“Alejandro [Escovedo] has a unique combination of abilities and human connection,” Dave Marsh said at yesterday’s WAMFEST (the Words and Music Festival hosted by Fairleigh Dickinson University) event featuring Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys, Marsh and Tony Visconti, hosted by Artist-in-Residence John Wesley Harding. Marsh continued with a beautifully sad story about weeping alongside Woody Guthrie’s daughter at an Escovedo performance because the music had touched both of them so deeply. ”Writing is lonely and disgusting,” he added, “but Alejandro can write and perform.”
For those of us who understand the lonely disgust of being a writer, the ability to then turn around and perform is special indeed. For Escovedo, however, writing and performing is just a way of life. In fact, his creative process isn’t always separate from his performances, as seen at his weekly residency at the Continental Club in Austin where he and the Sensitive Boys performed three new songs each night. Considering his ease onstage and his childhood growing up in a musical (and large) family, it was surprising to learn he didn’t start making music until his mid-twenties.
“My brothers were my biggest influence,” he said. ”They were percussionists, taken right under Tito Puente’s wing.” But because they were the “cool ones,” Escovedo didn’t see himself in the same musical light until after a move to California where he and some friends “wanted to make a movie about the worst band in the world. Then we just formed it instead,” he said, laughing.
Rock outfit The Nuns brought Escovedo to the stage for the first time but his stint with them was short lived. He moved onto New York for “my experience in the art rock world” where he founded Rank and File, a more country influenced band “the punks hated.” After a tour ending in a night at Lester Bangs’ house in Austin, Escovedo had found his new home.
“There was quite a backlash at first, the kids saw it as their parents’ music.” But now, according to Austin-based reviewer Chris Gray and many others, “Escovedo is worshiped like a god.”
But even the gods need collaborators. Enter legendary producer and musician Tony Visconti. ”This is what I try to do as a producer,” Visconti said yesterday, “I try to build more interest.” By build more interest he means write the hook to Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World,” provide Bowie with bass lines for most of his other songs, add minor chords to Escovedo’s verses to create a chorus Escovedo himself was struggling to find, and create on-the-spot string arrangements for hits like T. Rex’s “Get It On.”
However, one of the special things about Visconti is not what he gave to these songs but how. When describing his process to the audience in Hartman yesterday, his face softened, eyes widened and body curved further around the guitar as he returned to the moment of discovery. His words were genuine and real, not laden with technical terms or fancy descriptions but thick with passion and excitement. He oozed coolness without even trying; clad in jeans and a t-shirt, Visconti’s down-to-earth, laid back attitude and friendly demeanor only enhanced his persona.
As a young writer and musician seeking to contribute something exciting and worthwhile to the world, yesterday’s event was a true inspiration to me, an invaluable lesson and an all-around stellar performance. While the focus remained mostly on Escovedo and Visconti, the performers all shared personal anecdotes from their years in the scene, going into great detail about their songwriting processes, the relationship between lyrics and instruments, the ups and downs of collaborating with others and how these collaborations have affected their work. The Sensitive Boys, comprising David Pulkingham on guitar, Bobby Daniel on bass and Hector Munoz on drums (who has played with Escovedo for twenty-three years now, a relationship “longer than my marriages,” Escovedo laughed), played a handful of songs throughout the discussion, often accompanied by Visconti on guitar. The men closed out the event with a gorgeous performance of “All the Young Dudes,” a tune Bowie wrote in the 70s for glam rockers Mott the Hoople. Stay tuned for a recording of their amazing rendition with Harding and Escovedo trading off vocals, and join us THIS Friday, April 29th in the Bottle Hill Room, located in FDU’s Student Center, for a conversation and performance with The Fiery Furnaces, hosted by our lovely Artist-in-Residence John Wesley Harding. Click here for a map of the campus – the Student Center is building 17.
Words by Becky Fine-Firesheets. Images by Dan Landau.