"You look back at what a buzz it was to plug in an electric guitar, make a lot of noise and have your friends jump along side of you," says Mexican-American musician Alejandro Escovedo. "You realize what an interesting life it's been."
Escovedo's life certainly has been interesting: When San Francisco punk band The Nuns opened for The Sex Pistols at Winterlands in 1978, Escovedo — then the Nuns' guitarist — had just celebrated his 27th birthday. At the height of punk music in the U.S., he moved cross-country to live in the storied Chelsea Hotel. He was there when Nancy Spungen (girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious) died.
The thing about punk rock is that it's youth-driven and unschooled; never intended for longevity. On the other hand Escovedo, now a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and four decades into his musical career, is built to last.
There have been accolades: He was named artist of the decade by No Depression in 1998, received the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing in 2006 and was named both musician and songwriter of the year at 2008's Austin Music Awards (Escovedo's 2008 album Real Animal was also named album of the year).
There are also hard-to-quantify successes: Post-Nuns projects Rank and File (with Chip and Tony Kinman) and The True Believers (with Escovedo's brother Javier) blended punk energy with roots rock and country sounds to influence what later became Americana (he has been called the godfather of modern country rock).
According to the musician, his punk turn was more than just misspent youth.
"It was historical as far as rock music is concerned," he notes. "Playing CBGB and Max's and Hurrah, playing with the people I got to play with and knowing the people I got to know at that time. It was crazy — we were doing crazy things and living a pretty undisciplined life — but I wouldn't trade it for anything."
He continues, "That period of time and the aesthetic I developed as a result of being in a punk-rock band, I live by it to this day. I'm not a punk, I'm different now, but same philosophy: Just try to play good loud rock and say something interesting."
That philosophy is emphasized in the retrospective/musical autobiography of Real Animal, Escovedo's most recent release. The dynamic 13-track collection, co-written with Chuck Prophet, is not an album of reissues or even remakes, but songs that address the highlights of Escovedo's career. "Chelsea Hotel '78" is a darkly growling revisit of punk's heyday; "Real as an Animal" is a tribute to Iggy Pop. Softer offerings — the waltzing "Swallows of San Juan" and the expansive, Springsteen-esque "Slow Down" remind listeners that Escovedo can write as well as rock.
Real Animal is a solid album in its own right; that it follows the quiet introspection of The Boxing Mirror (2006) and the musician's near-death brush with hepatitis C in 2003 lends the album a revelatory light. Good news: Escovedo plans to keep on rocking.
"This tour is the beginning of the process of recording a new album," he says of the trip that brings him through Asheville this week, on his way to a studio in Lexington, Ky. The new material has been developed over the course of Escovedo's residency at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, where he's been presenting three new songs each week. "The record, as I see it, is a rock album along the lines of Real Animal only not autobiographical."
Though Escovedo is known for writing songs inspired by personal experience and the people in his life, he says that after Real Animal, "The one thing I didn't want to do was come back with an album of the same thematic quality. I really just kind of wanted to write good songs, catchier songs."
Another thing the musician is known for: Changing the configuration of his touring band. Escovedo's first solo efforts, back in 1989, included the forming of two bands: the free-form collective Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra and the guitar-driven Buick Mackane. More recently, he promoted Boxing Mirror with The Alejandro Escovedo String Quintet and played a date at Carnegie Hall. The musician's latest band is a four piece with emphasis on harmonies. The return to a rock configuration followed Real Animal; the big surprise on that tour was who he shared stages with: Try Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen.
In a different world, either of those musicians could have opened for Escovedo. The Austin-based musician (he moved back to his home state in 1980) has put in the time, but he's never enjoyed the mainstream recognition. "It feels fine," he tells Xpress. "It doesn't feel like anything because [that sort of fame] doesn't exist in my universe."
These days, Escovedo is pretty content. There's just one little issue: "It's funny, I have a reputation as being a singer/songwriter guy," he muses. "But I've always been in rock bands. The good part of the set is always rock and roll songs. I've always loved these loud guitars."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Alejandro Escovedo (with Roman Candle)
what: Texas-based singer/songwriter returns to Asheville with a rockin show
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Jan 15 (9 p.m. $18 advance/$20 doors. theorangepeel.net)