Various Artists

Buy this CD for looks, or buy it for life.

I remember the first time I ever saw Alejandro Escovedo. I had just moved to Texas, and Al was on stage with Rank & File. He was a bad-ass-looking Latino with a pearl snap shirt, and he looked great, the perfect contrast to the surfer-boy looks of the Kinman brothers. My friends and I loved him, but we kind of felt he was a fifth wheel in the band musically. We couldn't see that he really did anything.

All that changed the night we went to see them after Al had left the band. They suddenly didn't sound like themselves -- or much of anything else, actually. They had replaced Al with a guy named Junior Brown who was technically superior to Al, but the magic was completely absent.

In the over 20 years since those shows, I've probably seen Al perform more than 100 times. I watched the True Believers take their first tentative steps, saw them develop into an amazing machine and then watched it all crash and burn. I saw Buick MacKane start at crash and burn and then take it further than most of us wanted to go. In the '90s I saw him develop his "orchestra" concept and play over a decade's worth of amazing shows with a revolving cast of players -- shows that were, to me, the epitome of what a performer can accomplish by staying true to his ideals.

However, in the past year and a half, I've not seen Al at all. He's been undergoing treatment for hepatitis C and is unable to deal with the rigors of the road. Por Vida is the amazing tribute his fellow musicians have put together to help him raise money for his astronomical medical bills.

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Tribute records can be problematic sometimes. The diversity that is part of their appeal is sometimes at odds with the songs themselves, making for more than a few well-intentioned messes. Not so with Por Vida. The cohesiveness of this project is amazing. Almost every interpretation is successful, and that's not hyperbole. The love and respect this diverse collection of artists has for Al and his songs is immediately apparent. Even more amazingly, this project was not the work of a single producer or even a real plan. All the artists submitted their own choices, and they were recorded without a common producer.

The key performances here are Ian Hunter's "Just One More Time" and John Cale's "She Don't Live Here Anymore" -- key because these artists are probably the two biggest influences on Al's work. Hearing these artists interpret the work of one of their most talented acolytes is worth the price of this two-disc set. Other highlights include the Jayhawks dreamy, psychedelic take on "Last to Know," cousin Sheila E. and uncle Pete Escovedo's percussive interpretation of "The Ballad of the Sun and Moon," Lucinda Williams's gloriously resigned go at "Pyramid of Tears," Son Volt's True Believers-meets-Crazy Horse version of "Sometimes," Los Lonely Boys's muscular romp through "Castanets," Caitlin Cary's version of "Home by 11" that sounds like an outtake from Rumours, Jennifer Warnes's "Pissed Off 2 AM," which is very reminiscent of her interpretations of Leonard Cohen's work, and Charlie Musselwhite's "Everybody Loves Me," a piece of swampy blues given added poignancy due to the fact that Musselwhite also suffers from hepatitis C.

In addition to Sheila E. and Pete, the Escovedo family is represented by brothers Javier and Mario who have a go at "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over" and "Gravity," respectively. The last word, however, goes to the man himself. "Break This Time" is Al's brand-new song that's a rocking middle finger to hepatitis C and to anyone that tries to count him out.

This is a specially priced double disc. Al has no insurance and needs all the help with his medical bills he can get. It's not often you have a chance to make a difference in the life of an artist who may have made a difference in yours. Pick up a copy of Por Vida, or better yet, two or three. You won't be disappointed.

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