Sheila E.’s uncle and Pete the Santana percussionist’s half brother was born in San Antonio, and in Austin he might as well be pope. Locals receive his closing, after-the-
industry-weasels-have-gone-home “orchestra” shows at the “South by Southwest” music conference like a cleansing sacrament. Alejandro Escovedo’s alt-country credentials are in order: He wore a bolo tie with Rank & File in the early ’80s and nowadays records for Chicago bad boys Bloodshot. And No Depression magazine was so certain that Son Volt’s Jay Farrar wasn’t going to slip a narcoleptic masterpiece in under the wire that they named Alejandro the Artist of the Decade in March 1998.
He’s a 50-year-old grandfather whose hands are turning numb but still feel compelled to strum. His “Guitar,” though—a song title on the wearily beautiful A Man Under the Influence—is a tip-off. Yeah, Escovedo invited Willie Nelson to pick on With These Hands, his 1996 Rykodisc album that was his one failed ’90s solo shot on a decent-sized indie. And he recorded the new album with help from a Carolina janglebilly cast, from producer Chris Stamey and ex-R.E.M. enabler Mitch Easter to Whiskeytowner Ryan Adams. But Escovedo’s never been a purebred cowpunk. He grew up surfing in Huntington Beach, California, listening to the Velvet Underground. In a scene out of a Chicano Almost Famous, his mother heard “Heroin” and broke his banana album. And ever since he made his chamber-rock move on 1992’s out-of-print Gravity—still his best, most colossally bummed out album, recorded after his second wife committed suicide by driving into Austin’s Town Lake—he has used strings to signify John Cale, not Johnny Gimble.
And part of him has always wanted to swagger like Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, the strings of whose “I Wanna Be Your Dog” sound like a zoo burning down in Escovedo’s live show. Or failing that, Ian Hunter: “Irene Wilde” turned up on 1999’s Bourbonitis Blues. If you’re lucky, he’ll do Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” when he plays the Mercury Lounge May 11 and 12. ‘Cause before there was Rank & File, there were the Nuns, who couldn’t play much, but made a big noise and opened for the Sex Pistols at Winterland in 1978. And after R&F, there were the True Believers, the mid-’80s guitar army—Al, Jon Dee Graham, and younger brother Javier Escovedo (the real Chicano Johnny Thunders)—that old Austin heads will tell you should have been as big as the Replacements.
Which, as Escovedo non-solo projects go, leaves only the Setters, (a moody 1992 one-off with the Silos’ Walter Salas-Humara and Wild Seeds’ Michael Hall) and Buick MacKane (the named-after-a-T-Rex-song-covered-by-G’NR 1996 one-off whose Ryko The Pawn Shop Years kicks harder than anything else Escovedo has recorded).
“The Ballad of Buick MacKane” is also the parenthetical subtitle to “The Last to Know.” On that Gravity weeper, Escovedo lets his dry voice crack as he invokes his favorite Christian icon—Jude, patron saint of lost causes—while managing the implausible feat of making an underpaid rock band’s travails worth giving a shit about. “The Last to Know” also foresaw the trajectory of Escovedo’s rocky ’90s career, not to mention the title of More Miles Than Money, Live 1994-96, which had Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” and the Stones’ “Sway” on it. He toured incessantly, wrote stubbornly melancholic brooders like “Pissed Off 2am” that sometimes suffer from too much cello and classy girl singer dressing up, and burnished his rep with a tiny devout audience who appreciate that he’s much more of a suave motherfucker than, say, the Bottle Rockets.
A Man Under the Influence means to make Escovedo this year’s Neko Case—the Bloodshot breakout who winds up in perfumed magazines and gets props as a rootsy artist that smart people with good taste would like if they’d only listen. I wish it rocked more: Only “Castanets” (“I love her hair in a tangled mess/I like her better when she walks away”) is wicked enough to make Ron Wood’s hair stand at attention. But the album represents Escovedo well. Stamey’s production—sleigh bells here, tremolo guitar there—is just-so without being too slick.
The first two songs, “Wave” and the elegantly aching “Rosalie,” were written about the immigration experience of Escovedo’s 93-year-old father, Pedro, a mariachi, baseball player, and plumber. They’re also included in By the Hand of the Father, a play Escovedo cowrote that premiered in Los Angeles last year and has dates coming up in Chicago, San Antonio, and Seattle. (More mixed-media: Before his Mercury Lounge show on the 12th, the singer-songwriter will keep his mouth shut and play guitar at Housing Works Books while Mississippi dirt road novelist Larry Brown reads.) The Leonard Cohen fatalism that’s marked all Escovedo’s recent work still runs through A Man Under the Influence. But the morose lifer who began his first solo album anticipating his own hanging no longer sounds certain that he’s doomed.
Could be that working with a former dB who values texture and tunefulness above all spurred him to write the most buoyant set of melodies of his career. Or maybe the impetus was getting inside his dad’s self-deceiving dreams about crossing the border—”The sun shines brighter there,” he tells himself, “and everyone’s got golden hair.” Either way, Escovedo sounds content, assured that even if this life is all about pain and loss, in the end “we break, to love again.” And like he knows that he just made his second-best album, and maybe someone will pay attention this time. “If it’s not a rhapsody,” he reasons, “it’ll just have to do.”
Alejandro Escovedo plays Mercury Lounge May 11 and 12.