but he certainly influenced a lot of bands. And most of all, he has stayed true to whatever he wanted to do. More than any real, tangible musical influence -- the True Believers didn't start a whole wave of three-guitar rock bands in Texas, and there's not many other folks out there now with string sections or whatever, but certainly everybody looks to Al as a beacon of integrity."

Right now, this beacon's light has grown dim, though with our help it can be made to shine again as brightly as ever. After a performance in Phoenix of his play By the Hand of the Father this past April, Escovedo collapsed on stage and was hospitalized. After eight years of grappling with hepatitis C, he finally was sent to the sidelines. Ever since, Escovedo has been recuperating at home. He has no insurance, and he needs our help to defray both his mounting medical bills and his living expenses.

There's a Web site where you can donate (www.alejandrofund.com), but it would be a hell of a lot more fun to chip in at the December 13 benefit at the Continental Club. Joe Ely is the headliner, and the undercard features a superdiverse assortment of 14 of Houston's finest bands, including Clouseaux (featuring new singer/ ukulele player Rhonda Roberts), the John Evans Band, Los Fantastics, the John Sparrow, Sugar Shack, Drop Trio, Dietsu, Waxploitation DJs, the Dragstrip Brothers, DJ Sonic Reducer, Washington Westcott, Hayes Carll, Mando Saenz and the Defenestration Unit. And if past benefits are anything to go by, a surprise guest or two wouldn't be too shocking. Cactus Music has donated some door prizes -- CDs and T-shirts and the like. A minimum $10 donation gets you in the doors, which open at 3 p.m. and close 11 hours later. Do the math -- it works out to pennies (well, okay, quarters and pennies) per band. Ely alone commands that price, not to mention Ely and more than a dozen of H-town's finest.

The event was organized by local attorney (and frequent Press contributor) Tim O'Brien. The often pugnacious scribe decided to take on the project for the simple reason that no one else in town had done so. The idea began to germinate when O'Brien received a mass e-mail from Alejandro's brother Mario, who is a member of the San Diego hard rock/garage band the Dragons, about a West Coast benefit for Alejandro. After making a few phone calls and finding out that no Houston benefit was planned, O'Brien decided to just go ahead and do it himself. "I think a lot of times people in Houston want to help, but unless they get someone to push them, it doesn't get done," he says.

And as it turned out, 15 bands did want to help. (More, in fact, as many bands that found out about the benefit later have asked to be added to the bill.) "I just called them up," O'Brien says. "I just started asking people -- everybody and anybody." And in case you're thinking of doing a benefit on your own, O'Brien believes the best way to put one together is to sign up a big name first -- Ely in this case -- and then start rounding up the others.

Racket believes you wouldn't have too much trouble putting together a great benefit -- even sans Ely -- for someone as loved and respected as Escovedo. O'Brien dropped everything to line up the talent. Cactus fell over itself to get involved, as have Houston's bands. So has the Continental Club.

Some may wonder why Houston's music community is rallying around a guy who has never lived here. Why, these people may ask, are the Continental and Cactus pulling out all the stops for this guy? It's a cynical question, but a fair one, and it can be addressed three ways. First, there's the whole artistic stature thing. Second, it's up to you to organize whatever benefits you think necessary. Third, there's the fact that Escovedo has done his part for others in the past. Escovedo has played a major role in helping along the Austin-based SIMS Foundation, a charity -- founded in the wake of an Austin musician's suicide -- that helps musicians find affordable mental health care. "The fact that he has helped so many other folks with that kind of thing -- I mean, shit, people ought to be lining up to help that guy out," says Bishop.

When asked why they had decided to host a benefit on a lucrative Saturday night, the Continental's Trey Armstrong said, "Hey, man. It's Al. You know the drill."

Dennis da Menace

K-Rino's in da house! Unhh. Unhh. DJ Chill's in da house! Unhh. Killa Kyleon in da house! Unhh. Dennis Kucinich is in da house! South Park Coalition's in da…wait a minute. Rewind that shit back. Dennis Kucinich!?

Yep, it really happened. In a campaign stop that seemed more like watching C-SPAN on three hits of acid than anything approaching objective reality, the diminutive and scrappy Ohio congressman was spotted pressing the flesh -- or more accurately, soul-shaking the flesh -- at KPFT studios in the wee hours of December 4.

Kucinich was there at the behest of Matt Sonzala, the host of KPFT's underground hip-hop show Damage Control and another Press contributor. (We really should consider paying these guys cash instead of offering them free publicity. We're just kidding, of course.) And between beats provided by DJ Chill, Kucinich shared his views on the issues -- he's in favor of universal health care, a 15 percent reduction in defense spending, the decriminalization of marijuana, the abolition of the death penalty, much stricter gun control, free tuition for whoever wants to go to college, and so on. You know, all the feel-good mumbo-jumbo that makes run-of-the-mill Anglo Texans start thinking Lenin has risen from his tomb. (Willie Nelson has endorsed Kucinich, but a fat lot of good that's going to do him on Election Day.)

But Damage Controlisn't for the Hank Hills of the world, and Kucinich believes that the urban hip-hop community is fertile ground for his message, so much so that he made this appearance at the end of a 20-hour day and five hours before his plane left at 5 a.m. He seems to be positioning himself to pick up the black vote that will likely be shopping for a new candidate once the Reverend Al Sharpton drops out of the race.

The quixotic candidate looked very small amid the many tall and/or beefy rappers, but he knew variations of the soul shake that would befuddle John Shaft -- his online bio says he grew up in neighborhoods in Cleveland where his was often the only white family. And he's likely the first candidate with an unofficial hip-hop outreach director -- the Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a Pentecostal preacher and author whose official title is National Director of Community Outreach and New Voter Development.

Sekou called in, as did Bun B of the Underground Kings, who was then hanging out in Miami with Scarface. Bun B should have a talk show -- his questions were that on point. He brought up the recent police-related homicide of Nathaniel Jones -- what would Kucinich do to curtail racial strife in a place like riot- and police shooting-plagued Cincinnati? Or police shooting-plagued Houston, for that matter. Kucinich said he would have his newly initiated Department of Peace open a dialogue about it. (When did people stop "talking" and start "opening dialogues"?)

KPFT's Kevin White, who is also a caterer, then sidled up to Racket. "I cooked for Kucinich last time he was in town," he said. "Did you know he was a vegan?" White said that he served Kucinich a mess of couscous and tomatoes. "You know, stuff me and you wouldn't touch."

Just as most Americans won't touch Kucinich's candidacy. But you better believe that future candidates will be stumping at hip-hop events much more often in the years to come.

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