Various Artists: Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo

[5 December 2004]

By Jason MacNeil

If you have to see just how well-loved and -respected Alejandro Escovedo is, just take a look at who gave their time to help out a friend in need. One of the leading people behind the don’t know what to call it so we’ll fuse something together movement, Escovedo rose to prominence with sound albums full of great tracks. But in April 2003, Escovedo was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. With medical expenses through the roof, Escovedo was in more hurt than he should have been. Thankfully, there is a silver lining to this cloud in that musicians got together and put out this fantastic two-disc collection in tribute to him. The end result is everyone from Jennifer “Up Where We Belong” Warnes to Ian McLagan to Lenny Kaye. And that’s just disc one!

Lucinda Williams opens disc one with “Pyramid Of Tears”, a fine effort that meshes her slow, sexy, and still slightly seedy delivery. Lenny Kaye’s rendition of “Sacramento & Polk” is a spacey, quasi-surf-cum-psychedelic ditty that is trippy at times. The song, taken from Escovedo’s Bourbonitis Blues, glides along without much effort, although it has the feeling of coming down from something near the homestretch. However, it pales greatly to the Conway and Loretta like “Broken Bottle” performed by Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Even throwing a lyric en francais is tres bien. “My love is a scar that I’ll wear for you / Like a crown of thorns / Like a bad tattoo / And I wear my sin like a ring of beauty,” the pair sing, a perfect example of Escovedo’s great songwriting. Calexico take “Wave” down into a murky Spaghetti Western format, complete with subtle haunting strings. Think of the Cash Brothers and you get the pretty picture. Warnes seems to make “Pissed Off 2AM” more like “Somewhat Annoyed in the Early Morning”. Resembling Linda Ronstadt or the Trio collaboration with herself, Dolly and Emmylou, Warnes makes this a safe, adult contemporary pop tune.

Escovedo is always able to change gears, whether it be the folksy side of Americana or roadhouse blues, such as Los Lonely Boys attack “Castanets”. The band doesn’t do much to the song but give it a pinch of oomph. The jewel though has to be Margo Timmins and company, aka Cowboy Junkies, offering up “Don’t Need You” as a sparse and quite quiet folk-pop number. Then there is Charlie Sexton sounding as if he’s influenced by Feargal Sharkey on “Dear Head on the Wall” without the catchy sing-along chorus. One delightful yet quirky tune is “She Towers Above” which ambles along at a lovely little pace. Another late highlight is Tres Chicas featuring Caitlin Cary on “Rhapsody”, a mid-tempo country-pop track. The String Section Quartet’s take on “Crooked Frame” is also quite good.

Disc Two isn’t as pleasing starting off. Ian Hunter’s cover of “One More Time” has that Wilbury-ish super group aura hovering above it, making it sound less appealing than it should. The haunting, Byrdsian “Last to Know” is quite brilliant however as the Jayhawks nail the tune. The nadir has to be the duet of Sheila E. and Pete Escovedo doing “The Ballad of the Sun and Moon” which sounds like a cross between the late Tito Puente and Los Lobos and sedatives. Think Santana and you get the instant picture. There are some sleeper picks, especially the sweet roots pop of Chris Stamey on “One True Love” which is one true gem of a tune. Ditto for Son Volt’s “Submarine” with its military rat-a-tat-tat drum beat. But just go quickly through “Inside the Dance” by Rosie Flores. While its Tex-Mex style recalls Linda Ronstadt in her brief Tex-Mex incarnation, the song just doesn’t have enough oomph to make the grade.

One of the memorable moments comes along courtesy of Vic Chesnutt, Howie Gelb, and M. Ward, who sit around and harmonize on “Way It Goes” as if they were on the back of a flatbed truck singing the song. Then there is “By Eleven” from Caitlin Cary, another stellar roots folk track that will have you humming along immediately in the vein of Rosanne Cash. By the time you get to Minus 5’s “I Was Drunk” you realize that not only is this a fine cast of characters, but they are paying homage to a far finer musician and performer.

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