by David Okamoto (airdate 7/23/04)

Alejandro Escovedo is one of rock's few good men, a gifted, genuinely likeable guy who got into the business more because he wanted to make music, not money.

So it's no surprise that a grass-roots support system rushed to the 53-year-old Austin singer's financial aid after he collapsed onstage last spring from complications triggered by his seven-year battle with Hepatitis C. A website allows fans to make donations toward his treatments. Local musicians continue to stage benefit concerts. And Or Music, the label that discovered Los Lonely Boys, has released a tribute album in hopes that royalties will offset Escovedo's medical expenses and seed a support network for musicians suffering from the same disease.

Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, boasts contributions by such Lone Star heroes as Lucinda Williams, Los Lonely Boys, and Steve Earle as well as such out-of-state admirers as Cowboy Junkies, The Jayhawks and Escovedo's niece, Sheila E. The starpower of the roster illustrates not just the wealth of musicians he's befriended, but also his knack for writing stark, soul-baring narratives that transcend genres and generations.

Frequently blending electric guitars with cellos and violins, the former leader of The True Believers understands that great rock 'n' roll is fueled by tension. He's certainly experienced enough of it, first as a Hispanic teenager searching for his place in the Southern California punk scene, later as a divorced father coping with the suicide of his first wife, and recently as the son of a Mexican immigrant revisiting the stoic struggles of his dad in a theater production titled By the Hand of the Father.

On Por Vida, his music's deepest wrinkles are mined by the older stars, many of whom no doubt recognize their sound in his songs. Ian Hunter channels his glam-rock roots into One More Time while Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale transforms She Doesn't Live Here Anymore from haunting to downright spooky. Pyramid of Tears gets a riveting translation from Lucinda Williams, whose bluesy howl captures the desperation of wanting to help someone who just doesn't want to be saved:

But the defining moment of Por Vida is actually the quietest: Jennifer Warnes, best known for such pop hits as Right Time of the Night and the love theme from Dirty Dancing, tackles Pissed Off 2 a.m., narrated by a musician stumbling home after the last encore, pining for the days when his soulmate would still be up waiting for him. Warnes renders the memories with a whispered, dream-like sensitivity – instead of a guitar player reeking of second-hand smoke and stale beer, she beckons like a visiting angel.

It's one of the few performances on Por Vida that outdoes the original – a statement not meant to disparage Escovedo as a singer, but to celebrate him as a writer who has risen to the level of Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman– songwriters whose music can be just as moving when sung by performers who come from different places, because they understand where he's coming from.

David Okamoto is a senior producer at Yahoo Broadcast and a contributing editor to ICE magazine.

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