Ask Alejandro Escovedo how he is capable of leaping between so many musical modes — with intense performances that have him breaking hearts one minute, snapping guitar strings the next — and he often answers: “I have a good record collection.” The same could be said of anyone possessing any or all of his nine solo releases.
There was some twenty years of music making before he went solo. The San Antonio native grew up near Los Angeles and spent his young life on the streets of San Francisco, selling drugs and doing whatever he could “not to work and to play rock and roll music.” After breaking onto the mid-70s punk scene, he later wedded that aesthetic with roots rock in the band Rank and File. After settling in Austin, Escovedo thrashed with his brother Javier in the three-guitar band True Believers (affectionately known as The Troobs) and fronted the alt-country Buick MacKane. By the time I first saw him perform in the early 1990s, he was already riding tall in the Austin music scene even as he worked in a record store to make ends meet as a single parent.
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The 1992 release of Gravity, Escovedo’s first solo album, is where music fans and critics began to truly appreciate his songwriting prowess. His reputation as a must-see live performer of those songs grew in Austin and beyond. In the early years of the South by Southwest music festival, his post-event gigs with an “orchestra” of some of the town’s best players were well worth staying an extra night for. Or three. Beginning November 18, Escovedo, who turned 60 this year, will play a trio of nights at the exquisite Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, where he’ll perform songs from his first two albums.
There’s a heaviness to Gravity, which was written after the suicide of Escovedo’s wife. Though many songs are upbeat, the album begins with an invitation to a hanging and ends with a sneering laugh. He quickly followed it with Thirteen Years, a concept album that channeled the love and loss of his former relationship into 11 songs interwoven with interludes from the title track’s theme. But the album is far from maudlin. The pieces range from ballads to high-energy tales of powerful, towering women, and the arrangements blend strings with Escovedo’s guitar in a way few others can. When my own 13-year relationship ended, I turned to that album, and its beauty helped suture a gaping wound of loss. (Even the title tune, written from the point of view of a woman married to a rock musician for that unlucky number of years, resonated in surprising ways.)
In a 2010 TIME interview (excerpted in the video above, which played on the magazine’s iPad edition) Escovedo described some of his early albums as hard-to-take, confessional works: “the kind of albums you play when you want everyone to leave the party.” These days, he wants everyone to stay. His latest two discs (2008’s Real Animal and last year’s Street Songs of Love) are upbeat rockers that give the strings a rest and offer the audience “something to smile about.”
Confessional works have a funny way of remaining true even as they change hues over time. I expect that will be the case during his brief residency at the Rubin Museum. On the first night, he’ll perform Gravity in its entirety, joined by long-time fellow traveler David Pulkingham — one of the best guitarists playing on any stage. The following night, violinist Susan Voelz, formerly of Poi Dog Pondering — and who has toured with Escovedo off and on over two decades—will join Escovedo and Pulkingham to play Thirteen Years.
In the almost two decades since Thirteen Years, Escovedo has added seven more original albums to his discography; each of them has extraordinary power and some were produced by big names. But many fans agree it’s a bigger treat to hear the songs performed live, with different interpretations depending on who’s playing with Escovedo on a given night. For those who can’t make these shows in New York, he still tours the country and plays regularly in Austin. In a crowd-pleasing tune he often plays live, Escovedo, acting the coy troubadour, laments “everybody says they love me, but I don’t know why.” If he really wants to know, just about anybody in the audience would have an easy answer.