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Nun But a Rocker

Alejandro Escovedo

Above His Rank and File: Underappreciated rocker Alejandro Escovedo

Alejandro Escovedo continues to deliver great rock on his new album 'With These Hands'

By Nicky Baxter

At first glance, Alejandro Escovedo would appear to be rock's odd man out. Out of fashion but most certainly not out of the blue, Escovedo doesn't buy into the elitism that defines much of the alternative-rock scene. Call Escovedo a renegade with a reason, a rock bard with balls. That understood, it's no surprise that, for the most part, radio stations aren't trying to hear what the singer/songwriter is playing, which may in part explain the embarrassingly paltry, somewhat somnolent, turnout for Escovedo's recent performance at the Agenda Lounge in San Jose.

With These Hands, the Texas-born musician's extraordinary maiden CD for Rykodisc, contains music for rock lovers who prefer some uncommon sense (and a sense of adventure) with their cacophony.

The album, Escovedo says, was written during his tenure with True Believers, the crunch-rock outfit he and younger brother Javier co-chiefed in the 1980s. Escovedo and I are squeezed around a silver-dollar-sized table at the Agenda during soundcheck. Through a nearby window, we can see business suits stride purposefully past the local color: garishly young punks with pockmarked faces, seemingly adhered to the sidewalks and buildings.

"A lot of these songs were written about my father," Escovedo begins in a soft-spoken voice. Outfitted in 10-gallon hat, spangly blue-and-white shirt, blue jeans and silver-studded boots, Escovedo looks every bit the caballero. But don't confuse him with those macho Marlboro men hawking ciggies from billboards.

As a founding member of the Nuns, one of San Francisco's earliest punk units, Escovedo earned plenty of street credibility, but these days he doesn't hesitate to allow audiences inside. Listen closely to "Put You Down" or "Little Bottles." On these and other tracks from With These Hands, Escovedo reveals he has more in common with Neil Young than Vince Neil.

"Put You Down," for instance, struts and churns like the Rolling Stones, circa 1969's Let It Bleed sans Mick and Keith's vulgar phallocentricism, and the twisters of guitar noise that open the tune lend it a sense of foreboding that the Glimmer Twins could only playact. In addition to the hyper-rhythmic acoustic and electric guitar work of Escovedo, synthesizers, violins and more guitars saw away, generating a maelstrom at once raw and refined.

Like Neil Young, Escovedo is a musical chameleon. He's as comfortable crooning bratty lullabies to his sleeping wife in the wee-wee hours ("Pissed Off 2am") as he is slamming the door on an unloved one ("Crooked Frame"): "I'm glad you didn't stick to my fingers like honey/I'd have to stretch the truth to say that you were pretty/And now I laugh aloud about things that aren't quite funny/Because I stayed too long inside your crooked frame." The squalling, guitar-centered accompaniment is Escovedo's up-thrust middle finger to his ex.

Yet, Young, restless as he might be, has never hitched his songs to a string section with the grace and imagination that characterizes Escovedo's best work. Admittedly, With These Hands' "Nickel and a Spoon" is like the numbers on Young's 1978 folky-country album Comes a Time; on which Young's humongous Gone With the Wind Orchestra comes off like a righteous hoe-down at the Grand Old Opry. Even more effectively, however, "Nickel and a Spoon" summons up memories of Escovedo's home on the San Antonio, Texas, range.

Elsewhere, the former Nun's application of strings strongly suggests the magisterial elegance of the late Nick Drake. Drake, a profoundly troubled but brilliant English singer/songwriter (he died of a drug overdose in the mid-1970s), made folk-tinged rock that rose above its station, thanks largely to his uncanny ability to blend chamber music's austerity with his melancholy but strangely exhilarating stripped-down folk compositions.

On With These Hands, Escovedo ferrets out a window of transatlantic opportunity, bending Old World art music to fit his definitively New World music aspirations. "Sometimes" is a classic example of how Escovedo gets this mating game on with his own plaintive, wounded vocals, delicately picked acoustic guitar, and subtle but sure stringwork.

In the flesh, as in photos, Escovedo looks at least a decade younger than his 45 years; there's not a single gray strand on that tousled head of hair, no sign of furrowed lines creasing his smooth red-brown features. As he talks about his new album, Escovedo's eyes bore into yours; not in any way intimidating, he just wants to make sure you're listening.

He tells me that With These Hands was written for his father. The title track, he says, "is dedicated to my dad and his struggle crossing the border." Perhaps more than other song explicitly addressing his father ("Tired Skin," "Tugboat"), the title tune occupies a special place in the singer's heart.

In the beginning, Escovedo hadn't the slightest idea "With These Hands" would turn into a family affair. "Originally, we wanted Sheila [E., his percussionist niece] to play," he says, "but she was busy doing other stuff. So, we're sitting there talking and in walks Pete [Escovedo, Alejandro's older brother and renowned bandleader/percussionist] and my two nephews. Juanita [Pete's wife, also a musician] was there, too. Then Sheila has this huge semi back up into the driveway with all her equipment! Man, I couldn't believe it."

Seems that unbeknownst to Alejandro, the other Escovedos had booked time in the studio directly above him. Hence, "Hands," a loving acknowledgment of the ties that bind, blossomed into a heartfelt homage from the patriarch's family. It sounds storybook perfect, but good things do happen to those who wait. And Escovedo's been waiting all his life for just such a moment.

The tune itself is something of an anomaly for him. On record, at least, he's never given much indication that he's a big fan of brother Pete's sweltering polyrhythms. Characteristically, however, what Alejandro does with his intrafamilial squad of percussionists is something extraordinary. Rather than pull a Santana, the former punk pioneer allows his kin to fire away from below while he and bandmate/session producer T.S. Bruton (acoustic guitar, baritone guitar) strum up a Tex-Western storm.

Meanwhile, the discussion veers toward Escovedo's perennial outsider status. How is it that his considerable influence on rock has meant so much to so few? From the Nuns' primal screaming in the '70s to Rank and File's sawed-off-shotgun marriage of punk and country in the '80s, Escovedo has sung this and played that--and still he slags away at rock's bottom rungs, performing in tiny bars and clubs for audiences that don't want to know.

Indeed, some eight hours after our talk concluded, Escovedo and band strode onstage after an hour of retrorock by Johnny and the Blades; it was, after all, rockabilly night. Curiously, while Johnny and company were making like Gene Vincent, the Agenda was bustling with elbow-to-elbow action. Fifteen or so minutes into Escovedo's performance, I scanned the room again. Incredibly, the venue was now half-empty. Nonetheless, Escovedo, accompanied by violin, viola, two guitars, bass and drums, soldiered on. He even came back for an encore, the sign of a genuinely true believer.

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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