Even if you don't partake, you've probably been trapped in arena-rock show gridlock. Alejandro Escovedo was en route to one of Bruce Springsteen's Houston shows last spring, to the extent that you can be on your way to anything in a car that's not moving. His phone rang. "How soon can you be here?" "Why?" "Bruce and the band are working up one of your songs and they want you to play it with them onstage."
A reversal of sorts: Sets by Escovedo's first punk band, The Nuns, 30 years ago, typically began with a plea to audience members to come up and tune their guitars. Escovedo's 2008 album Real Animal has received lots of high-profile attention: Dave Marsh called it the best record of the year; Jonathan Demme wrote the liner notes. It didn't just make a bunch of the year's glossy best-of lists—it was at the top of them. The record hadn't even been released when the Boss learned the changes and harmonies to "Always a Friend."
"I love the response to the record," says Escovedo from his home in rural Texas. "When I listen to it—like anything that you do creatively—there's a satisfaction that comes with doing what you set out to do.
"Before we started, we had a certain aesthetic in mind. We wanted to make a rock 'n' roll record, number one. And we wanted someone who was experienced with the sound we were interested in. When we found [producer] Tony Visconti it was a perfect match. I wanted those Bowie back-up vocals and I wanted those T. Rex screams."
Real Animal is a rock 'n' roll record. Listen to it in the morning and it will most likely affect the way you walk the rest of the day. And even though Escovedo spends a lot of time as the on-air and on-the-cover darling of the Americana/alt-country/No Depression set, it's not a departure for him. The literate storytelling and broken-heart-romantic myth-making are still there. And you can probably guess the reason—the songs are all about the same person.
"As much as I like to say sometimes that the songs aren't about me, they kind of are," Escovedo admits. "I don't want to be the downer all the time. Real Animal was autobiographical but at a remove. We could have given the character a name and made it about someone else. It's probably what it was like for The Who to play Tommy. That's all Townsend. For the next record I want to write something that's just a collection of songs, not so much about me."
Escovedo's love affair with rock 'n' roll is no secret. Even when he tours to promote his acoustic records, with his signature string sections, you're apt to hear benchmark covers of songs like "Sway" or "Powderfinger." (Escovedo does Iggy Pop's favorite version of "Search and Destroy.") Escovedo's most moving homage to the spirit of rock 'n' roll in general may be the way the guitars are arranged and recorded on Real Animal. The chords come hard and fast, but the notes emerge distinct and alive, even from multiple players (Escovedo with Chuck Prophet or the fairly phenomenal David Pulkingham, who will be with him here). It's a sound that has somehow been lost amid the Powerbook DIY frenzy of recent years. It doesn't sound retro. It just sounds the way guitars actually sound, when they're played by accomplished masters who need no effects to distract. It's the sound that makes young men and women buy guitars, as happened with Escovedo himself.
"I'm bumming about Ron Asheton," says Escovedo of his friend, the Stooges guitarist and bassist, who died on Jan. 6. "That was exactly the sound I was trying to make when I first started playing."
It was in a record store in Asheton's hometown that I met Escovedo 15 years ago. He had just released Gravity, his brilliant first solo record. Thanks to his peripatetic lifestyle, I'm able to hear him play and visit with him often. In my memory, I can see him on that Ann Arbor sidewalk with a guitar case, almost as if he were waiting for a bus that said CAREER above the windshield. I ask him if this is what he had in mind for a decade and a half down the road.
"I was a loose cannon back then," he says. "I had lots of ideas but no discipline. The first song we recorded for Gravity was ‘Broken Bottle.' I went in to sing it then I heard it with all the tracks. I was just over the moon. I had no idea that music could sound like that.
"I really didn't have anything in mind when I made that record. I was as surprised as anybody by how well it came out. I was kind of adrift when I wrote those songs. Steve Bruton, the man who produced that record, gave me a great gift. He showed me the possibilities."
Consider yourself re-gifted.