Rootsy American sound headed to Water Street

09:53 AM, Mar 28, 2013

Alejandro Escovedo, songwriter. (Photo by Todd Wolfson)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: The Club at Water Street, 204 N. Water St.
Admission: $18 advance, $20 at the door, available at waterstreetmusic.com or (888) 512-7469.

Coming back from the dead works fine if you’re creating a new TV series for young adults. And while there are easier ways to get it done, it can also work for songwriters, like Alejandro Escovedo, in need of some fresh perspective.

First, some context on this astounding singer-songwriter, who is joined by his band, the Sensitive Boys, Friday at The Club at Water Street. He is of Mexican descent and punk-rock heritage. One of the bands that he played with in the ’70s, The Nuns, opened for The Sex Pistols on the infamous 1978 night when the British punks self-destructed on a San Francisco stage, ending the band’s career.

As a young, creative mind, Escovedo wrote poems, short stories and film treatments, various prosy things. But not songs. Now 62, Escovedo is a late bloomer there. “I didn’t start writing songs until I was 30,” he says. “Insecurity. Fear maybe a little bit.”

Whatever held him back, he overcame it in the ’80s, after a revelatory move to Austin, Texas. “Here, they create,” he says. “It’s a beautiful atmosphere. The swimming, the beautiful girls, the Mexican food, the beer. It’s almost placed perfectly, in the heart of Texas, this huge state of conservative thought. An oasis of not only liberalism, but for tolerance for things outside the box, and respect for different kinds of philosophy and religion.”

In Austin, Escovedo adopted the sound of his fellow singer-songwriters. The rootsy, alternative country that’s an American thing. A blend of country, blues, jazz, rugged poetry, and always a sense that the landscape is much, much larger than you are. It is music contained in many forms, all of which Escovedo has seemingly sampled throughout his career. “I don’t think there’s one I haven’t played in,” Escovedo says. “Quintets, quartets, trios, duets, solo, big bands, with strings, with horns, with keyboards….” He can rock hard, although the performance with The Sensitive Boys is billed as acoustic. “We’ll play electric guitars also,” Escovedo says, “but we’ll play them very quietly.”

Think of all of the great music and songwriters of the past decade or two, and then consider this: No Depression magazine, which chronicles the efforts of these craftsmen, in 1998 declared Escovedo its Artist of the Decade. That’s how good Escovedo is.

He has worked himself into the role of the curator of this sound. “Sounds of America” was a concert series last year in Chicago’s Symphony Center in which musicians were asked to define the music of a particular region of America. Marshall Crenshaw did Detroit. Suzanne Vega, Greenwich Village. A handful of contemporary jazzmen, the ’50s jazz scene of New York City. The Rebirth Brass Band, New Orleans. Arlo Gurthrie, Route 66. Escovedo, Austin. His portrait opened with the ’50s gospel group the Bells of Joy, with stops at the 13th Floor Elevators, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt and the Butthole Surfers. Music interwoven with narration, Escovedo says, such as “the story of the woman who picked up Janis Joplin and took her to Threadgill’s for the first time.”

So Escovedo can tell a story. But maybe not all stories.

I’ve been trying to write a book,” he says. “I’m having a difficult time.

I don’t mind introspection. But there’s something a little petrifying about it. It’s one of those things that sounds like a great idea, but when I start to do it, it feels uncomfortable.”

Escovedo doesn’t say, but there’s something in his past, apparently his childhood, that he simply can’t speak of. “Difficult memories,” he says.

That’s kind of the big dilemma: Does everybody need to write about it? I have kids, they might get a little wigged out about it. All the other stuff, as I got older, even stuff that was very difficult to go through, I can go through now.”

Those kids he mentioned? Seven, with three different women. The women? One of his wives committed suicide after their 13-year relationship ended. Escovedo detailed that in a song called “Thirteen Years,” with the kind of melancholy that remains a signature of his writing. And there’s the hepatitis C. Songwriters are perceptive creatures, but Escovedo ignored the illness for years, until he collapsed after a show in 2003. He nearly died. Musician friends threw together benefits to pay his medical bills.

More writing fodder: A new spirituality. “When I was first ill, I was dealing mostly with western medicine,” Escovedo says. “My girlfriend at the time was a Buddhist, and she introduced me to Buddhist prayer. The process of Tibetan medicine is all holistic, all herbal. It deals with the body as a whole. When I was released from the hospital, she got me into sand mandalas, where you build an image out of sand and then destroy it. It’s a beautiful ceremony.

There’s so much to learn from an experience like that, a dark experience. But surviving it created so much good in my life. It brought my music into focus, my relationships with friends into focus. I stopped drinking.

What’s really changed, whereas I wrote in a perspective that was socially aware in the beginning, I drifted away from that. I try to look at the world from a distance, maybe from different character. It’s a more human view. Going through intense experiences really opens the mind.”