Diego is a Mexican-American attending a San Antonio wedding in the 1980s. A retired Texas Ranger sits down and asks him to introduce himself.
“What kind of wetback name is that?” the lawman asks.
This imaginary scene of casual racism, which appears in a spoken-word interlude on Alejandro Escovedo’s latest album, “The Crossing,” is based on actual events, the singer says. “The Crossing” tells the story of Diego and his friend Salvo, an Italian immigrant, who find themselves working side by side in a Texas restaurant. They’re looking for a mythic, epic America, one they’ve heard about in rock ’n’ roll songs and their favorite books. In reality, they’re not quite sure it exists.
For his 15th album, Escovedo teamed with Don Antonio, an Italian band that specializes in continental, spaghetti-western-flavored instrumental music. Combined with Escovedo’s long-standing love for the raw crackle of the MC5, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and other punkish rock bands, the result is a hard, wide-lens look at the United States through the eyes of two hungry newcomers.
Escovedo headlines City Winery on Tuesday with Don Antonio opening and performing as his backing band. They’ve been playing some Escovedo favorites, such as “Castanets” and “Always a Friend,” but they’re primarily focused on the new album. Thus far on tour, audiences have enthusiastically embraced it, Escovedo says from a recent stop in Washington, D.C.
“Hopefully they walk away with something that’s more than an experience at a rock concert,” he says. “It’s a story.”
His own life, which he’ll recount in a forthcoming memoir, has been quite a saga. From his early years in the San Francisco punk band the Nuns to his coulda-shoulda stint in the beloved but ill-fated Austin, Texas, roots-rock band True Believers in the 1980s, his career in music has been defined by a rare all-in commitment. Devastated by the suicide of his second wife, he turned that emotion into the beautiful agony of his first two solo albums. A decade later, his struggle with hepatitis C sparked a fund-raising tribute that featured admirers including Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Ian Hunter, and many others.
At 68, Escovedo is making some of the best music of his career. But he’s more than willing to share the accolades with the members of Don Antonio: “It doesn’t seem like it’s just my record, it’s our record. They take as much pride in it as I do.” He’s also quick to credit the guests on “The Crossing,” among them the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, the Stooges’ James Williamson, Texas mainstay Joe Ely, and a rare appearance by Peter Perrett of the great British punk/power-pop band the Only Ones.
The novelist and songwriter Willy Vlautin contributes the lyrics to “Rio Navidad,” the spoken piece that opens with the incident at the San Antonio wedding. Vlautin’s longtime bandmate Freddy Trujillo (Richmond Fontaine, the Delines) narrates.
The dialogue with the antagonistic Ranger initially “turned a lot of people off,” Escovedo admits. “We wanted more of an actor to do it — someone who understood they wouldn’t be associated with those thoughts and philosophy, but kind of played it as a character.”
As he’s weighing his reaction to the slur, Diego has a thought: “I didn’t cross the border. The border crossed me.” Though Escovedo began working on the album before the last presidential election, the message of its immigrant themes won’t be lost on anyone who’s been paying a modicum of attention to the latest news. Escovedo says he finds it hard to believe that any contemporary artist could ignore “this mind-set that seems to be creeping into our society.”
After marrying his wife of four years, Nancy Rankin, Escovedo moved to Dallas from Austin, which he’d called home since 1980. They needed a change: during their honeymoon, at a friend’s beach villa in the Mexican state of Baja California, they’d endured the landfall of Hurricane Odile, a terrifying experience.
“I think whenever you go through something as traumatic as that, a near-death experience, you come into this new state of awareness about the world around you,” Escovedo says. “You reexamine the things you thought were necessary in your life. Maybe they’re not so necessary. You reevaluate everything.”
While working on the new album, he listened “religiously” to “Juarez,” a 1975 concept album by a fellow unclassifiable Texan. The songwriter and artist Terry Allen has described his vision for the volatile characters in his own song cycle as less people than storm systems. In Escovedo’s mind, “The Crossing” is a kind of melding of Allen’s record and the Who’s “Quadrophenia.”
One of the standout tracks, “Outlaw for You,” is a declaration of devotion — to a lifestyle as much as a significant other. Escovedo explains.
“I grew up at a time when rock ’n’ roll was the voice that was going to change the world,” he says. “The literature of the times, the ’50s and ’60s, was going to change everything. The cinema of the ’60s and ’70s was really important.
“All those ideas led to the belief that you have to make a choice. You’re either gonna live in the straight world, or you’re not.” With that “outlaw” lifestyle would come “ideas and philosophies that you wouldn’t get if you were to become part of the commercial process.”
That’s essentially what “the boys,” as he refers to the characters Diego and Salvo, are seeking.
“They’re moving through their lives at an alarming rate,” Escovedo says. “They’re absorbing so much that they were not necessarily prepared for. And they’re losing things along the way. Their innocence, their wide-eyed dreams are somehow being crushed, maybe.
“Yet they move on, because they feel there’s a break in the sky somewhere.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.