Throughout his almost 20-year musical career, the soft-spoken singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo has come a long way. Before becoming known for his Tejano-influenced alt-country, the well-known Austinite was a stone punk rocker. Living in the San Francisco Bay area during the seminal early days of West Coast punk, he formed the band the Nuns, which was originally meant to play "the worst band in the world" for an independent film. They eventually went on, irony be damned, to be one of the more influential acts in Northern California punk rock in the early '80s.
After moving to New York City, he joined up with members of another West Coast punk rock act, the Dils, to form Rank & File. Their sound -- which blended the country, rock and Chicano sounds Escovedo heard growing up in San Antonio with a harder punk edge -- was one of the earliest inklings of the '80s cowpunk genre, which eventually grew into the now sprawling and nebulous world of "alt-country." After moving back to Austin with the band and splitting off from them to start the True Believers, another early alt-country act with a Southwestern sound (they toured often with Los Lobos), Escovedo eventually began writing songs and laying groundwork for a solo career that's been an understated bedrock of the newly assertive genre alternative country (No Depression magazine, the bible of the genre, named him their "Artist of the Decade" for the '90s), as well as an impressive body of creative work in its own right. From art punk to Chicano troubadour, Escovedo has been a lot of things. For a long time, however, the most important thing he has been is simply alive.
In New Orleans, the late singer Timothea, who died in October, did a great deal to raise awareness about hepatitis C with her Siren to Wail foundation and outspoken activism about the disease. Escovedo had been aware that he also carried the virus, but has admitted, "I was having a really good time playing music, drinking and smoking and living the life" of a rock 'n' roller. He says he was in deep denial about the seriousness of the disease, which causes incredibly severe damage to the liver. In 2003, he suffered a critical bout with the illness and had to be rushed to the hospital directly from the stage at a gig in Tucson, Ariz., and for some time, he was unsure whether or not he'd recover.
It's a depressingly familiar story in the world of professional musicians -- episodic work, no insurance, and little security if a health crisis arises. Unable to tour or record and faced with staggering medical bills, Escovedo was in a tough spot. When word spread through the musicians' community that he'd been such an integral part of for so long, however, help began pouring in from fans and peers. The roots-rock/jam magazine Harp ran an unsolicited half-page color ad asking for donations to the Alejandro Escovedo Living and Medical Expense Fund set up by his manager. The ultimate result of the outpouring of effort was, happily, also some great music. In summer 2004, Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo came out, a two-disc set packed with loving versions of songs from his entire catalog. Artists who stepped up to donate tracks comprised a very shiny roster indeed. Appearing on the albums were stars including Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, the Mekons' Jon Langford, Charlie Sexton, Son Volt, Charlie Musselwhite and a host of others.
After Escovedo convalesced, he jumped back into the studio to finish up one of his most haunting and powerful efforts to date: this year's The Boxing Mirror. The lush, shimmering songs roll across the album like an electrical storm across the Texas plains, shooting sparks and rumbling with foreboding. Some critics have guessed that the record's overwhelming darkness was an expression of his own dark days getting eaten up by the virus. Actually though, because his illness precluded much writing or recording, many of the songs date back to sessions from before he became ill. In any case, The Boxing Mirror is both lovely and scary. The tracks -- many produced by Velvet Underground legend John Cale, who also contributed a song to Por Vida -- both thunder and whisper, but maintain a shattering intensity of spirit: gritty, echoing and ghostly, the album evokes Leonard Cohen, the Velvets, some of the more scorched-earth output of Crazy Horse and the Mexican Day of the Dead. It's a piece of work to knock you out of your trail-dusty boots, the output of an artist who's seen the abyss and come back to sing about it. Alejandro Escovedo
9 p.m. Fri., Jan. 19
House of Blues, 225 Decatur St., 310-4999; www.hob.com
Alex McMurray opens. Tickets $10.
- Alejandro Escovedo is back in form and touring to support his new album The Boxing Mirror.