When last we heard from Alejandro Escovedo, the acclaimed Texas rocker and songsmith was booked into the now-defunct Dame on the night of the worst winter storm of 2009.
A sizable portion of the city lost power. But not The Dame and definitely not Escovedo, who ripped through tunes from his then-new album Real Animal with a swift, efficient immediacy that was indicative of his firebrand rock 'n' roll.
But it was still a muted return for an artist who has made Lexington a second home of sorts since the mid-'90s.
Considering Escovedo has been cultivating a strong local fan base through frequent performances — some proudly electric and rockish, others acoustic and almost chamberlike — one expected a healthier turnout. Given that national audiences had started flocking in more appreciative numbers to Escovedo's music since the release of Real Animal, a similar growth spurt in local attendance was in order. Shoot, Escovedo even recorded Real Animal in Lexington. Didn't that count for something?
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Not when Old Man Winter was rocking out. The snow, sludge and blackouts that night kept the turnout down to the faithful few. But here we are in the height of autumn with a return Lexington performance and an even newer Escovedo recording, Street Songs of Love. Like Real Animal, it was cut locally at St. Claire Recording Co. And like its predecessor, Street Songs of Love screams something to the rest of the world that Lexington has known for roughly 15 years — Escovedo is one of the most keenly literate, emotionally direct and robustly rocking songwriters in or out of the Lone Star State.
"It was such a blast to make this record and to write this record," Escovedo said by phone recently from a tour stop in Miami. "Everything about Street Songs of Love has been really exciting. It's a real fun one to play, too, which is not always the case with an album. I can tell you now that The Boxing Mirror was not a fun record to play live. I don't think we've played any of those songs live for a while now."
The Boxing Mirror was released in 2006. Produced by one of his musical idols, John Cale, the album was inspired, in varying degrees, by the years Escovedo's life and career were derailed while battling hepatitis C. But upon regaining his health, revisiting the songs from his darker days in nightly performance settings offered few thrills.
"I think it was just about what those songs were reflecting. I was trying to get so far away from what they were speaking of," he said. "I just didn't want to live there again. So I became very anxious to get to work on a new record. That's where Real Animal came in. It changed the whole attitude and reflected more of what I was at the time: healthier, stronger and more creative."
Real Animal represented a dramatic shift in Escovedo's songwriting. Specifically, he wrote the entire album with West Coast Americana stylist Chuck Prophet.
"First of all, songwriting is such a personal thing in my opinion," Escovedo said. "It has been for many, many albums now. And while I have co-written with other people, I've never written an entire album with anyone. But when Chuck and I started work on Real Animal, we realized that we had something special going on. You put the two of us together and we start telling stories and showing off for each other. Do that and you're going to get some good songs."
Prophet also co-wrote more than half of Street Songs of Love. But the guest list is a little more crowded this time. Another of Escovedo's musical heroes, Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter, bolsters the vocals on Down in the Bowery ("Ian continues to impress me on a level that very few artists do") while Bruce Springsteen sings with typical reverence on Faith ("He's a real gracious guy to have done this").
Of perhaps greater importance, though, is that Real Animal and Street Songs of Love were produced by Tony Visconti, who was behind the boards for the career-defining early '70s albums of David Bowie and T. Rex, among many other projects.
"I think having been a fan, first of all, of his production and his expertise in making records helped create a relationship that is so intensely musical," Escovedo said. "But that relationship is also built in friendship and camaraderie. I think we can all hear the difference between the albums I've made in the past and the last two that I've done with Tony."
But what literally brings Escovedo's Visconti- produced music home to local audiences is that Real Animal and Street Songs of Love were cut within the Lexington studio walls of St. Claire.
"Just to be in Lexington with the four guys in my band (The Sensitive Boys), Tony and the guys at St. Claire and then to come up with the record that we did says a lot about that combination of people. So as far as I'm concerned, we'll probably come back there for the next one as well."