Last night I watched Alejandro Escovedo outlive another bar. Onstage at Austin's beloved, appropriately named Hole in the Wall, which is about to be pushed out of its home by a landlord hungry to sell the property, his just-off-the-road band knocked out a no-nonsense rock 'n' roll set. The front man delivered a few jokes about the amount of time he'd spent in the dive, and mocked the audience members who claimed to have been at his first gig at the Hole ("There were about five people there, and I know them all by name," he quipped), but he didn't get all weepy for the club, which has bid premature farewells before. Alejandro Escovedo knows what he's doing when it comes to saying goodbye.
His career is full of goodbyes, in fact — full of closures mourned or unresolved, long-threatened or out-of-the-blue. He knew a thing or two about endings in the early '90s, when he made his first two solo records; the year before his solo debut, his wife committed suicide. The pain of that event is all over the first record, Gravity, and is distilled into a poignant, intensely reflective song cycle on Thirteen Years.
The songwriter had lived a few lives in the music business before making those records: He'd been a punk in California with the Nuns, blazed a trail for the "alternative" country movement with Rank & File, and had a flirtation with success in a straight-up rock band called the True Believers. He had also, when being on stage was less than lucrative, been a clerk at Austin's Waterloo Records, a mom-and-pop retailer that was just coming into its own when it started a spin-off record label called Watermelon. In its brief reign as Austin's signature label, Escovedo's records were the imprint's crowning achievement.
But they've been out of print for years now, thanks to a bankruptcy that left a number of artists, such as Austin-via-Bakersville quartet the Derailers, feeling they had gotten the shaft. Yet Escovedo, one of the artists whose records have been hardest to find during their out-of-print limbo, doesn't hold a grudge. Speaking of label co-founder Heinz Geissler, he says: "In all honesty, I never had a problem with him. He was very conservative with their money, and he had to be, you know — it was a small label. I think the problem that they had was that they just signed too many acts."
It makes business sense for Escovedo to be forgiving; it's Geissler himself who is now reissuing the records. His new label, Texas Music Group, bought the masters of Gravity and Thirteen Years — from himself, as it were — in Watermelon's bankruptcy proceedings. (Other "Watermelon Re-Issues," including two from Don Walser, have also made it to record store shelves.)
For the new editions, Geissler let Escovedo choose his own bonus material. Each record contains a second disc that delivers material fans have long wished for. Recordings of songs, like "Pale Blue Eyes" and Ian Hunter's "I Wish I Was Your Mother" (an idea being floated at the moment has Escovedo co-writing some material with Hunter for his next album), that have been part of the singer's live show for so long they've become his own, fill out Thirteen Years. On Gravity, a full live disc demonstrates the way Escovedo has always kept his songs fresh by reconfiguring his band and arrangements.
Those of us who used to go see the "Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra," back when more than a dozen musicians would take the stage, have long coveted the archive of tapes of those magical shows. Thanks to the Internet, we may soon be able to collect them. Escovedo is about to release a live record through his Web site alejandroescovedo.com (a project that has met with many delays, due to constant touring in support of his latest release), and envisions starting up a series of DIY releases from his collection of tapes. "I really would like to release a box set," he says, "or somehow put out a kind of subscription thing, where people would get a CD every month, or six months, or whatever."
Meanwhile, he has this play to put on ...
They've headed for the other side.
The sun shines brighter there
And everyone's got golden hair.
Of the first batch of ten songs Alejandro Escovedo ever wrote, roughly half of them (including True Believers favorites "Hard Road" and "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over") were about his father, a storied man who, like his son, lived many lives. Years into the younger Escovedo's career, he began to imagine exploring his father's legacy in depth: "It started with 'Wave,' and the idea to do a song cycle specifically about my father's life. That was the first song I wrote specifically with that project in mind."
Then he was approached by some theater folk who were trying to make sense of their own fathers, men whose personalities bridged a gap between Mexico and America, and between the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, they created By the Hand of the Father, a play that incorporates old and new music by Escovedo. The work has been staged in a few cities already, and was almost mounted in San Antonio last year; for the foreseeable future, though, next weekend's shows at the University of Texas at Austin will be the only chance for San Antonio fans to see it.
It's an unusual, hybrid piece that crosses some borders, just like the men it depicts. The text of the play and the songs that move it forward use different means to convey conflicted emotions: while Escovedo is reserved, letting the songs emote for themselves, actresses like co-writer Rose Portillo are hyper-emotive, recalling a long tradition of cathartic stage acting. Escovedo sees the contrast as an inevitable product of bringing his sensibility to the theater: "I've always felt that great songwriting was like a conversation between two people, you know, like someone whispering a story in your ear. That's what records were always like for me when I was growing up, like these little messages that came in the dark when you were listening to the radio at night and falling asleep in your bed as a kid. Even the rock songs weren't over the top. So my songwriting approach is completely different, but in theater, sometimes it's all about projection, and getting that emotion across to a big audience."
What definitely comes across in the play is something hinted at on the songwriter's previous records: an acknowledgement that what a father leaves a child is both blessing and curse, that a father's tragedy will be restaged by his son, that neither condemnation nor complete acceptance is really what's required in coming to terms with those who gave us life. As with broken marriages and failed nightclubs, saying goodbye is a delicate art.
PostScript: This Saturday's gig at Tin Pan Alley will be yet another goodbye, as Escovedo bids a (temporary, we hope) farewell to longtime drummer Hector Muñoz. Muñoz, a powerful and immensely talented percussionist, is about to become a father himself.
The Alejandro Escovedo cultural overthrow program:
Reissues: Gravity (1992) and Thirteen Years (1994)
New release: By the Hand of the Father (all Texas Music Group)
Still topping the charts (in our heads): A Man Under the Influence (2001, Bloodshot)
Appearing with his band:
9:30pm, Saturday, June 22, $12
Tin Pan Alley
18335 Bracken Dr., 651-9110
By the Hand of the Father
(Theatrical production with special guests Ruben Ramos and Rosie Flores)
Thursday through Saturday, June 27-29 (two shows on Saturday), $26.50
Texas Union Theater
24th and Guadalupe, on the U.T. campus, Austin, 512-477-6060
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