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South Congress shapes the sound of Escovedo's latest

Escovedo's residency at Continental Club paved the way for new release that draws influence from avenue.

Patrick Caldwell
Alejandro Escovedo

On a sun-dappled late May afternoon, Alejandro Escovedo strolls down South Congress Avenue, a soft breeze tugging at his distinctive coif as the first vestiges of the searing summer heat to come lurk in the air.

His stride is lean and purposeful, but his mind is easily distracted. In front of the bustle of Jo's Coffee he bumps into Hotel San Jose proprietor Liz Lambert, with whom he exchanges warm greetings and promises to meet while both are in London in late June. He pauses in the parking lot to gab with a taxi cab driver. He peeks his head into Blackmail and By George, greeting shop girls and admiring two-tone threads. He shoots a wave to the woman behind the desk at the Austin Motel.

And he proves utterly incapable of resisting the siren song of SoCo specialty stores — peering at a striking print of John Cale at the Yard Dog Gallery, examining a used turntable at Off the Wall and wearing a mesmerized look as he trolls the stalls at antiques emporium Uncommon Objects.

"It takes a week to get down the street when you're walking with Alejandro. He's all about the hang," Lambert says by phone the following month, en route to Austin from that trip to London, England, where she watched Escovedo play for a crowd of thousands at the Hard Rock Calling festival in Hyde Park, London. Like a generation of Austinites reared on Escovedo from ample plays on KUT and KGSR, she came to Escovedo as a fan and listener, but she grew to know him better after opening the Hotel San Jose in 2000.

"Alejandro is always interested in whatever is going on around him and what other people are doing on the street, which is why South Austin is a good fit for him. You wouldn't want him wandering around 360," Lambert says with a laugh. "You can't plan on getting to some place at a particular time. It's less a walk with him and more a sort of walkabout."

To watch Escovedo saunter across South Congress evokes a sensation eerily similar to watching him dominate the stage — at Antone's, at the Continental Club, in the intimate confines of the Cactus Café or the iconic studio of "Austin City Limits." He is a man in his element. In the blocks between Academy Drive, where the South Austin faithful imbibe at Doc's Motorworks, and Johanna Street, where the lunch crowd grabs sandwiches at Magnolia Cafe, he knows seemingly every regular. Backward and forward, top to bottom, the avenue is his.

Little wonder that South Congress lends its pulse to the acclaimed Austin troubadour's latest studio album, "Street Songs of Love," released last Tuesday on Fantasy Records. Its hums, its rhythms, its personal connections and ever-present energy form the spine of the record. Perhaps that's why "Street Songs of Love" charges out of the headphones with an assurance and comfort that usurps even Escovedo's Springsteen-praised 2008 album "Real Animal." The street where Escovedo feels most at ease helped birth the album that sees Escovedo at his most \u2026 well, Escovedo.

"This street is the whole heart and soul of the record," Escovedo says. "I live out in the country these days, in Wimberley. I have no neighbors or anything like that. But I've spent 30 years in Austin. My kids grew up here. If I had a neighborhood, this would be it. I've seen a lot come and go. Sure, the buildings have changed, but I feel like it still has the soul of South Congress in it. I'm so comfortable here. For me, it's home."

I first find Escovedo seated in the appealingly Spartan lobby of the Hotel San Jose. Clad toe to tête in stylish vintage threads, he's his usual picture of classy cool. Barely tinted glasses frame his face, an elegant hat sits on his head, an anchor pendant droops from his neck and he wears skinnier jeans than any 59-year-old should be able to. Somewhere on Sixth Street east of Interstate 35, there is at this moment a hipster wishing he could pull off skinny jeans that effortlessly.

Like "Street Songs of Love," our journey begins directly across the street at the Continental Club. The album's songs were skeletal — or nonexistent — when Escovedo began a two-month weekly residency at the Continental Club in late 2009. Week by week, as crowds grew and word got out, he and band the Sensitive Boys constructed 13 songs in front of a live audience, guiding them from acoustic frameworks to hard-rocking, Clash-lean nuggets of classic rock and soul-baring ballads.

Much of "Street Songs of Love" alternates between two poles. There are the barn-burners heavy on ax-grinding, like "This Bed Is Getting Crowded" and the voraciously sexual chest-thumping of "Silver Cloud" ("Hey pretty thing, won't you come inside?/I'm a man, I'm a man, I'm a hungry man"). Call that rock Escovedo. Then there are the meditations, like the tender rumination on beauty of "After the Meteor Showers" or the romantic pleading of "Fall Apart With You." Call that sensitive Escovedo.

However disparate the tracks might sound, they all burst with confidence. Blame that on the Continental.

"When the residency ended, we immediately went on a three-week tour. We went on the road, started in Little Rock and went all the way to Louisville, and by the time we got to the studio those songs were like breathing," says Escovedo. "They were daily. It was like they were in our skin."

When Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys — bassist Bobby Daniel, guitarist David Pulkingham and Escovedo's drummer of 23 years, Hector Muñoz — arrived in Lexington, Ky., to record the album, that South Congress gestation had paid off. Escovedo's rapport with his band was tighter than ever.

"It was just so comfortable by that point. Creating those songs in the Continental was like hanging out in your own bedroom — except your own bedroom had a bar. Or in your living room, having friends over and showing off these songs," Muñoz would later say. "It was very homey feeling. It opened the songs up a bit more. And it made us feel at home with the material."

After passing the Continental Club, Escovedo and I wander north to the corner of South Congress and Academy Drive to scope out Blackmail, the chic clothier that gets a lyrical shoutout in "Street Songs," a dirty rock groover with an insistent bass line and the richest imagery on the record ("Then I saw her in the parking lot/Wearing Blackmail she was smoking pot"). If South Congress Avenue works as subtext on the rest of the album, "Street Songs" elevates it front-and-center, weaving a tale of Escovedo's favorite blocks and the temptations that walk them. As Escovedo's eyes drift over the racks, I ask if he foresaw the street worming its way into the record right from the start.

"Not right away, but very early on it started to feel that way," he says . "Within a couple of weeks of doing the residency I knew that South Congress was where that record was going to live. And at that point you just have to open up and let it seep in."

After Escovedo pulls himself away — a little reluctantly — from the threads of Blackmail, we step into the increasingly simmering afternoon sun, turning our attentions south. Again passing the Continental Club, his memories turn to his first gig at the legendary joint, when the dance floor was black-and-white tile and the soundboard perched in a precarious crow's nest. He was playing guitar for the jaunty cowpunk quartet Rank and File, having recently migrated to Austin from New York, encouraged by the bucolic Hill Country scenery glimpsed in the "Austin City Limits" intro.

Leaving the Continental behind and passing the chattering lunchtime crowds at Guero's, Escovedo clarifies that he made his first Austin home in West Campus, and later in Hyde Park. But he drifted to the 78704 soon enough. And it wasn't far from here, he notes, that he first made the acquaintance of a conspicuously attractive musician named Stephen Bruton, who would help Escovedo find his own sound.

"He used to jog down the street all the time. I didn't really know him, so I was always suspicious of him," Escovedo says. "He was too good-looking, too fit. And when somebody said he was an L.A. session musician, I got even more suspicious."

Wariness aside, Escovedo and Bruton formed a bond that only grew deeper after the 1991 suicide of Escovedo's second wife, Bobbie LeVie. Bruton urged Escovedo to pursue a solo career, producing his first three albums, starting with 1992's seminal "Gravity," the record that set Escovedo on the path toward critical acclaim and underground success. Eighteen years later, the memory of Bruton, who died last year , serves as a fitting closing note for "Street Songs of Love," inspiring the tender guitar instrumental "Fort Worth Blue."

Stepping into Uncommon Objects to scour wall hangings and jewelry, Escovedo's normally intent and surveying eyes grow distant when the subject of Bruton arises.

"I don't think I've stopped reeling, honestly," he sighs.

'Street Songs of Love" is an album of characters. There's Bruton, of course, as well as frequent co-writer Chuck Prophet. There's also guest vocalists Ian Hunter and Bruce Springsteen, and Tony Visconti, the famed T. Rex and David Bowie producer who groomed the hard rock chops of "Real Animal." There's fourth wife and poet Kim Christoff, whose "Shelling Rain" forms the basis of the song of the same name. There's Larry Brown, the firefighter-turned-author whom Escovedo once toured with. He died in 2004; his concise prose informs the economical simmer of "Tula."

Perhaps the most striking among the characters , though, is Paris, Escovedo's 17-year-old son — one of seven children he's fathered, a developing musician himself and the subject of the album's most heartfelt track, the plaintive "Down in the Bowery." "I want to hear your voice up above the crowd and the noise down in the Bowery," Escovedo sings in the chorus. "I hope you live long enough to forget half the stuff they've taught you."

In Paris, Escovedo says, he sees a young, emerging man, with qualities and quirks that look strikingly familiar.

"The shyness, the pride. The wanting to be a man but not quite knowing how to be a man. Living in a dream world," he says. "My son lives in a dream world. I don't mean that in a bad way, it's just that he's a dreamer. He's a creative person. I love that about him."

The compromises of raising a family while relentlessly attacking the road shape all of Escovedo's records. In "Tired Skin," off 1996's "With These Hands," he lamented the difficulty of raising daughter Paloma with "old and very tired skin." With "Street Songs of Love" expressing such confidence and comfort, I ask Escovedo if he feels like he's at last hit that balance; if he's found the middle ground between dedicated musician and dedicated father.

"No. I try. I try really hard, but I can't say that I have," he confesses . "But I think that I'm more at peace for myself, more accepting of myself for what I do. Yeah, it separates me from my family, but I chose this life a long time ago. Or it chose me, I don't know, but here I am — 59 years old and I've been doing this since I was 24. There's nothing else for me to do."

With the ring of a bell, Escovedo enters Farm to Market Grocery, the rush of cool air coming as a welcome relief from the midday swelter. Parched, he pulls a Mexican Coke from the freezer, singing the praises of cane sugar as he introduces himself to the cashier — to Escovedo, it seems, one unfamiliar face on SoCo is one too many.

We grab a seat at a table on the sidewalk. With our tour drawing to a close, I decide it's time to address the elephant in the room — that "Street Songs of Love" is a concept album, and the concept is love. It's there in the title, and every song addresses it — especially opener "Anchor," on which Escovedo repeatedly enthuses "I'm in love with love."

Escovedo readily admits that "Street Songs of Love," like all his albums, drips with autobiography. "I didn't want to do that," he told me earlier in our conversation. "I really wanted to stay away from myself. 'Leave that guy out. He's not invited to the party. He's a bummer.' But it turned out to be a good time to write these songs."

So: Just what — or who — happened in Escovedo's life to inspire this album? Could he elaborate?

"Not really, man. I'm sorry," he answers.

I let the question linger in the air, hoping the silence might prod him. But Escovedo remains mum.

"After all these years," he eventually adds, "I learned that you don't have to say everything. I've lived through a lot openly and in public. But there's just some things I'm not ready to talk about yet."

That's a guarded — but fair — answer. Music fans possess an insatiable desire to know every last experience that informs the records they love. That's what moves copies of rock star biographies and led Dick Ebersol to bid $50,000 for the honor of knowing who "You're So Vain" is about. But Escovedo is no politician or clergy member; he's an entertainer and an artist and has every right to keep his personal life under wraps. That's a lesson, he says, he learned after a very public fight with hepatitis C — the struggle that informed 2006's "The Boxing Mirror," an album with memories so painful he rarely plays its songs live.

"It's like opening a wound again and looking in there," says Escovedo, noticeably wincing.

Not that he is ignorant of how his miraculous story of near-death — and the attendant tribute album "Por Vida," with its covers of Escovedo gems by everyone from Los Lonely Boys to Lucinda Williams — garnered valuable press. But a half-decade later, he says, he wants the story to be the music and not the man.

"The disease kind of kick-started my career again in some weird way. I'm not unaware of that fact. But part of the problem was that I didn't want to be the poster boy for that," he says. "I wanted people to know me for my songs."

With that he finishes off his Coke and rises to return to the San Jose, pounding the pavement with the assured confidence and thoughtful poise of a musician evolved from a man under the influence to a man at peace — and, on South Congress Avenue and the record it props up, a man at home.

"Everything seems to be falling into place for me now. I've found all the right pieces for the band. We have a good record. I'm healthy. And my children and I are closer than ever," he says. "That's enough for me for now."

pcaldwell@statesman.com; 912-2559

Alejandro Escovedo plays an in-store at Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd., at noon Wednesday, July 7 as well as KGSR's Blues on the Green at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 7 at Zilker Park.

Read our review of 'Street Songs of Love' (spoiler: We gave it an 'A') @austin360.com/music.