|You may be surprised to know that the moniker “Austin’s favorite son” doesn’t necessarily apply to Stevie anymore, or even a bluesman.
Music critics are now using the epithet to wax lyrical about Alejandro Escovedo, a craftsman of song whose disparate influences and experiences embody the city’s modern spirit. Blues will always thrive in the Live Music Capital of the World, but the city’s pulse also pumps to the beat of everything from indie creativity, country roots, die-hard punk angst, Tex-Mex rancheras, and of course, the Texas singer/songwriter tradition.
In essence, musically, Alejandro Escovedo is Austin.
The San Antonio-born son of a mariachi singer grew up in California and caught acts like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Buffalo Springfield and the Doors in the Huntington Beach area where he went to high school before dropping out. He went on to become a founding member of the Nuns, a late ‘70s San Francisco punk outfit that opened for the Sex Pistols’ last gig. He was in the Rank & File, a cow punk group that is widely credited with influencing the alt-country movement. He was also in the True Believers, a critically-acclaimed roots rock/ alt-country band that burned out on the road but earned a loyal following in Austin, where Escovedo would end up after spending time as a bohemian in New York.
Escovedo’s music ranges from gentle ballads with string sections to aggressive punk and everything in between, sometimes within a single song. When you see him live, one moment you’re admiring his gentle touch with a Collings acoustic, and the next you’re counting his full-arm Townsend windmills against an SG. (He was one swing short of 30 in a row when performing “Castanets” at the New Orleans Jazz Fest last year.) His solo work, which comprises nine albums and counting, explores a range of emotions that makes sense once you know that he escaped a near-fatal bout of Hepatitis. The experience added a depth of introspection to his music that has taken it to another level.
Today, Escovedo’s fan base is exploding. His latest album, 2008’s Real Animal, co-written with Chuck Prophet and produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T.Rex, Thin Lizzy) led to an opening spot on a Dave Matthews tour, and appearances on Leno, Letterman, Conan and at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Earlier in the year, Escovedo picked up Musician of the Year, Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year accolades at the Austin Music Awards. On the same night, The True Believers were inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame. Other honors include performing on Austin City Limits three times and being named Artist of the Decade (1990s) by roots music authority No Depression. Escovedo is up for Artist of the Year and Album of the Year at the Americana Music Association Awards which are being held this month.
Gear-wise, Escovedo covers a lot of ground with a fairly simple signal chain. Outside of his Collings acoustic, he’s largely a Gibson guy but you can’t peg him on one model. He swears by his discontinued Reverend amps and, like most Austin cats, loves his Durham pedals.
I had a chance to talk to Escovedo about his gear and his career recently. Our conversation began with his penchant for Gibsons.
Growing up in a large musical family, I assume there were always guitars lying around. I take it that many of them were Gibsons.
Yeah. You know, I’ve been using Gibsons since I first started playing. I always had Melody Makers—a lot of early ‘60s Melody Makers—and I had some beautiful Juniors. There were Flying Vs, Gold Tops and a ’73 Les Paul Custom that I just loved. I’ve always had a ’69 Hummingbird and a beautiful ’56 J-50. That was my main guitar for many years, until I got a ding in it. I decided to let it rest for a while, but in the studio, it’s the guitar.
Tell me about your 339. I saw you use it at South by Southwest this year in number of different situations.
Man, I just love that guitar. I think it’s a brilliant guitar. It’s like the perfect combination of a hollowbody and a Les Paul.
When you had it in full Paul mode on the Continental Club’s small stage, your distortion was incredible. I noticed you didn’t have any of the feedback issues that some guys get when they do that with a semi-hollowbody.
$0I can control the feedback off the 339 better than any guitar I’ve ever had. It’s great with my Reverends. I use two little Reverend combos with a 12 in them—a Hellhound 40/60 and a Kingsnake 20/60. They’re little monsters, man. They just rip. They’re a perfect combination with that guitar.
Escovedo with his Gibson Southern Jumbo at the Birchmere in Alexandria, WA. The round-shouldered Southern Jumbo shape combines elements of Gibson’s Jumbo and HG Hawaiian. Photo by Carl Hutzler.
Take me through your signal chain.
I go through one of those old DOD A/B boxes to pick my amp, but the chain starts with a Boss TU-2. Then I go through a Durham Zia Drive if I want distortion and a little kick. I use it more like a boost, really. Then I go through a Boss digital reverb, the RV-5, then I go through another Durham box called the Sex Drive. For my sound, it’s really a combination of the Sex Drive and the next thing in my chain, a Demeter Tube Direct Box. That’s what makes the guitar able to sustain all that crunch yet, when you pick and arpeggiate, it keeps this beautiful clarity and piano-like quality.
Charlie Sexton [the pedal’s namesake who worked with Alan Durham on its development] told me that it took a year and hundreds of bench hours to get that pedal dialed in.
It’s a beautiful box. It’s essential now for me to have that box. It works wonderfully with humbuckers. I’m really happy with this setup now.
Some of your SGs have P-94s in them. How’d you come upon that configuration?
Gordie Johnson is an amazing guitar player in Canada who has a killer rock/dub reggae hybrid band called Big Sugar. He has a signature model in a rare ebony finish with P-94s that Gibson makes for the Canadian market. It’s like a ’61 reissue. We were doing one of those Sunday night gigs and when I saw it I was shocked. It was funny—I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it to him, but that was the kind of guitar I had been looking for. I had been looking for a lighter guitar with the same kind of tone, or close to it, that I had gotten with my Les Paul custom. That guitar had become too heavy for me. He gave me that SG right on the spot. He said, “It’s yours.”
It’s amazing how I just fell in love with it. I’ve since dropped P-94s into another SG, a reddish one that I have.