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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 01:03 pm

sound patrol 8-26-04

On the line between safe and sorry

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

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

Tribute compilations are tricky bastards. Given the regrettably narrow and highly specialized tastes of most music fans, a successful various-artists comp tends to have a narrow scope: The compilers choose songs written by one person and performed by members of his or her circle, musicians whose influences and aesthetic sensibilities complement those of the composer being honored. The more far-flung the range of invitees, the greater the potential for stylistic blunders. Unfortunately, when compilers avert disaster by sticking to the tried-and-true, they often miss opportunities for transcendence. Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo straddles the thin line that separates safe and sorry.

One thing's for sure, though: If anyone deserves a tribute album, it's the criminally underappreciated Escovedo, whose idiosyncratic songwriting -- a deeply personal amalgam of ragged roots-rock, haunted chamber-folk, righteous Tejano, corrosive country-punk, and countless other genres that haven't been identified yet -- is in a class of its own. Yeah, No Depression decreed him Artist of the Decade midway through the '90s, but that and about $249 will get you a mini iPod. Despite his fancy title, his famous relatives (Pete Escovedo, of Santana, is his brother, and former Prince percussionist Sheila E. is his niece), and his storied résumé (the Nuns, Rank & File, the True Believers, Buick MacKane, the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra), Escovedo remains a songwriter's songwriter, worshiped by his peers and more or less ignored by the masses. In other words, he's critically acclaimed and dirt poor.

Impoverished integrity, alas, is cold comfort when the universe deals you a crappy hand. Escovedo, like most working musicians and an appalling number of Americans in general, lacks health insurance. He also suffers serious complications from hepatitis C. For an artist who is lucky to clear $30,000 a year when he's touring nonstop, as Escovedo was before he collapsed after a gig last year, an illness that requires bed rest and expensive medical attention spells disaster. Add a brood of seven children to the scenario, and you've got the very definition of a hard-luck story.

Fortunately Escovedo has many admirers, and, in lieu of a pity party, they've come together to celebrate his achievements and generate some cold hard cash. On the heels of several big benefit concerts comes Por Vida, a double CD containing 31 takes on Escovedo compositions by friends, family members, collaborators, musical heroes, musical followers, and even the man himself. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Alejandro Escovedo Medical and Living Expense Fund (go to www.alejandrofund.com to make a contribution online), but you don't need to buy this CD out of a sense of moral obligation. Por Vida is a sound purchase on purely selfish grounds: Escovedo's small but ardent fanbase will revel in new interpretations of familiar favorites, and those unfamiliar with his oeuvre will figure out what all the fuss is about. From roots-rock priestess Lucinda Williams to visionary weirdo Howe Gelb; from underrated geniuses John Cale, Bob Neuwirth, Ian McLagan, and Ian Hunter to this year's It band, Los Lonely Boys; from the newly reunited Son Volt to longtime duet partners Jon Langford and Sally Timms, the CD has an astonishing array of talent, one that's bound to impress even the geekiest of know-it-alls. Of course, any compilation that encompasses both Calexico and Jennifer Warnes will ruffle a few feathers, but it just might open up a few minds - and, with any luck, a few wallets.

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