A Family Affair

Alejandro Escovedo's music provides the backdrop for a tale about men who immigrated to the United States from Mexico

During a music career spanning more than 25 years, Alejandro Escovedo has established himself as a favorite of critics and fellow musicians for his work in Americana, country, Tex-Mex and all manner of rock: punk, garage, folk, alternative, roots. His bands have included such pivotal acts as the Nuns, Rank & File, the True Believers, the Setters and the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra.

Lately, he's been receiving attention from the theater community for his songs and stories in the stage work By the Hand of the Father, which blends oral histories, video and live music in a unique theatrical experience.

The Los Angeles-based theater company About Productions will perform By the Hand of the Father on Wednesday, Nov. 17, in the UA's Centennial Hall as part of the fall UApresents series.

Escovedo worked with writers Theresa Chavez, Eric Gutierrez and Rose Portillo, and with video artist Janice Tanaka, to develop the work. Chavez, the artistic director of About Productions, directed the work, which has toured regularly since.

Through the use of Escovedo's songs--played on stage by a seven-piece band--and dramatic narrations of the stories of the creators' fathers, By the Hand of the Father tells the personal histories of five men who immigrated to the United States from Mexico during the first half of the last century. At the same time, it represents a common slice of Mexican-American and Southwest culture, as well as the American immigrant experience in general.

"The one thing I've noticed about the performance is that all races, all cultures seem to respond to it," Escovedo says on the phone from his home in Canyon Lake, Texas. "They're truly about American stories, because it is about immigrants. There was as much going on in the Southwestern deserts as on Ellis Island, but that must have been deemed more media worthy for whatever reason."

The spark that inspired the show was an accidental family reunion in an Los Angeles recording studio during Escovedo's sessions for his 1996 album, With These Hands, he says. An engineer told him another musician with the same last name was recording in a room upstairs--it turned out to be Escovedo's older brother, Pete. (Brothers Coke and Javier also are musicians, as are Pete's four kids, including Latin funk star Sheila E.)

Alejandro ended up using several family members on the title track, a song about their father. "It was a real family affair," he said. "And I started getting it in my head to do a song cycle about my father."

By 1998, Escovedo got himself hooked up with About Productions. His former publicist, Paula Batson, made the connections and is the show's producer.

Director Chavez trained as a musician, and her company specializes in collaborative, interdisciplinary theater works, so By the Hand of the Father evolved naturally.

"The thing that was interesting about it for us was bringing the culture of rock 'n' roll musicians to the culture of theater," Chavez says from her office in Los Angeles.

"Despite that, though, it was relatively seamless, because Al wanted to be there the whole time, and he was the musical director. He had done no theater at all before, but the musicians have a lot of respect for him."

Chavez also credits Escovedo for his storytelling prowess. "Since Al is a great storyteller in the pop or neo-country tradition--or whatever they are calling it; you can't really peg him--there is a rich storytelling aspect" in By the Hand of the Father.

An in-progress, 30-minute version of the work was performed at the 1999 South by Southwest Music Festival, and the entire 90-minute piece premiered in Los Angeles in 2000.

"From the very beginning, there seemed to be something there that resonated with a lot of different people," Chavez says. "We didn't realize it would have such a long life. We still have interest in bringing the show to other cities. We were just in Northern California, and earlier this year in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Miami."

Escovedo used to tour with By the Hand of the Father, leading the on-stage band. But after a Tempe performance in April 2003, he was hospitalized with internal bleeding, a result of chronic hepatitis C, and he has played only sporadically since.

(These days, country and Latin music singer Rick Treviño performs with the show. He'll sing Escovedo's parts at Southern Arizona performances next week. In addition to the Wednesday night show, the company is performing a Tuesday matinee for students and will take a short detour that afternoon for a free performance of the work on in Douglas, Chavez notes.)

Still recuperating at home, the 53-year-old Escovedo has completed nine months of brutal treatment with the drugs interferon and ribavirin, both of which work to arrest the virus' attacks on the liver.

"It really took its toll me on me," Escovedo says of the drug treatments. "I was supposed to do it for a year or 16 months, but it was one of those situations where the treatment was worse than the illness."

Now, Escovedo feels better. He has adjusted his diet and adheres to a strict regimen of herbal medicines. "I feel good, man. And I started playing guitar again. That was fun."

Like many musicians, Escovedo had no health insurance, but he was the primary breadwinner in a household that included a wife and seven children. He needed help, and his musician pals across the country were there in his time of need, staging several benefit concerts.

One, held here last December, featured Tucson acts and was organized by local musician Jefferson Keenan, of the Phantom Limbs, who has been friends with Escovedo for some 20 years.

The most recent benefit was a massive show in Austin, Texas, last week that featured Los Lonely Boys, John Cale, Calexico, Sheila E., Jon Dee Graham, Ruben Ramos, David Garza, Butch Hancock, Tres Chicas, Lenny Kaye, Bob Neuwith, the Section String Quartet and an all-star band led by Charlie Sexton. Austin Mayor Will Wynn also declared the day of the event, Nov. 4, Alejandro Escovedo Day.

Escovedo also was honored this summer with the release of the two-CD set Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, which includes covers of Escovedo tunes by such artists as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Jennifer Warnes, Peter Case, Charlie Musselwhite, the Jayhawks and Ian Hunter, as well as most of the folks who played last week in Austin.