To hear Alejandro Escovedo tell it, when “The Boss” himself, Bruce Springsteen, invited him onstage to join in on the E Street Band's first encore, it was just another day worth living.
“It was sloppy and wasn't great, but it was a good time,” recalls Escovedo from a hotel room in Denver, where he was playing a set at the Democratic National Convention. “I was thinking how incredible it was the whole time.”Springsteen told the Dallas crowd he was excited about getting to play with “one of the really great Texas singer-songwriters” and launched into the opening chords of “Always a Friend,” the first track from Escovedo's recently released album, Real Animal.
“Beautiful gesture on his part,” Escovedo says. “He was having as much fun as I was.”
Born in Texas but raised mostly in Southern California, Escovedo's new tour in support of Animal is all at once a homecoming, a rebirth and the live debut of his most widely hailed—and conceptually bold—solo work.
“I was ready to make something that really rocked with a new kind of immediacy,” he explains, “and kind of just celebrated the exuberance and joy of making music in the first place. I think that's what brought so much energy to the experience.”
Escovedo's back-story is central to Real Animal and may be the reason he's in such a celebratory mood these days. Born to a storied family full of musicians playing varying styles (percussionist Sheila E and ex-Dragon Mario Escovedo, to name two), Alejandro's pre-solo days included stints in The Nuns, proto-cowpunks Rank and File and ill-fated Austin music darlings The True Believers. His solo career began in the early '90s, and before the decade ended, his half-dozen creative endeavors had led No Depression magazine to declare him “Artist of the Decade.” The accolades were nice, but during that period he'd also endure a nasty divorce, followed by his ex-wife's suicide and, years later, his father's death.
The last time he spoke with CityBeat, in 2003, Escovedo had narrowly escaped death himself. Fresh from his catastrophic collapse due to a bout with hepatitis C, he was the focus of an impressive outpouring of support from the music community. The ensuing Por Vida benefit shows and a two-disc tribute compilation featured names like Lucinda Williams, Ian Hunter, Los Lonely Boys, Son Volt and John Dee Graham among its many contributors.“I did feel a little embarrassed,” Escovedo says, “but it ended up introducing me to a lot of people—people who've really made me want to go on and make music, you know?”
He returned in 2006 with The Boxing Mirror, a record Escovedo has claimed elsewhere to mark “the end of dealing with all that stuff.” Finding a new approach was the natural next step. Real Animal finds him making music that treats listeners to a journey that spans decades of pop sub-culture history in a little less than an hour.
The source of the album's succinctness, Escovedo says, is longtime friend and Bay Area singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet, with whom he co-wrote all the songs.
“I think he brought this type of support system I had never had before when it came time to write songs. He had a very keen eye for detail. And he wouldn't let me look away or shy away from issues. He would press me to be very pointed about certain things, to focus more and really expose them for what they were.”
Asked what he thinks of the results, Prophet offered: “They [critics] say it's autobiographical. But the record doesn't really let the truth get in the way. It is a combination of poetry, prose, short stories, diary—all thrown into one thing. It was a lot of fun to write. And difficult to record.”
Swinging from debauched and declarative, the lyrical images are particularly poignant. Taken from time living at the famed boarding house, “Chelsea Hotel '78” reads like a deposition: “Nancy called up to our room / Said, ‘Come help with Sid' / We went down and looked around / The dealer let us in.” Defunct Huntington Beach punk clubs (“Golden Bear”), his late Rank and File mates (“Chip n' Tony”)—everybody gets retro-profiled meticulously, with “Nun's Song” perhaps offering Escovedo's sincerest plea: “We've got so much to live for / It's not too late.”
He says he's never been more optimistic about his career.
Escovedo says the question he's asked most often now makes the least sense to him: Why is he still not “a success?”“What does that mean?” he chuckles. “I've been able to do this thing for more than 30 years. Not very many people can say they've had the chance to do that.
“I've made my living as touring musician my entire career,” he said. “It's only getting better for me to go out and play. I feel strong, like I can play these songs for a long time.”
Alejandro Escovedo plays with Carrie Rodriguez on Monday, Sept. 8, at Belly Up Tavern. 858-481-8140. www.alejandroescovedo.com.