Border Song

Alejandro Escovedo brings vital new album to Portsmouth

This story appeared in the 24 January 2019 edition of Hippo Press

When he toured Europe in 2017, Alejandro Escovedo needed a local band. He chose Don Antonio, an all-Italian septet led by guitarist Antonio Gramentieri. The assembled group played 35 shows in 40 days, across 10 countries, and Escovedo called the trip “triumphant.”

The final dates happened on the southern tip of Italy, a place that recalled Escovedo’s Texas roots. “The food was spicier, a lot of it reminded me of Mexican food, the dialect is different and it seemed very economically challenged down there,” he said by phone from a North Carolina tour stop. “They also have a lot of immigrants, coming from Africa.”

That correlation was the spark for a project that resulted in one of last year’s most powerful albums. Made jointly with Don Antonio in the band’s hometown, Escovedo’s 13th album The Crossing explores the immigrant experience through the eyes of two young men; one Mexican, the other Italian. They love punk rock and the idea of America; the latter will come to tragically disappoint them.

It’s an unflinching portrait of the present national moment. The record opens ominously with a tableau of migrants fleeing drug wars and poverty, often colliding with something worse. “There’s danger in the air,” Escovedo sings. “These men who hunt us know nothing of our lives, so please step lightly.”

There are moments of joy, too. “Outlaw for You” and “Sonica USA” are two songs that name check a long list of Escovedo’s heroes, from Johnny Thunders to seminal Mexican-American rockers Thee Midniters. “I wanted the boys to have this aesthetic like when I was growing up and loving these bands,” Escovedo said. “They don’t want arena rock, what they want is the real thing in sweaty clubs and stuff, and all those bands were part of that for me growing up.”

Adding to the punch are guest appearances on the record by The Stooges’ James Williamson, Wayne Kramer of MC5 and other punk heroes. “Wayne is on fire, he’s so great right now,” Escovedo said. “His guitar playing is just masterful and he’s such a great guy; he’s got such positive energy and he’s an activist… the MC5 are a great example of bands that put everything they believe in on the line.”

Prior to recording, Escovedo and Gramentieri traveled through Southern Texas, talking to immigrants and learning their experiences. “It’s through those stories that we began to see what it was really like to be a DREAMer in this time,” he said. The tale that frames “Texas is My Mother” came from young man who paid a hard cost to complete his journey. “He carried his sister across the river… his aunt was behind them, and did not make it.”

Some tracks are personal, like the spoken word “Rio Navidad,” an angry recollection of a racist encounter at a wedding in the 1980s. Escovedo said his songwriting flowed easier because of where The Crossing was produced. “There’s something liberating about making this record in Italy that allowed me to really kind of just say things that I hadn’t said previously, in a way that was a lot more direct and … I guess edgy might be a word for it. It’s not filtered in any way.”

Playing the first dates of The Crossing tour last fall, Escovedo often cribbed from a lyric book while on stage, but that’s changed. “I think at this point it’s definitely hitting our stride and it sounds better than it ever has,” he said, adding “I remember Townes Van Zandt said it took him like a year to really learn the songs that he wrote… it sometimes can be very a emotional release when you finish a record.”

The cross cultural connection of Escovedo and Don Antonio is both brilliant in its result and a rare occurence. “How often do you have a guy from Texas going to Italy to make a record with an all Italian band in an Italian studio and then coming back and presenting it not just as a record, but a statement on the condition of the country as it is now?” Escovedo said. “It’s not something that happens very often. I encourage everyone to come, because I think you come away with not just having seen a rock concert.”

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