Escovedo adds to string of his best releases

Overcoming hepatitis C breathes new life into music

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If you go

• What: Alejandro Escovedo, in concert.

• When: 8 p.m. Aug. 13 for those 21 and older.

• Where: Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E. Burnside St., Portland.

• Cost: $20 through Ticketfly, ticketfly.com.

• Information: dougfirlounge.com.

During the first phase of his solo career, Alejandro Escovedo certainly made some fine albums. But if, in the past half dozen years, he has seemed even more inspired and more energized about his music, it's no coincidence.

In a very literal sense, Escovedo got a new lease on life when he overcame a severe case of hepatitis C that sidelined him from music, left him too weak to walk for a time and, for a while, had doctors believing he wouldn't survive the disease.

Since his recovery, Escovedo has made what arguably are the four best CDs of his 20-year solo career, including his new release, "Big Station."

And Escovedo says beating hepatitis C has played a big role in what he has achieved musically since he went in the studio to make the first of the four albums, "The Boxing Mirror,' in 2006.

"After I was ill, it really did give me the sense that I was aware of the clock ticking," Escovedo said in a recent phone interview. "And yet at the same time, it was inspiring, because it made me want to do more, experiment more, play more. I just had more joy in playing. I have more joy in my music now than I've ever had, which I think is important."

That joyfulness and eagerness to experiment is readily apparent on "Big Station."

On his two previous albums -- "Real Animal" and "Street Songs of Love" -- Escovedo stripped back to a four-piece band, plugged in, turned up the volume and delivered two stellar albums of high-powered, lean and highly approachable rock 'n' roll.

With "Big Station," though, Escovedo said he thought it was time for something different, though he reteamed with the two people who had played major roles in "Real Animal" and "Street Songs of Love" -- his songwriting collaborator Chuck Prophet and producer Tony Visconti, who is perhaps best known for his work with David Bowie.

But Escovedo changed up his band. His guitarist of 11 years, David Pulkingham, left to start a solo career and was replaced by Gabriel Gordon. Escovedo also parted ways with his drummer of 26 years, Hector Muñoz, and replaced him with Chris Searles, with whom Escovedo has recorded in the past.

The music Escovedo wanted to make for "Big Station" was going to be a big part of the change, as well.

"I did not want to repeat 'Street Songs of Love,'" he said. "So with this one, Chuck Pophet and I, we wrote songs that were a little more rhythmic, I think a little more song-oriented than the last albums, and maybe with a little more atmosphere and space in the material. So I think it's a great combination."

The finished CD has those qualities. The greater emphasis on acoustic guitar helps the songs breathe more, and there's a good deal more texture to "Big Station" than on the previous two CDs. Still, the new CD rocks frequently, as on ace tracks such as "Man of the World," "Headstrong Crazy Fools" and the title track. But "Big Station" leans more on slower tunes that combine pretty melodies with enough spine to keep them from going soft ("Sally Was a Cop," "Bottom of the World" and "San Antonio Rain").

Even with its space and texture, "Big Station," turned into a different kind of album than Escovedo initially envisioned.

"It's interesting, if you heard the demos of 'Big Station' that Chuck Prophet and I did together, it's a completely different album," Escovedo said. "I really wanted a more raw, kind of sparse feel to the record, and it turned out to be really … one of the most produced albums I've made. But I think that's where, when Tony comes in, Tony Visconti, and starts working his magic. It always leads it to a really beautiful place, so I trust him very much."

Visconti, Escovedo said, helped to flesh out some of the spare character of the versions of the songs he and Prophet had demoed. He was also very involved in arranging and recording the female harmonies that add color to many of the songs, Escovedo added, and the horns that contribute to the haunting quality of "Sally Was a Cop" and "Can't Make Me Run."

What Escovedo and Visconti avoided though was adding the kind of extensive orchestral parts that had been woven into songs on "The Boxing Mirror" and his excellent 2001 CD, "A Man Under the Influence." This will enable Escovedo and his band (Gordon, Searles and bassist Bobby Daniel) to re-create the "Big Station" songs live.

"I think that's really important for me now," Escovedo said. "I remember when I made my first solo record with (producer) Stephen Bruton: (the 1992 release) 'Gravity.' And that was one thing he always really impressed upon me (was) that you've got to make records that you can play live, because a band like mine, we're all about being on the road, so we're a live band.

"Yeah, it's a great band," Escovedo concluded.