September 4, 2007

Alejandro Escovedo’s renewal; Gaslight brightens J’town

Alejandro EscovedoFriday, Sept. 7To know Alejandro Escovedo is to know perseverance and reinvention. Through rock and punk and folk and country and god knows what. Through potentially deadly bouts with cirrhosis and Hepatitis C, and a frightening collapse in 2003 that threatened his life and career.Escovedo’s steady yet serpentine path began with The Nuns. The San Francisco punk band’s claim to fame was that it opened for the Sex Pistols on the last gig of their 1978 American tour.A short stint in the country-punk outfit Rank and File yielded one tour before Escovedo quit, relocated to his home state of Texas and formed The True Believers with kid brother Javier. The True Believers packed Texas bars and clubs, opened for Los Lobos and piqued the interest of A&R reps from Rounder Records and eventually EMI-America, but label turmoil and lineup troubles bogged down the group, and eventually, it disbanded in the late ’80s. You can buy the band’s 1994 Rykodisc retrospective, aptly titled Hard Road.The road got harder. Escovedo’s battles with disease and cirrhosis landed him in the hospital and at a crossroads: Continue? Hang it up? All options were on the table.Escovedo says he thought about quitting. “It wasn’t a decision that I was about to make. The decision was about to be made for me. There was a point where it seemed that the life I had led for so many years was about to end. My whole impetus shifted from music to survival. (Quitting) was something that I was ready to grudgingly accept.”He downshifted, performing here and there to thrilled — and enervated — audiences.“He seemed so fragile,” says longtime friend and Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black. “There was literally a time when you would go to a performance because you weren’t sure whether he was gonna have the strength to perform another show.”Escovedo and his people are cautious about how much touring he does now. But his relatively infrequent appearances failed to erode the fanaticism that came with The Boxing Mirror, the acclaimed record he made with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. And now, Escovedo can count a new fan, one with serious clout: Jonathan Demme.Demme first heard of Escovedo from Black himself, who habitually passed records to the “Stop Making Sense” director for years. It was Escovedo’s performance two years ago at New York’s Irving Plaza that sealed it for Demme. He wanted to shoot Alejandro, but where?Chicago? Demme balked. He wanted a location that screamed tradition. Last year, he watched Escovedo perform at Las Manitas, a Mexican restaurant in Austin that is slated to be torn down later this year to make room for a new Marriott hotel. Demme insisted they shoot it at the restaurant.The performance, scheduled for the winter, will be bittersweet, Escovedo says, because Las Manitas has been so vital to Austin’s identity. “It’s been a hub of culture, art, politics, the different movements and concerns that we had about our community,” he says. “Las Manitas represented the last of what we knew as old Austin. We tried to fight (the closing), and sent postcards and did everything that we could, but it wasn’t to be.” Luckily, Las Manitas will rebuild in a new locale, and we will have Escovedo around a while longer. “He’s grown into the role of all the people he used to idolize,” Black says. “He has the power now of an Iggy Pop or Johnny Thunder. When he gets on stage, it’s totally his. I believe that when he’s there, it’s the most important part of his life.”Escovedo plays Friday night at Headliners (1386 Lexington Road, 584-8088). The Betweeners open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15.Sept. 6-18Beer will flow, lights will glow, blues will wail and rock will roll at the annual Gaslight Festival in Jeffersontown. It starts Thursday and runs through Sept. 18. Or, if you’re the athletic type, the fest features a 5K, golf scramble, bowling tournament at Kingpin Lanes and more. Costs for each event vary. Visit www.j-townchamber.com for details. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com