SOME day, EG can safely predict, you’ll be at a pub quiz and the quizmaster will ask for the name of the band that opened the Sex Pistols’ last-ever gig. At that moment, you will be glad you read this article.
So stop now, grab a pen and jot this down: The Nuns.
And just in case the bonus question is about who fronted the band, write this down too: Alejandro Escovedo.
Granted, it’s not exactly what you’d call a household name. But if your particular household is one where Americana roots music is played, it’s the name of one of the pioneers behind your music collection.
The course Alejandro has charted in the three decades since that night in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom has taken him from the rupture of punk to the re-imagined roots of the sprawling genre that’s sometimes called alt-country, sometimes called Americana and never called easy to define.
But whatever it is, Escovedo’s at its heart. When the longtime hepatitis C sufferer nearly died earlier in the decade, the list of musicians who raised money for his medical bills read like the Austin, Texas legends phone book (he recovered, gave up drink and finds himself in rude health several years from 60).
However Alejandro’s earliest forays into music were inspired by musicians far away from Austin.
“English rock was always extremely important in my life,” he said. “It was what I listened to more than anything else outside of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground.
“When ’75 rolled around, ’76, we started to hear rumblings that there were similar people who were doing similar things.”
Previously, he said, “we felt very much alone.” But reading about the likes of the Sex Pistols in imported issues of the NME re-affirmed what they were doing.
Not that they’d planned on joining a movement.
“With The Nuns we didn’t know we were punk. We couldn’t play. We wanted to be a rock band but we couldn’t play.”
After The Nuns came the more country-influenced Rank And File. Once again, there was no thought that what they were doing might be a part of anything bigger and definable.
“When we started Rank And File we wanted to be a country band, but we couldn’t play in that style,” Alejandro said. So they did their own thing. And other young bands – The Long Ryders were one – watched them play.
Punk, Americana – in retrospect, Alejandro’s name will be linked with some major movements. But it’s an odd thing, music history – it never seems that way when you’re doing it.
“That was funny – for me, it’s like all these things have grown around what I was doing at the time,” he said.
“We weren’t working from the point of view of any movement.”
If anything, they would have thought of it as roots music, Alejandro said. It was about emulating the musicians who came before them, about an appreciation of the honesty and beauty of music.
For them, as it happened, the music in question was American music. They were helping something new to spawn from something traditional, whether they knew it or not.
It was also around this time that Alejandro became more political engaged in his music, although that was a gradual process.
“It was really all about a musical thing,” he said of his early work with Rank And File. “It wasn’t about politics so much.”
A first-generation American whose parents had emigrated from Mexico, he’d been involved in farmworkers’ unions as a kid. But it took a move from where he’d grown up in California to Austin, Texas, to bring that to his music. The Mexican-American experience – including the experience of the migrants who cross the border illegally in a desperate search for a better life – began to emerge in the music.
“When we moved to Texas we became aware of a lot of things like that,” Alejandro said. “It brought me closer to my culture and the problems that had developed because of the border.”
After Rank And File came The True Believers, and Alejandro began to emerge into his own more as a songwriter. By the early 1990s he was working as a solo artist and putting together a body of work that would get him named artist of the decade by alt-country religious tract No Depression magazine.
These days, he ranks among the bona fide Austin legends.
The Maze gig will be a stripped down affair – just Alejandro and guitarist David Pulkingham, who’s been playing with him for six years.
Alejandro now lives in Wimberley, a little town in the beautiful, rolling Hill Country region between Austin and San Antonio. It’s far enough out for some peace and quiet, but close enough that Alejandro can stay close to the action on one of the world’s great music cities.
That means never having to miss South-By-Southwest. Austin’s legendary annual music and media festival’s most recent installment wrapped just several weeks ago and as ever, Alejandro kept busy. He was among the platoon of musicians to pay tribute to recently deceased Americana legend Doug Sahm (Alejandro played a song with Sahm’s son). He played a free concert with the orchestra.
He played a party at a restaurant, then a gig at Austin stalwart the Continental Club.
“It might be my favourite South-By-Southwest,” he said of the 2009 installation.
“I don’t do it for career reasons. It’s a fun time.”
At this point, there shouldn’t be much that Alejandro has to do “for career reasons”. The man’s not necessarily a household name.
But he is a legend.
Alejandro Escovedo, with support from Danny Schmidt, plays The Maze, Mansfield Road, on Wednesday, April 29. Tickets are £15 in advance. See www.cosmicamerican.com for more information.
By Erik Peterson – Nottingham Evening Post, UK