Music

Alejandro Escovedo returns to full power

Alejandro Escovedo.
Marina Chavez
Alejandro Escovedo.

It’s been a decade since Alejandro Escovedo recovered from a life-threatening illness. At the time, the treatment for hepatitis C, his frailty, and the depression that followed left the songwriter bereft of “any sense that I was worth anything, really.

“I kind of blamed the music for a while, the lifestyle,” says Escovedo, who has made four studio albums and resumed his band’s hard-touring schedule since regaining his health.

“I bought into that,” he says quietly, “but I should never have done that.”

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In truth, rock ’n’ roll has saved Escovedo, 63, many times over. He and his current Austin-based band, the Sensitive Boys, play Friday at the Brighton Music Hall and Saturday at Fall River’s Narrows Center for the Arts.

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As a member of the early San Francisco punk scene, he opened for the Sex Pistols at their infamous last gig in 1978. In the 1980s he was part of the early wave of roots-rockers, and by the ’90s he’d established himself as an emotionally powerful songwriter with a series of deeply personal solo albums. Over the years he has worked closely with several of his heroes, including the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, and longtime admirer Bruce Springsteen, whose manager, Jon Landau, now handles Escovedo’s business.

The first time he performed with the E Street Band, they did Escovedo’s song “Always a Friend,” a favorite of Springsteen’s. Laughing at the memory, Escovedo says he was “scared to death. If I could have run away, I would have.”

But the appearance, in Houston in 2008, was exactly what he needed to regain his confidence after his illness. “Playing with that band was like dropping into a 30-foot wave or something. It was incredible.

“I look over at Bruce, and he’s smiling ear to ear, having the time of his life,” he recalls. “It was not about anything but the joy. It was so validating – ‘Yeah, that’s right. That’s why we’re up here.’ ”

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A black sheep of the huge musical Escovedo family – older brother Coke played with Santana, brother Pete is a well-known Latin percussionist, and Pete’s daughter is the pop star Sheila E. – Escovedo didn’t begin playing music until he was 24. While in film school north of San Francisco, the San Antonio native began making a movie about a band that couldn’t play. That band became the Nuns, who eventually moved to New York, where Escovedo lived for a time among the professional bohemians at the Chelsea Hotel.

In 1992, after several years with the Austin bands Rank and File and the True Believers, Escovedo released his first solo album, “Gravity,” which turned an unblinking eye on the devastating suicide of his second wife.

His first three albums, he says, “were basically about grief. The last thing you hear on ‘Gravity’ is the sound of my children laughing. Their laughter was really the medicine that was helping me keep going forward.”

It set a pattern that has carried over to the present day, with certain elements of each album feeding the next one.

“I see all the albums as part of a big, never-ending story,” he says, on the phone from the road a few days before a recent gig in Portland, Maine. The records he made with the “insurgent country” label Bloodshot – “Bourbonitis Blues,” “A Man Under the Influence” – reflected the road-warrior identity of his band at the time.

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He cut an underappreciated one-off record with his rip-snortin’ garage rock band Buick Mackane for Rykodisc in 1997, and the following year Escovedo was named No Depression magazine’s “Artist of the Decade” for the ’90s.

Though many his songs are introspective and several albums have made exquisite use of chamber-style string arrangements, Escovedo has always been a rocker at heart. During this year’s South By Southwest music festival in Austin he coordinated an all-star tribute to Lou Reed, and in January he curated a show celebrating a half-century of Austin music, from the million-selling gospel vocal group the Bells of Joy to the Butthole Surfers.

Though he effectively fell into his career in music, his identity has been consumed by the life of a working musician for almost 40 years. When he fell ill, he didn’t handle it well, by his own admission.

“Who am I now?” he remembers asking. “I’m not the guy who gets up, puts on cool clothes and gets ready to rock. I’ve said it before – getting sick was like walking on a beautiful sunny day, and suddenly a piano falls on you from out of nowhere.”

“Big Station,” Escovedo’s most recent album (2012), is part of another cluster of records that share a certain sensibility – in this case, an urge to exude more energy again after regaining his health. There’s exhilaration and headlong momentum to the records that preceded it, 2010’s “Street Songs of Love” and 2008’s “Real Animal.”

Though he still cherishes being on the road (and the gigs have gotten a bit better since he joined Landau Management), Escovedo also remains enthralled by the process of making records.

“It’s a mysterious thing that happens,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain how to write a song. I just love writing songs and playing them.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.