You have to learn how to die if you want to be alive, okay?
Wilco, "War on War," 2002
Gonna learn how to give, not to simply get by/Or to barely hang on for the sake of goodbye.
Alejandro Escovedo, "Died a Little Today," 2006
It wasn’t so long ago that the notion of dying was more than a metaphorical turn of phrase to Alejandro Escovedo.
Infected with hepatitis C but maintaining the rock ‘n roll orthodoxy of the touring musician’s lifestyle he’d spent three decades perfecting (which is to say, drink and smoke first, reflect on the damage done later), the 55-year-old Austin singer/songwriter found himself vomiting blood one night after a performance in Tucson, Arizona.
In the hospital afterward, doctors informed him that he had advanced cirrhosis of the liver and tumors in his abdomen and esophagus, all of which were bleeding simultaneously due to the effects of hepatitis and the self-abuse wrought from years of tippin’ ‘em back in the bars where he plied his trade. For a guy who’d christened his albums with titles such as A Man Under the Influence and Bourbonitis Blues , being told "drink and you die" formed the kind of personal challenge that went right to the very heart of his identity: a choice that literally meant the difference between holding on for dear life or letting go the rope.
The long road back from the brink of oblivion – nearly three years’ worth of various treatments, including one year in which he was too weak to pick up a guitar at all while taking the debilitating therapy interferon – is documented on his first album in four years, The Boxing Mirror, (BackPorch/Virgin) whose songs formed the core around which Escovedo’s Aladdin Theater performance orbited.
The former X-rated movie palace (during the ’70s and ’80s, the Aladdin was evidently the number-one exhibitor of Deep Throat) is a venue long favored by Escovedo and his various touring bands – its intimate setting and super-tuned acoustics providing the perfect setting for his mix-‘n-match blend of straight-up roots rock, string-centric chamber pop and Tex-Mex requinto balladry – and one in which his fans could instantly bond with him, whether sitting feet from the stage or dancing with joyous abandon in the aisles, all of which combined to create an effect akin to watching a show put on for friends and family in the comfort of your living room.
Escovedo’s set was, by turns, tough and tender, with his touring band – including longtime road-hands Brian Standefer on cello and drummer Hector Muñoz, along with former Spirit/Canned Heat bassist Mark Andes, New Orleans keyboardist/tape manipulator Bruce Salmon and guitarist David Pulkingham – switching musical gears at the drop of a dime.
The quartet provided Escovedo’s work with some of the most versatile readings it has received in the past decade, toggling effortlessly between his beloved punk covers (a dark, menacing take on the Gun Club’s "Sex Beat" stood in for the usual ragged spin on the Stooges’ "I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which Escovedo claims has now been “retired on doctor’s orders"), the martial stomp of his latter-day material (new tracks such as "Dear Head on the Wall" stood proudly beside the old favorite "Castanets," with Escovedo adding the latter song back to his setlist after years of neglect when he learned via a New York Times article that the song was in rotation on President Bush’s iPod – "we were so disgusted, we’re taking it back again") and the quiet sophistication of ballads such as "Rosalie" and "Evita’s Lullaby," a song from The Boxing Mirror which Escovedo dedicated to "my mother, who was married to my father for more than sixty years before he passed, and is now looking forward to the day when she can reunite with him."
At times reminiscent of his old glam-rock aggregation Buick MacKane or his punk-country mashups Rank and File and the True Believers while, at others, a dead ringer for some of his acoustic "orchestra" projects, this group of musicians seems to intuitively understand Alejandro’s unique blend of Velvet Underground attitude and Townes Van Zandt aptitude, twisting the two approaches into a genre-free cocktail in which emotion and raw truth-telling count for everything and easy-bake labels are rendered meaningless.
Nowhere was this dynamic more evident than during the evening’s encore, when the nattily-attired Escovedo – who donned a mosaic-patterned vest and blinding white French-cuffed shirt for the occasion – led the group through a sparklingly sad version of Mott the Hoople’s "I Wish I Was Your Mother" (whose leader, Ian Hunter, was one of the many musicians who quietly contributed to Por Vida: The Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, a two-disc tribute set that generated thousands in proceeds used to offset the considerable medical and living costs Escovedo racked up during his three year recovery/hiatus) before segueing into a request for "Don’t Need You," a song with an opening refrain – "There’s heaven, then there’s somewhere else" – that perfectly mirrors Escovedo’s long journey back from the edge, battling his demons while celebrating their existence as proof positive of one more day spent above ground.