Posts Tagged With: Alejandro Escovedo

Ryan Adams picks up Bloodshot, while the NC Music Love Army sticks to the plan

BS20Ryan Adams released just one full-length on Bloodshot Records, but that album was a doozy — his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, which (as recounted in chapter 12 of “Losering”) cracked 300,000 copies in U.S. sales. That’s the Chicago-based alternative-country label’s commercial high-water mark by far, with albums by Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and Alejandro Escovedo next in line. All these years later, Heartbreaker remains Bloodshot’s top seller even though the label’s licensing agreement for it expired last year, which means that Heartbreaker is officially out of print nowadays. That probably won’t be changing anytime soon, either. When I inquired with Ryan’s publicist about whether or not a reissue was in the works, the answer that came back was, “There are no plans that I’m aware of” (and she would know).

Nevertheless, Heartbreaker remains a big part of Bloodshot’s history. So it’s no surprise that its songs dominate While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, a two-disc Bloodshot tribute album set to be released Nov. 18. While No One Was Looking compiles 38 covers of songs from Bloodshot releases, with versions by luminaries including Ted Leo, Handsome Family, Minus Five and the regrettably named (but still quite good) Diarrhea Planet. Four songs on the track list came from Heartbreaker, more than any other album in the Bloodshot catalog:

* “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” — performed by Blitzen Trapper from Portland, Ore. (thanks, Erin!)
* “My Winding Wheel” — Seattle indie-folk duo Ivan & Alyosha
* “Come Pick Me Up” — Superchunk
* “Oh My Sweet Carolina” — San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

You can listen to the very fine Blitzen Trapper cover below, and the versions of “Sweet Carolina” and “Winding Wheel” are also both quite lovely. But the real revelation is Chapel Hill punk band Superchunk’s “Come Pick Me Up” — take a listen to the stream on Pitchfork — which revs up the original’s dirge pace to a fast and gleeful raveup (stoked by Whiskeytown alumnus Jon Wurster on the drums). Covering Ryan’s Heartbreaker songs is getting to be a thing for Superchunk guitarist Mac McCaughan, who similarly recast “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with his other band Portastatic for another tribute compilation a few years back.



Even beyond the four Heartbreaker songs, Ryan casts a long shadow over the rest of While No One Was Looking. In terms of both songs and performers, the album is littered with Ryan’s former collaborators (Caitlin Cary, Alejandro Escovedo) and rivals (Robbie Fulks, Old 97s). Superchunk isn’t the only act from Ryan’s home state of North Carolina, either; there’s also Hiss Golden Messenger, Dex Romweber Duo and most of all the North Carolina Music Love Army — featuring Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Caitlin, head Backslider Chip Robinson and 6 String Drag’s Kenny Roby — turning Graham Parker’s “Stick to the Plan” into something like an ironic latterday answer to the old Kennedy campaign theme “High Hopes,” describing a certain political party’s apparent we-know-best attitude:

Don’t pay no attention to what the experts say
Too much intelligence gets in the way
Yeah it gets in the way
You know it gets in the way
And if you wanna be happy
Be like Forrest Gump everyday.

NCMLA14The NC Music Love Army has been busy this fall in conjunction with the upcoming midterm elecitons. One of the nation’s marquee contests is North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis — a brutal and interminable campaign that’s on course to be the most expensive in history, with total spending expected to top a staggering $100 million. To raise spirits, awareness and turnout, the Love Army crew has been putting out new songs that can be heard here. The most notable of the new tunes is an environmental anthen called “Senator’s Lament,” in which Caitlin Cary’s fiddle features prominently. The lyrics are below.

“Senator’s Lament”

There are places in the ocean
They are dark and sacred still
We cannot reach them
But we can ruin them
With a greed no sea can fill.

Oh green mountain, her bones are older
Than the pillars of any town
But we move her with our big plans
Dig out her heart and steal her gown.

Oh Carolina, how I love you
And your ever-changing ways
I didn’t see how much I hurt you
I only hope I’m not too late.

There are children in the harvest
Their backs are bent to rain and sun
And we profit while they’re poisoned
When they fall, don’t no one come

There are places in the ocean
That are dark and sacred still
We can’t reach them, but we can leave them
And we can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive…

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Alejandro Escovedo: A fan’s notes

His name only comes up once in “Losering,” regarding the Strangers Almanac song “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” but Alejandro Escovedo is a key figure in my musical cosmos. I’m not alone in holding him in such high regard, either. In 1997, when he did that “Excuse Me” cameo, Alejandro already had a reputation as an inspiration to younger generations.

“I’ve been told that some people consider me to be this ‘rock sage,'” he told me in an interview that year. “Somebody all these young musicians in bands now cite as influential. For a long time, I didn’t think much about the historical perspective because I’ve always been more interested in where I’m going next than what I’ve already done or where I’ve already gone. But I’m enjoying it now, y’know?”

Escovedo has always been near and dear to my heart, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him finally make some commercial-career progress in recent years. I wouldn’t say I grew up with his music, because I didn’t hear him until I was well into my 20s. But it’s no exaggeration to say I grew up as a music writer with him, going back to a highly amateurish interview I did with him, Jon Dee Graham and the rest of the True Believers in the summer of 1985 for the University of Texas student paper, the Daily Texan. In the quarter-century-plus since, I’ve written about the man…well, an embarrassing number of times.

My online blather about Alejandro goes back to the True Believers’ 1994 reunion and includes a few things from No Depression magazine — a 1997 piece about his contribution to “Excuse Me” as well as a 2001 Q&A. There’s plenty of stuff from more recent years here.

His performances are something like compass resets for me — regenerative rituals in which I am reminded anew why I write about music — and it’s difficult for me not to get carried away when I get to rhapsodizing about him. So I’ll just say that he’ll be in the Raleigh vicinity Sunday night to open for Heart at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre; which might not be the most optimal situation for maximum appreciation, but if you’ve never seen him…well, the man is worth your time.

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Backsliding away

Back in the mid-1990s, Whiskeytown was hardly the only great alternative-country band on the scene. There was the aforementioned Kenny Roby’s 6 String Drag, as well as the Backsliders — dear Lord, THE BACKSLIDERS — who could give any band on the planet a run for their money on a good night. They were a bit older and more grizzled than a lot of their fresh-faced peers in the Triangle, but the Backsliders were just so damn good that they inspired awe far and wide.

As good as they were, however, the Backsliders rivaled Whiskeytown when it came to bad interpersonal vibes between their co-leaders, Chip Robinson and Steve Howell. Oil and water, Hatfields and McCoys, Tar Heels and Wolfpack — whatever metaphor suits ya, they just did not mix.

“Those guys,” Backsliders bassist Danny Kurtz once told me, “are both their own worst enemies.”

Commercial success might have been enough to keep the Backsliders together, but it was not to be. After 1996’s brilliant Throwing Rocks at the Moon (produced with great aplomb by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson), Howell left the band. And while that wasn’t a mortal blow, Howell did take a lot of the Backsliders’ cool country flavor with him. Robinson carried on with replacements, releasing 1998’s still-good-but-not-as-great Southern Lines; neither album sold, however, so that was that.

(ADDENDUM: Producer Eric Ambel says of Southern Lines that, “90 percent of that record was cut with Howell, Chip, Brad, Danny and Jeff. Changes happened before the record was released with one song getting re-cut and a couple others overdubbed; but the bulk of that record is the original band.”)

The Backsliders dissolved, and Kurtz and lead guitarist Brad Rice wound up in one of the umpteen late-’90s versions of Whiskeytown. Rice later played with Ryan in various incarnations, including the Pinkhearts. He was Ryan’s lead guitarist on “Saturday Night Live” in 2001; and as Rice told me when I interviewed him for “Losering,” he was just starting a guitar solo at the 2004 show in Liverpool where Ryan fell off the stage and broke his wrist. Brad has done plenty more sideman work since then, including a long stretch with Keith Urban a few years back.

Robinson and Howell kept busy with bands and projects of their own, all of them good — especially Robinson’s terrific  solo album Mylow — but neither was as good apart as they had been together. In 2003, they did reunite to play a benefit show for Alejandro Escovedo (who was ailing and without health insurance, a sadly common situation in the music business nowadays). They were still great and it felt as if no time at all had gone by, but it was a one-off…

…Until now. Saturday night, four-fifths of the classic mid-’90s Backsliders lineup (everyone except Brad Rice) will play as the Howell/Robinson Quartet at Slim’s in Downtown Raleigh. It’s another benefit, this one for the Inspirality Elder Project; and I’m told it’s the first time the co-leaders have spoken since that 2003 reunion.

This will probably be yet another one-off with no followup, the Backsliders scattering to their separate corners afterwards. But hey, I can dream.

ADDENDUM (9/30/12): I was otherwise occupied Saturday night, but multiple witness reports say that Backsliders drummer Jeff Dennis went up to Chip’s microphone toward the end of their set and hollered, “David Menconi oughtta write a book about THAT shit!”

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