A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo
Hot dog. Yet another "tribute" album. And this hulking bad boy's a double-disc set that spans 32, count 'em, 32 tracks. Somebody shoot me now.
All snarky skepticism aside, Por Vida is that rare tribute project that justifies its existence. Know up front that a portion of the compilation's sales go to the Alejandro Escovedo Medical and Living Expense Fund, a trust set up to help the Austin guitarist wage his so far successful struggle against complications from Hepatitis C. Gotta try to lift up a bro' when he's down.
But, since music is the means, the collection matters most because it's a damn good listen. Over the past two decades, from his jagged-edged 80s guitar assault with the True Believers to the later experiments with chamber Americana and full-on, song-cycle theatrics (By the Hand of the Father), Escovedo ranks with the most inventive songwriters in roots-rock. His soulful synthesis of Stones-y grunt, punk snarl, folk melodicism, Tex-Mex spunk, orchestral pop shimmer and more has been called a genre unto itself, and rightfully so. With a varied cast of conspicuous contributors that includes Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Charlie Musselwhite, John Cale, Pete Escovedo & Sheila E. (Alejandro's brother and niece), and Son Volt, Por Vida could pay the added dividend of widening a tough-to-peg cult hero's audience.
More to the point, the album's diverse lineup also underscores the durability and sheer breadth of the music. Whether faithfully rendered and comfortably attired in broke-in, familiar threads (stellar examples include Charlie Sexton's "Dear Head on the Wall," Caitlin Cary's "By Eleven" and Tres Chicas' "Rhapsody"), or radically retooled (the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra's reggae-fied "Velvet Guitar"), Escovedo's songs exude earthy emotional substance in spades. A plainspoken folk poet who's tuned in to the mythic dimension, he possesses an uncommon gift for personalizing the universal. Even when a band's signature vibe could totally obscure the source of lesser material--as on Calexico's desert lonely "Wave" and the Junkies' icily melancholy "Don't Need You"--the power of Escovedo's singular vision muscles through.
Make no mistake: Not every track merits celebration and a few should have stayed home. (Why didn't the Dragons tackle "Gravity" within their lead singer's vocal range?) Hey, it's a tribute album. Whaddya expect? Overall, there's more than enough to get your teeth into and it's a nutritious feast to boot. Mike Thomas
turnituporturnitoff.com (steffen paulus photos)
artists featured on tribute: