“Musically, Alejandro Escovedo is in his own genre,” notes David Fricke in Rolling Stone. High words of praise indeed, especially at a time when most popular music is boxed into styles and rife with references, influences, and antecedents. Escovedo may possess a miles-wide palette of music that he has absorbed and draws from, yet his own sound defies categorization and transcends boundaries. He is also a consummate storyteller who is held in the highest esteem by his peers, one of who describes him as a “poet of the ordinary event.”
Escovedo’s music can range from full force rock’n’roll to the subtle delicacy heard from a string quartet, sometimes in the same song. Fricke describes him well as “a folk-blues classicist with a gritty, plaintive voice and an equal fondness for dirty boogie and spectral balladry.” That approach has distinguished Escovedo as one of contemporary music’s truly original and unique artists, earning him consistent critical hosannas. The breadth and depth of his creativity prompted No Depression magazine to name him its Artist of the Decade even before the close of the 1990s.
His acclaimed solo career follows Escovedo’s time in a series of influential bands: The Nuns, Rank and File and The True Believers. Since emerging on his own in the early 1990s, he has released eight albums marked by a stunning variety of music and eloquent lyrical expression, all of them praised by critics for their power, beauty, and sophistication. The diversity of his live performances has been equally broad. Escovedo usually takes the stage within some permutation of a rock band and/or string ensemble, but he has also performed solo as well as with his 13-piece Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, which has featured horns, cello, violin, accordion, percussion, and pedal steel guitar. His songs have even inspired a theatrical collaboration: By the Hand of the Father, which has earned high praise on the stage across North America and as an album featuring songs and stories from the theatrework. Throughout it all, Escovedo has maintained an artistic integrity and dignity rare in these times as well as any other.
One factor underlying the potency found within the music of Alejandro Escovedo is his multicultural heritage. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, the son of an immigrant father from Saltillo, Mexico, who sired 12 children. Pedro Escovedo–whose life seeded By the Hand of the Father and is among the stories the work tells–sang in mariachi bands, boxed, and hustled pool for extra cash, and labored everywhere from the fields as a youngster to a shipyard later in life. Three of his sons became noted musicians: Alejandro and his percussionist brothers Coke and Pete, whose many credits include the seminal Latin rock acts Santana and Malo.
Growing up in California, Escovedo developed an early and abiding passion for rock’n’roll. In his own music, Alejandro has respectfully nodded in style and cover songs to such primal influences as The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, The Stooges and Mott The Hoople. When punk rock emerged during his college years in San Francisco, Escovedo started his first band, The Nuns, when he needed a group for a student film he was making. The band’s influential run as founders of the Frisco punk scene includes opening the last show by The Sex Pistols.
Alejandro followed with a stint as the lead guitarist for country-punk pioneers Rank & File, which landed him in Austin. He then started The True Believers, a star-crossed yet notable guitar-driven roots rock band that included his brother Javier and now acclaimed singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham. When The True Believers broke up in 1987, Escovedo’s musical style went through a transition, and he began producing more personal and introspective music in the singer-songwriter tradition that was still as powerful as his rock’n’roll past.
With the 1992 release of Gravity, his first solo album, Escovedo was immediately noted as “a major artist,” as the Detroit Metro then described him. To wit, following its release he was voted Musician of the Year in the annual Austin Music Awards. Escovedo’s next album, Thirteen Years, was an unflinching examination of the emotions surrounding a marriage coming to an end. With These Hands found him recording with everything from a full string section that included his daughter Maya to a family percussion group that featured his brother Pete and niece Sheila E. More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-1996 captured his stunning live performance style, while Bourbonitis Blues mixed live and studio cuts of both original and cover songs to illuminate the origins of Escovedo’s oeuvre. A Man Under The Influence followed with another collection of original material and featured guests like Ryan Adams and members of Whiskeytown, Superchunk, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Over these years Escovedo has also toured and recorded an album with Walter Salas-Humara (The Silos) and Michael Hall (Wild Seeds) as The Setters, and played and recorded an album (The Pawn Shop Years) with his hard rock side project, Buick MacKane.
One theme running through a number of Escovedo’s songs was the life and bicultural experience of his father, which he felt formed the spine of a larger work. Uniting with the esteemed Los Angeles theater company About Productions, Alejandro helped write and present By the Hand of the Father, a groundbreaking original theater production that reflects on the 20th Century journey of Mexican-American men who straddled a border and passed on a distinct cultural legacy to subsequent generations. It premiered in Los Angeles in June 2000 and has been performed at a variety of prestigious venues across North America, earning kudos as an “impassioned ode” and “moving homage” with “gorgeous music.”
In 2002, Escovedo released the CD By the Hand of the Father: Stories & Songs from the Original Theatrework, which featured such guests as singer Rosie Flores, Tejano star Ruben Ramos (of Los Super Seven fame) and Alejandro’s brother Pete Escovedo. The album united older songs that inspired the theatrework with those newly written for it along with dramatic sequences, and earned such praise as “career masterwork” (Oakland Press) and “jubilant, rhythmic and suffused with joy” (The New Yorker). At the same time, Gravity and Thirteen Years were also re-released in enhanced and newly mastered versions that include bonus CDs of rare material.
Aside from an artistically satisfying music career that for all the high praise has resulted in “more miles than money,” to quote one of his song, Escovedo’s other passion is his family. He is devoted to seven children and acknowledges the irony of how his life has come to parallel that of his father, whose spiritual presence and inspiration are obviously a continuum in his son’s creative works.
Within the frequently indelicate balance or art, life and commerce, Escovedo has managed to maintain his integrity and survive, bolstered at the tougher junctures by the fact that what he creates truly means something to him as well as others. “After all the touring I’ve done, I’ve found that there is an audience out there, however large or small, that wants to hear my songs,” he says. “And I am willing to go out there and play them.”