Of course Caitlin Cary remembers the first time she met Alejandro Escovedo. It was on one of the very first Whiskeytown tours, and the band was opening for Escovedo at a club in a suburb of Chicago. “I didn’t know who Al was, but the buzz in the van was that he was a legend–a punk rock hero, a great songwriter, an icon,” Cary recounts. “I was fighting a cold and feeling sort of crummy. We pulled into the parking lot, and, as I remember it, Alejandro was pulling stuff out of the back of his car. He came right up to us as we piled out, introduced himself, and it wasn’t three minutes before he was offering me Throat Coat tea.”
But there’s a part two to the tale. “Here’s the rub,” continues Cary. “After all his kindness, I accidentally knocked his beautiful, expensive acoustic guitar off its stand as we were leaving the stage at the end of our set. I was mortified. I’d probably never seen a guitar that nice. I don’t think it was damaged, but I went running to find Al, practically in tears. Here’s what I remember him saying: ‘Don’t worry, honey, I have an endorsement.’”
Van Alston, local club owner and spiritual advisor, also has a story: “I first met Al at South By Southwest (an annual music shindig held in Austin, TX). Chip Robinson had turned me on to Al’s music over the years. I just walked up and introduced myself at one of those afternoon parties when I saw that he was alone for a second. We talked for maybe two minutes. Then he came through Raleigh later that year and as I walked up to introduce myself again he said, “Hey Van.” He came over to my house that night and played music until the wee hours for, and with, about 15 people. This was the first of many times that he dropped by the house and we became tight friends.”
Again, there’s a part two, steeped in good fellowship. “Last year, he called me up out of the blue, saying that he remembered me mentioning one time that I had never been to an ‘Austin City Limits’ taping,” offers Alston. “He wanted to know if I would come down and be his guest when they did his performance. I spent a week down there, stayed at his house, went to the taping, saw his play being performed. All of this because he took the time to speak with a random fan one afternoon.”
On Sunday, Nov. 23, Cary, Alston and a host of musicians, local and otherwise, will be doing their best to pay back Escovedo’s acts of kindness and generosity with some of their own. In spring of this year, Escovedo collapsed after a show. The collapse and Escovedo’s subsequent hospitalization were due to complications from Hepatitis C. He is currently at home recuperating and undergoing treatment to alleviate the effects of the Hepatitis C, with a tour and the recording of an album on hold while the medical bills pile up. When word reached the Triangle, Cary and Alston, along with a number of other volunteers, wasted no time organizing a fund-raising event called “Benefit for a Friend.” The benefit, at Retail Bar in Raleigh, starts at 12:30 p.m., with an electric stage and an acoustic stage taking turns serving up music until 2 a.m.
Cary does a good job of capturing Escovedo’s musical self with her van-buzz description above. He was a member of San Francisco-based punk band the Nuns before moving on to rootsier things with Rank and File and the Austin-based True Believers. With his solo work in the ’90s and beyond, Escovedo has, in the words of Ira Robbins, “devised an electric folk idiom–part Townes Van Zandt, part Band, part Rolling Stones;” No Depression magazine named him their artist of the decade. He’s proven to be as adept going it alone onstage as he is leading a band, and as comfortable covering Jimmie Rodgers or Bob Wills as he is Iggy Pop or Ian Hunter.
Escovedo has developed a strong connection with this area–with work on Whiskeytown’s second album, playing numerous shows at clubs like Cat’s Cradle and the Brewery, and recording at Chris Stamey’s Modern Recordings in Chapel Hill. The line-up for the benefit reflects that. Among other notable musical happenings, there will be reunions of the Backsliders and 6 String Drag, two mainstays from the Triangle’s roots-rock glory days in the mid-to-late ’90s.
“Al always seems to have energy to burn,” says Cary. “He doesn’t run back to his hotel room after his shows. He stays around to talk to his friends, his fans, and the musicians he’s befriended along the way.” On Sunday, the friends he’s made around here are lining up to return the favor.
Tickets for “Benefit for a Friend” are available at the Record Exchange–$18 in advance and $20 at the door. A silent auction will be held. For a list of artists and other information, see www.alejandrofund.com.