Alejandro Escovedo is not a ubiquitous rockstar celebrity on the order of, say, Axl Rose. But there's no question that the 63-year-old performer and songwriter embodies the rock 'n' roll ethos more completely than a dozen bloated, fallen arena-rock angels. In a four-decade career that began with the Nuns, a cornerstone of San Francisco's mid-'70s punk scene, Escovedo has built an impressive résumé that includes stints with pioneering roots-punk outfit Rank and File and the harder-edged True Believers. He's survived the requisite near-death experience, won the accolades of his peers (including Bruce Springsteen, who guested on 2010's Street Songs of Love), amassed reams of critical praise, and logged his share of time on the road, racking up "more miles than money," as the title of a 1998 live album put it.
"I don't feel like I've gotten any closer to any sort of household-name thing," Escovedo says during a phone conversation from his home in Austin, Texas. But, he adds, "I'm not trying to keep up with anything. I'm not in any sort of race. I'm really kind of just taking my own path. Ultimately, I got into this to tell stories and make music. I never got into it to be a pop star."
Escovedo has carved out his own celebrity status, to be sure, especially among the alt-country set: In the late 1990s, No Depression magazine hailed him as its Artist of the Decade. But his music, while often grounded in rootsy soil, extends far beyond Americana. At any given time, his palette might encompass not just blues, country, and rock influences, but also punk and even Latin music.
Exhibit A: His most recent release, 2012's Big Station, the third album — following Real Animal and Street Songs of Love — on which he's collaborated with songwriting partner Chuck Prophet (Green on Red) and producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie). Big Station kicks off with the Chuck Berry-esque proto-rock guitar boogie of "Man of the World" and closes with a cover of Mexican composer Alvaro Carrillo's "Sabor a Mi," perhaps best known on these shores as a 1964 hit for American singer Eydie Gorme and the Latin group Trio Los Panchos.
In between, the album pinballs from guitar-driven rock to reflective balladry ("San Antonio Rain") to spare, jittery dance beats (the impassioned "Sally Was a Cop," which explores the human cost of Mexico's drug wars, and "Headstrong Crazy Fools," the groove for which recalls the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love").
"I approach every record with the interest of just telling the story," he says. "With Big Station, we were really trying to tell stories in a different way, and rhythmically also, we were trying to get somewhere different."
Escovedo acknowledges that this varied range — he even toured with a string quintet to promote his 2006 album The Boxing Mirror — can be a tough sell for today's ADHD listener. "I don't think it makes it any easier, that's for sure," he says. "I believe the diversity confuses people. People don't have long attention spans anymore. ... I always gear my records to take a while to get into. I've always heard that it takes repeated listens to appreciate the albums. That doesn't lend itself to this technological world."
The artist sounds at peace with that reality, and in any case, he's not about to go changing things this late in the game. He's already overhauled his approach, and his life, following a bout with hepatitis C that nearly killed him a decade ago. (In true rock 'n' roll fashion, the hardworking, hard-drinking Escovedo basically ignored the disease until he found himself vomiting blood backstage before a show at Arizona State University in 2003, and finished the gig before rushing to the emergency room.)
That experience "made a very profound and significant change in my life," he says now. "It eliminated a lot of things that were unnecessary and made my life a lot more focused. I would say, most importantly, I don't drink anymore. ... And I think my music got a lot better after that, on every level. I became a better singer, a better guitar player, a better writer. My band became better, I became more attentive to my band and how we played together."
Escovedo's band gets a break on a few select dates on his current tour in support of Big Station. A handful of shows (including his March 1 appearance in Atlanta) will find the performer backed by a four-piece band consisting of Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey, Bill Rieflin, and Kurt Bloch (the Minus 5, the Venus 3). He attributes the pairing to an onstage jam with Buck, McCaughey, and Mike Mills at a recent SXSW, and Escovedo's subsequent appearance at Buck's annual Todos Santos Music Festival in Mexico. "I'm excited about playing with these guys," he says. "I've known Scott since I was in the True Believers and he was in Young Fresh Fellows, and I've known Peter since the early days of R.E.M. It's going to be a really great show. I'm excited about it. I'm bringing Susan Voelz, my violin player, also. It should be cool."
For Escovedo, juggling different collaborators and musical styles is just a natural extension of his punk roots. From its earliest days, he says, punk has embraced a melting pot of disparate influences. He describes his own music as "a result of a really vast record collection," citing a hodgepodge of inspirations ranging from the usual punk heroes — the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Iggy and the Stooges, David Bowie — to such unlikely sources as Duke Ellington and Tinariwen, a band of Tuareg musicians from Mali. "Listening to Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent, whatever, and trying to make all those things work into something new, trying to blend all these possibilities — that's what my music's always been about," he says. "Trying to find that combination that works."
Beck and Alabama Shakes...that's about it. I'm sure there's an unknown or two I would…
Well, this years Music Midtown sucks!
I'm pretty sure he was 19.
3 people apparently love handing over an extra 40% in fees for nothing in return…
Dang. I thought they would name some actual headliners.