Since going solo in the late '80s, there's been a question buried deep within Alejandro Escovedo's songs. "How do you reconcile yourself to pain and torment? What do you do with it?" And for the last 15 years, I've wondered when the answer would finally come out of him.
The time may be now.
That's significant because Escovedo has been at the nexus of punk, alt-country, and rock 'n' roll since he picked up a guitar in the mid-'70s and formed San Francisco's the Nuns. Then there was Rank & File, the legendary alt-country band, and the True Believers, a band Alejandro formed with his brother, Javier (who earlier had formed the Zeroes with his cousin Robert Lopez, better known these days as El Vez). Afterward, Escovedo switched directions a bit and began his truly serious songwriting career, which resulted in 1992's Gravity and 1993's brilliant 13 Years, albums that helped him get dubbed No Depression magazine's "Artist of the Decade."
Two years ago, Escovedo almost died in Phoenix, collapsing after playing a show there. He'd had hepatitis C for a few years and his liver was shutting down. He began interferon treatments when he got back to his homestead in Texas. That almost killed him, too, he says. So he switched to more holistic treatments and Tibetan healing. (Por Vida, a two-CD tribute album featuring damn near everyone else who rocks with a twang, came out last year.)
"Once I quit the medicine, I felt better immediately," says Escovedo, who hadn't been able to write or perform in well over a year at the time. "I had clarity and strength and my thinking was clear again."
Suddenly, he was writing music again—slowly at first, but it was clear to him that a weird rebirth was happening. Escovedo is just on the front edge of what may well be another breakthrough in his songwriting. He only began performing again with his band (guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, cello, violin) this winter and has done a handful of shows.
"We played three hours in Chicago, and it was so great to be back," he says, reporting that other shows have run over two hours and have a mix of the old (rearranged versions of Gravity-era songs, as well as covers of the Stooges and the Gun Club, among others) and as-yet-unrecorded new material. Escovedo's never been the most open guy about talking about his music conceptually, but by all accounts his recent performances have been loaded with raw power. I have no doubt that it'll mean something, too. Talking to Escovedo—whom I've known peripherally for a decade—it was clear that he's found the kind of peace and repose that he's been chasing in his music and life for a long, long time.
So when he picks up his guitar and starts yearning through the microphone, it'll be something—and, when he's on his game, it can be bigger than life.
Alejandro Escovedo plays Tractor Tavern at 9 p.m. Fri., April 8–Sat., April 9. $20 adv./$23.