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.”

Kim Richey – From The Edge

0Critically lauded yet commercially neglected, Kim Richey emerged in the early 1990s as similar singer songwriters were perplexing the musical public. Richey’s genre, whose Patient Zero was the 70s fan who found Linda Ronstadt before she teamed with Peter Asher and stuck with her after, would ultimately acquire a name – Americana. 

The moniker helped artists like Shawn Colvin and Sheryl Crow become headliners, with record sales to match.  Richey  forever bubbled under, but based on her body of work, she’s arguably she was the best of the bunch. Bitter Sweet, released in  1996, is a masterpiece, from the Beatlesque twang of “I Know” to the pure gem “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)” – the latter a big hit for Trisha Yearwood.

Five more albums made over the following two decades were equally stellar, featuring production from the likes of XTC’s Hugh Padgham and rock royal Giles Martin. Making a case for her as a musician’s musician, 2013’s Thorn in My Heart included a Jason Isbell co-lead vocal (with her old pal Yearwood on harmony) on the brilliant track, “Breakaway Speed.”

Richey’s latest, Edgeland, is among her best. The title alludes to the confusion that’s dogged her career. “For me, it’s the place or spaces in between where the country kind of meets the city,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Places where I have always been the most comfortable, and where my music lands. No one knows what to do with me. Is it country?  Folk? Pop?  And I think as a person I am more comfortable in those middle places, too.”

“Your Dear John Letter” is a love song wrapped in a working man’s lament that Bruce Springsteen might have penned had he lived in 1930s. It’s one of new record’s standouts. Another is “Not For Money or Love” – it was written about Richey’s father, who died when she was four. 

The song’s evocative opening lines – “I was a young man the day that I drowned, I was married with one on the way” – came to her during a co-writing session with Harry Hoke. “I never wrote about my Dad,” she said.  “It just came into my head and I said, ‘well okay, I guess I am writing about this now.’” 

She built the song’s story around a newspaper clipping given to her by a cousin. “It was mysterious;  they could not figure out what had happened,” she said. “He had been out on a boat with a bunch of other people … one guy decided to swim back to shore, and my dad did the same.   One guy made it; my dad never did.  Lot of questions about that … once I started, it was just really easy to write.”  

Richey grew up in Ohio, and has traveled the world. In a press release for Edgeland, she described having her belongings in  storage, her life a “state of constant motion.” During the interview, she was in Vancouver; the week before was spent at an artist colony in Banff.  She’s lived in England, California, Nashville, Australia, and other far flung places. But her  spirit of wanderlust wasn’t about leaving the Midwest. 

“Ohio has never been a place for me to get out of, but I always knew there was more out there,” she said. “I think that came from reading.   I was the first person to go to college in my family and of course that opened up a lot of doors.   I was a reluctant traveler at first, because I remember when I was a kid, somebody new would come to the school and I always thought that would be the worst thing in the world …  go someplace where you didn’t know anyone.”

An accidental trip to Europe was the spark; a group of her friends applied to work in a Swedish summer camp; only she got accepted.  When the stint ended a few weeks early, she hung around because she didn’t know how to change her  flight reservation. “I had never been on a plane before,” she said. “I ended up hitchhiking around for a month on my own … as scary as that was, I thought, ‘well, I can do just about anything.’ Now, the more places I see, the more I want to see.” 

At an upcoming show in Portsmouth, Richey will perform with a trio. “It’s usually me and a guitar player and now we have someone coming along to pay bass,” she said. “He’s a really beautiful singer, so you have three of us singing …  I try to play new and old songs.”

More:

Kim Richey

When: Sunday, April 15, 7 p.m.

Where: The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $22 at themusichall.org