Although his career began amid the first wave of San Francisco punk, Alejandro Escovedo has long been the quintessential Austin songwriter: brilliant, both live and on record, and still largely unheard and unknown outside a small circle of critics and confederates. He is 50 now, and his latest recording, A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot), which was produced by ex-dB Chris Stamey, may well be his finest work.
Escovedo, who comes to Lilli’s this Sunday, has spent most of his years writing personal songs — about his first wife’s suicide, his father’s emigration from Mexico, his children. His music is capable of rocking or weeping, for he changes the instrumental contexts of his work regularly, elegantly, effortlessly. Who else would think to augment a touring rock band with a violin and a cello and then cover Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog”?
The beginning was only an accident, he says. As a 24-year-old film student/actor in San Francisco, he needed to create a punk band for a student movie. His uncle, Pete Escovedo, was a musician, as was his cousin, Sheila E., but it wasn’t his intention to follow their lead. Nonetheless, the Nuns were born, in the fresh, uncodified fury of 1976. There followed a couple years in New York with Judy Nylon, then a few more with the Kinman brothers in Rank & File, a great band, though long out of print. They were cow punk, as it was called back on the cusp of the ’80s, simultaneously pop, punk, and country. Asked to consider reissuing their first two LPs a few years back (Escovedo left after the homonymous debut), a Rhino executive countered that the only people who would care were music critics, and they’d get the record for free.
Escovedo settled back home in Texas (he was born in San Antonio) and formed the True Believers with his brother, Javier, and Jon Dee Graham. No sale there, either, though EMI tried, more or less, and Ryko offered a posthumous two-disc summation in 1994. It too is now out of print, as are some of the six albums he’s recorded as a solo artist.
No matter, there’s still work to be done. And this time he’s gone back to theater, and to his ancestral roots. Part of the impetus for Under the Influence comes from a theatrical production Escovedo co-wrote and scored, By the Hand of the Father. The play, drawn mostly from the memories of second-generation immigrants, honors their parents, the men and women who crossed the border and did the hard work.
There are two songs common to the play and the CD: the opening diptych, “Wave” and “Rosalie.” Much of the rest of this disc seems under the influence of the dissolution of his marriage to Dana Lee Smith, who provided cover artwork. And so when he sings in “Rosalie,” “There’s an ocean between us my love/An ocean of powder and dust,” he seems to speak both of the desert that separated immigrants and of the space that divides lovers. The music, as always, combines all aspects of his heritage, from punk to traditional Mexican cadences. Perhaps that’s why it’s rare to find others performing this acclaimed songwriter’s work. Only Dana Lee Smith’s band, Pork, and Ryan Adams’s late ensemble, Whiskeytown (on a promotional EP), have recorded his music. That’s status, in Austin, where the artist’s competition with his or her own work and the approval of peers is all that seems to matter. Despite its well-deserved reputation, the city has yet to spawn its first successful record label. Sales don’t matter; the work matters. That’s the mantra. In Escovedo’s case, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Alejandro Escovedo headlines Lilli’s this Sunday, May 13. Call (617) 591-1661.