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August 21, 1996

Ten the Hard Way

EscovedoAlejandro Escovedo, With These Hands (Rykodisc 1996) - On his third solo album, Alejandro Escobedo (known to his friends as "Al") shows why he is known as a musician's musician. While Escobedo has worked mightily to overcome the personal tragedy reflected on Thirteen Years (1994), the pain's not far beneath the surface. Read on.

Escovedo comes from a family with a long musical tradition. His uncle, Pete Escovedo, was an influential percussionist who played with Santana, and his niece, Sheila E., is the fiery percussionist and Prince collaborator.

Escovedo spent his teen years in Huntington Beach, before relocating in the early 70's to San Francisco, where he formed the legendary country/punk band known as The Nuns. Later, Escovedo moved to Texas, where he formed Rank and File with Chip and Tony Kinman.

In the late 70s, Escovedo met his mate, Bobbi. Bobbi gave birth to two daughters; she also gave rise to the great tragedy in his life.

Ever restless, Escovedo left Rank and File to form the True Believers with his younger brother, Javier. Following the demise of the True Believers in 1987, Escovedo returned to Austin, Texas to raise his family and play music. A regular at the celebrated Austin musical haunt, La Zona Rosa, Escovedo often played with his own "orchestra," which ranged from 6 to 13 pieces on any given night.

It was during this time that Escovedo separated from Bobbi. Eighteen months later, Bobbi took her own life and left Escovedo struggling to deal with the gut-wrenching end of his thirteen-year relationship.

13 YearsOf this dark time, Escovedo only says, "I wrote everything down, whatever happened; it was how I healed myself and my family." Escovedo's catharsis was captured on the dark-tinted masterpiece, Thirteen Years. Thirteen Years is one of the most-starkly honest albums in the pop canon; it's also one of the most difficult to listen to (right alongside Lou Reed's Magic and Loss, another painfully honest album).

With These Hands is the first new album from Escovedo since The Setters, a terrific roots-rock album recorded with Walter Salas-Humar (from the Silos) and Michael Hall (from the Wild Seeds). On With These Hands, Escovedo settles into a more moody sound, with string overdubs punctuating his questioning lyrics.

While Escobedo puts on a brave face, his pain remains unsettled. Thus, songs like "Tired Skin," "Guilty," and "Pissed Off 2:00 A.M." all show that Escovedo has a way to go to achieve emotional recovery. But he's willing to try, and to let it all hang it out while he does so.

Escovedo continues the Texas singer/songwriter tradition, albeit in a highly personalized fashion. There's nothing dirge-like or funereal about his music; rather, he just needs to exercise his demons. Escovedo's singular voice cries out for attention on With These Hands, and does not disappoint.

HoopsnakesHoopsnakes, Ten the Hard Way (Mouthpiece Records/Rounder Records 1995) - The Hoopsnakes have a familiar Midwest, boogie-and-blues sound. Ten the Hard Way continues down this comfortable path, with parallels to such acts as the Doobie Brothers and Fabulous Thunderbirds.

The Hoopsnakes arose from the ashes of Minneapolis' Lamont Cranston Band, which crashed and burned in the early 80s. I grew up in Minneapolis, and am intimately familiar with the Lamont Cranston Band, one of my favorite local acts. Sad I was when the Cranstons broke up due to RCA's misguided efforts to repackage them after a decade of local success.

The Hoopsnakes feature three former Cranstons: the bearded Bruce McCabe on vocals and keyboards (McCabe also writes all the songs), the talented Charlie Bingham on guitars (and I remember when Bingham was just a teenage phenom, waiting for his big break), and the rock-steady Jim Novak on drums. Rounding out the foursome is Mick Massol on bass.

Ten the Hard Way is ensemble blues: guitar, piano, drums, and bass. Gone are the horns and harmonica that marked the halcyon days of the Lamont Cranston Band. The album was produced by E Street bassist, Garry Tallent, who contributes excellent studio technique while also maintaining an almost-invisible presence in the background.

If Ten the Hard Way sounds familiar, then you're a fan of that classic American sound, the Bar Blues. We've all sat in countless smoky bars while some talented-but-unknown local group pounded out the bar blues. Mixing even parts of rock and blues, this kind of music usually sounds better in that atmosphere, with a loose crowd and a couple drinks under your belt; often, it doesn't translate smoothly to CD.

But I like Ten the Hard Way. In addition to McCabe's slower, trademark numbers, such as "Second Guessing, First Impressions" (McCabe always had a little bit of Michael McDonald in him), the album also includes such travelling-man songs as "Cigarettes & Gas" and "Further Down this Road."

Of course, it wouldn't be the blues without such nighttime-steeped numbers as "Blues Attack" (which features McCabe's piano playing), and the effortless "Bad Luck," driven by Bingham's sterling guitar work.

Hey, I was sad when the Cranstons broke up. And I wish the Hoopsnakes had lead singer Pat Hayes with them. Hayes made a great foil to McCabe; Pat was the fun guy (like Peter Wolf), while McCabe was the more serious one.

But Ten the Hard Way is still authentic, Midwest bar blues. And this kind of music will never go out of style. Give it a spin.

-- Randy Krbechek

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